The one percent
“What we value and find beautiful is changing for the better. The landscape is made more meaningful by showing how you are harnessing land to deliver the essentials of life – like nutritious food, healthy soils and space for nature and people to thrive.”
Gavin Shelton, founder and CEO of CoFarm Foundation
Eating healthily is more important than ever, but there are barriers. Soil is becoming more degraded and depleted, which affects the nutritional value of the food we produce and a host of essential natural processes. The UK is increasing its reliance on imports from climate-vulnerable countries, which – apart from wider ethical implications – increases its carbon footprint; pushes up the price of fresh fruit and vegetables and incentivises people to buy processed food.
But there is light. A third of the fresh produce needed in the UK could be grown by switching a land area equivalent to just one percent of existing agricultural land over to small-scale, community-based food growing enterprises. Gavin Shelton, founder and CEO of CoFarm Foundation, discusses the transition underway to more sustainable and equitable food and farming systems and what it could mean for communities and developers with Ian Houlston, a landscape architect and environmental planner at LDA Design.
Ian – There is much more interest nowadays in where food comes from and how it is grown and what that means for biodiversity and habitats. It is often assumed that community-based gardening can never make a serious enough contribution. So, I was surprised to learn that on one acre of land you can grow enough fresh produce to feed 100 households for most of the year and deliver benefits for people and nature.
Gavin – You certainly can farm that efficiently. On our pilot holding in Cambridge, 180 volunteer co-farmers produced 4.5 tonnes of organic vegetables with a market value of £20K, on 0.66 acres. Our site is actually seven acres of church estate land and so this year, we expect to at least double that output by cultivating more land over a longer growing season: the pandemic delayed the planting out seedlings till June. Co-farming is not the same as allotment gardening: no one has an individual patch and we employ professional horticulturists to manage all the activity. I think it is critical that we work in harmony with nature, and we apply agroecology, which brings both ecological and social principles to food growing.
Ian – You’ve incorporated a charitable foundation and two subsidiaries to realise your vision of creating a distributed estate of co-farms in every local authority in the UK. How did you get started and get initial funding?
Gavin – I was working in international biodiversity conservation for much of my career, which involved examining the key drivers behind biodiversity loss and climate change. The more you look into it, the more you realise that food – how we produce it, how we distribute and trade it, how we prepare and consume it – is a very major part of the problem. Excitingly, our food system is therefore also where we need to work to create solutions. My wife and I were able to inject the initial capital needed to cover the start-up costs of the not-for-profit group and local businesses and individuals have contributed to the initial costs of establishing the pilot farm in Cambridge.
Ian – It’s also about community, isn’t it. If space is put aside for food growing, there is an automatic and magnetic point of interaction between new and existing communities. Because whatever your ethnicity, or religion or class, you can share your stories and lives through food.
Gavin – It is absolutely about community. Placing food back at the centre of our communities enables us to drive multiple beneficial outcomes. When we were co-creating the designs for CoFarm Cambridge with the local community, we asked people to describe how they wanted to feel when they were at their farm. Among other things, they said that they wanted to feel welcome, happy, useful and included. We can address some of these needs with thoughtful co-design but it also requires sustained facilitation and investment in community engagement over time. The co-farm is a positive place where you go to socialise as well as grow nutritious food. Once you have put the gardening hours in – or not if you would rather not – you need spaces to relax, reflect and engage.
This year, because of the pandemic, we made the decision to donate everything we grew to emergency food hubs in Cambridge. This has certainly helped engender a sense of purpose, and shared endeavour at a difficult time for people. But people were already feeling overwhelmed and anxious about climate change, biodiversity loss, inequality and other ‘larger than self’ issues before the pandemic. Co-farming gives people real agency and control over these matters. Seeing nature bounce back quickly, people growing together and food miles reduced to food metres because of your collective efforts is very empowering. It gives people license to feel optimistic.
“Maybe right now developers and landscape professionals need to relax the desire to over curate space and focus on supporting the process of co-creation. I think our experience has shown that people most quickly adopt a place which feels purposeful and colonised, a place they feel they belong.”
Gavin Shelton, CEO of CoFarm Foundation
Ian – Starting a new co-farming venture must surely be quite an undertaking. So, how could the CoFarm model be adopted by others?
Gavin – We are working with a number of research partners to distil the learning from our pilot and to enable any farmers or communities that might wish to start their own co-farm to have access to all of the tools that will make the process easier. For example, we are working with researchers who specialise in community cohesion, local economic inclusion, biodiversity and natural capital and health and wellbeing and embedding their research questions and methodologies into a digital platform. The platform will enable a growing, distributed estate of co-farms to track their collective impact across each of these areas; providing enterprise tools for managing their business and access to a supportive community of practise.
Ian – How can we persuade more developers to incorporate food growing like this? The idea of a distributed co-farm estate fits beautifully into the 20-minute neighbourhood. It can be part of the reimagining of the land within and around towns and villages and new settlements. It can enhance the quality of green belt land and give it a tangible purpose in peoples lives. But developers often like formality and manicured spaces – growing spaces can look scruffy and chaotic. And what can we reasonably expect developers to do – would a developer ever provide enough land for co-farming, or is a few neat raised beds for salad crops the best we can expect?
Gavin –It is possible to bring control over how the place looks and functions and, for us, the aesthetics of co-farming are very important Areas where we grow food have a rustic, rugged charm and seasonal interest. They just have to look and feel cared for and well-tended. We fill our pilot farm with a riot of colourful flowers, for example. They lift everybody’s spirits, enhancing our health and wellbeing and supporting all the wild pollinating insects who, in return, help us to produce abundant harvests for the community. I appreciate that it may be a leap of faith for developers to incorporate co-farming into their masterplans, but those who do will develop a reputation for creating places which feel great to live in and in which our fundamental needs – for connection with others and nature, for food security, for safety, for managing our health – are better served. So too will the interests of the developers’ shareholders, as local authorities will become increasingly drawn to approving schemes that help them to holistically address the significant social, economic and environmental challenges we face.
I also think what we value and find beautiful is changing for the better. The landscape is made more meaningful by showing how you are harnessing land to deliver the essentials of life – like nutritious food, healthy soils and space for nature and people to thrive. At our site in Cambridge local architects RH Partnership have designed us a flexible open barn structure which will house converted and wooden-clad shipping containers which evolve with the needs of the community and the farm and local artists will co-create participatory art works with and for our community.
Community food growing suits less contrived spaces, where the rules are slightly different.
Maybe right now developers and landscape professionals need to relax the desire to over curate space and focus on supporting the process of co-creation. I think our experience has shown that people most quickly adopt a place which feels purposeful and colonised, a place they feel they belong.
Ian – It seems our challenge is to make space and do less to achieve more.
A version of this article, ‘Co-farming – a new approach to planning the land’, features in the Winter 2021 edition of The Journal, published by the Landscape Institute. Photos by Tony Buckingham.