Stephen Powell wrote a piece for our then blog about a year ago, outlining his dream for a community farm: a place where people could connect with land, food and forest. A year on and he’s achieved a massive amount. Here he outlines how you can get involved by taking a financial stake in the farm — and invites you to join him for a wild garlic festival.
Once upon a time, on the slopes of a holy mountain, I bought an extraordinary farm.
Llwyn Ffranc in the Black Mountains of Wales is a place of transcendent loveliness that fills my soul. I came here with my family after decades as a globetrotting journalist for Reuters. The land was let out to a neighbouring farmer and my dream was to develop an environmental learning centre.
Try to picture this farm. Above it, to the east, are the rocky crags of the Skirrid where the peregrine falcon soars. As I sit in my office writing, this Welsh mountain fills the view from my window and projects an energy which those who come here never forget. For me it is a strong, benign energy.
The lower slopes of the Skirrid are clothed with forest which reaches to within a couple of hundred yards of the farmhouse. Around the house are the green, green fields of a Welsh hill farm.
For the past year and more I have been on a journey, seeking to make Llwyn Ffranc a community-owned farm for those who care about the human connection to land, food and forest. Our ambitions keep expanding and we are about to launch a new food festival at the farm.
The way life unfolded a few years ago it became unclear whether I would have the legal right to remain living at the farm at all.
I want to write about my determination to fight back and stay here, to develop a strategy which makes Llwyn Ffranc a place I share with others and a pioneering community farm.
A few milestones stand out.
“Do something, anything” is standard advice from motivational speakers to people feeling stuck. It’s good advice. What I did, back in 2008 during a dark night of the soul, was to start digging in the vegetable patch, to rescue eight raised beds covered in weeds. Something very powerful within me gave my body instructions to dig as if my life depended on it. I dug like a driven man and didn’t really stop until the beds were weed-free. There is something about tilled earth that just radiates energy and my morale soared. I grew broad beans, spinach, onions, potatoes and rocket.
Out there in the garden one day a friend asked whether I fancied keeping some pigs with him. I wrote last year on this website about the adventure of keeping Tamworths. We kept pigs for two years and I learned that having two Tamworth sows and their slow-growing offspring earns you no money. It’s fun, but from the financial perspective it’s pure indulgence. The pig adventure taught me that I needed an ally who was a real livestock farmer.
A big part of my fight back was to talk to allies, sometimes in international conference calls. During a series of such calls in late 2009 and early 2010 I decided to take a leaf out of Fordhall Farm’s book and set up an industrial and provident society. This was a big undertaking, but I received sterling support from Sean Wheeldon of Wessex Community Assets Ltd. I bought the Wessex rules for a community benefit society. This is a cheaper path than writing your own rules because the regulator, the Financial Services Authority, charges a hefty registration fee to societies that insist on writing their own rules from scratch.
In March 2010 Llwyn Ffranc Limited officially came into existence. That really was a milestone. In our rules, we say that our society aims to create a viable model of community farming for the 21st century. The rules, all 10,000 words of them, are on our website www.communityforestfarm.co.uk.
To see how much support we had, in August and September we actively sought investment pledges through conversations and emails. Pledges flowed in and gave us the confidence to prepare for a community share offer to buy 63 acres of land at Llwyn Ffranc. Then came more invaluable help, this time from the Co-operative Enterprise Hub, a UK-wide programme of support for new and existing co-operatives. One of their consultants played a pivotal role in crafting the text of the share offer document.
With this and a business plan at the ready we launched a community share offer on March 1, seeking to raise £132,600 by the end of the year. By March 30 we had more than £14,000 in the bank. We are attracting investors from Monmouthshire to Middlesex, from Milton Keynes to Melbourne. We have shareholders on three continents.
To do this kind of work you have to pull out all of the stops, to be open to a great range of ideas. To be both a team player and a solitary leader who sometimes just follows a hunch. I followed a hunch last year. I developed a strong gut feeling that the biodynamic path made sense and last August I placed an ad on the website of the Biodynamic Agricultural Association, seeking an experienced biodynamic farmer.
Peter Smith, former head farmer at Larchfield, a Camphill community in Middlesbrough, answered the call and arrived here on January 6, the day the wise men came from the east. Peter has already started to take us along the biodynamic route. We planted 10 cider apple trees, plus gooseberries, redcurrants and blackcurrants on fruit days in March after dousing the roots in a biodynamic preparation. We see cordials of various kinds, such as elderflower and apple and plum, forming part of our future income.
Some Welsh Black cattle and a few pigs are also on the agenda.
The early phase of many projects is challenging and this one is no exception. The vision is to develop a community forest farm which combines foraging, farming and forestry and acts as a meeting place for those who care about the human connection to land. We have plans to convert a barn and to open a restaurant called The Forager where wild food will be a dominant theme.
I see the forager and the farmer working together in this project.
This week, while Peter was strimming in the orchard, I walked up into the woodland and picked some 2 kg of wild garlic. I took it to my local pub, haggled with the chef in the kitchen and clinched our first sale of wild food. It’s a beginning.
On April 16, to help balance the books in these early months, we will launch a wild garlic festival, a celebration of woodland and wild food. The woodland at Llwyn Ffranc covers 50 acres. By May a great white carpet of wild garlic flowers covers the forest floor as far as the eye can see. A pungent, sensual smell fills the air.
Last year the idea of this festival filled my being, but at that point I never got beyond the dreaming. Something held me back, a feeling that I already had much on my plate. Now I have decided to go for it and trust that help will materialise. So far so good. I live in a national park. Within minutes of sending out one group email about the planned festival the park’s woodland officer emailed back to offer his services. He’s a first aider, so that’s good. One close friend suggested an auction of goods and services at the festival and volunteered to sell her services to serve a gourmet curry for four.
Taking my cue from the Arab revolutions, I am learning to use Facebook to market the festival. In this endeavour my teenage daughters are invaluable helpers.
If what we are doing in this small corner of Wales appeals to your sense of real farming, do please look at the business plan on our website. And come along to the wild garlic festival on April 16.