Ellen Pearce provides a FarmStart update in this week’s column.

FarmStarters group photo

‘On the last day of April, twenty would-be organic farmers met for the first time at Claver Hill, a community farm in Lancaster. Their objectives varied. Some have a few acres and are keen to become more self-sufficient; some want to earn a living from their plot. Some have little experience of growing food. Some have an academic background; some run their own businesses; some have careers in completely different areas. Some are looking to make a dream come true in retirement; others want to change the way by which they access food’.

‘The Lancaster FarmStart Growers’ Support Course was set up by LESS after identifying a need to support people to become small-scale farmers and was over-subscribed’.

‘Participants are learning about all aspects of farming including site planning, crop planning for a northwest location, soil management, seeds and propagation, harvesting and packaging, selling and distribution and business models for success. The focus is on growing at commercial scale using organic principles’.

Creating a bed claver hillThe first farm visit was to Claver Hill, located off the Ridge Estate in Lancaster. With no mains electricity or water, volunteers use the no-dig approach to grow food for themselves and the community. The principles of no-dig mean that disturbance to the soil is minimized and instead compost is added as a thick mulch which is planted into. This maintains soil quality and helps to retain moisture – very important if there is no access to water on site.

In May the FarmStart group visited Growing with Grace in Clapham which operates an organic box delivery scheme within a 50 mile radius

Neil growing with graceof their site. With large-scale glass houses, they also grow produce for their boxes and operate a shop and café. Participants heard about the engagement of the local community that has invested in the organization, and were able to explore the greenhouses, packing sheds, refrigerated store and shop!

Other FarmStart schemes operate in the UK – the closest to us is the Kindling Trust in Manchester who have trained many would-be farmers during the last few years. Organic Lea in London have worked closely with local councils to take over sites and set up new growing projects as part of their vision for a ring of small-scale producers around the city.

A career in organic growing is not for everyone! It’s physically hard work and not a job you can take a couple of weeks off from easily – especially during the growing season! However, many of the people interested in the FarmStart programme see community or cooperative approaches as a way of sharing the workload and risks, and connecting with other people who share the same vision for locally produced organic food.

As concern increases about the crisis in global agriculture due to loss of soil fertility, use of chemicals, deforestation and species loss, maybe it’s time to look closer to home and explore what’s possible.

For more information about the Lancaster FarmStart programme: ellen@lessuk.org

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