In North Somerset farmer Luke Hasell and friends have set up The Story Group company and a Community Farm to produce high quality organic food and involve the local people
In life-changing circumstances in 2003 and 2007, following the death of both my parents, I faced huge challenges and questions about what to do with the farm and the business that my parents ran. I continued farming and now I manage 550 acres near Bristol and Bath in North Somerset – running the whole farm as an organic enterprise and trying to sell our own produce direct to our customers. Right now among other things we have 60 South Devon cows and a small herd of North Devon cattle to satisfy the National Trust agreement and conservation grazing project which state North Devons as their preference.
In 2005, Jim Twine, a life-long friend and now business partner approached me to join forces both to help manage his own 100-acre Court Farm at Winford — and to set up a business to be called “The Story Group”. We chose the name because we are passionate about creating great tasting local and organic food that respects the animals and the environment – and we want people to know the story behind the meat they eat and to tell you all about it. In short, The Story Group is a local company with a real story to tell.
Recently we have managed to include two new Directors by involving another local farming family, Bill & Emma Yeates. Bill and Emma specialize in poultry and produce organic chickens, and they also rent 60 acres of woodland and have large black pigs and a small number of sheep. They have installed a processing plant at Court Farm, and have helped us to establish The Story Butchery unit and processing area at our new shop in Wrington, a village of nearly 3000 people about nine miles east of Weston-Super-Mare. The shop and the processing unit enable us to take complete control of our supply chain. We have also forged good links with Bristol University. This includes the Veterinary College at Langford which is only two miles away and has an abattoir with great facilities where we can hang and cure our meat.
More broadly, though, we believe that the future lies in collaboration. So:
* We are developing a link with a local crèche for pre-school children at the site of the butchery and farm shop.
* A local couple have set up a small vineyard and have storage facilities at our shop.
* Another company sub-lets three acres of land for producing flowers.
* Recently we have also joined forces with a local pub who have helped us stage some pop-up restaurants on the farm where we cook some wonderful Sunday Roasts with all of the farms’ produce. On two Sundays in 2011 we cooked over 1000 roast dinners.
But also –as a separate exercize to the Story Group — I have co-founded a 50-acre Community Farm: Woodbarn Farm, at Chew Magna. The Community Farm is part of the 550 acres that has belonged to my family for many generations, and I chose the particular site partly because the surrounding landscape is so beautiful but also because I wanted to enable the next generation to make a connection with the land, for it to be somewhere people could visit and enjoy, and for the memory of my parents to live on in a place where they so loved spending time. We want the Community Farm to be a place where people of all ages can learn about the environment, organic farming and animal care whilst taking an active role in the community. The core aims are:
- Food – Providing local food for local people
- Education and Participation – The Farm aims to provide opportunities for people to develop skills as they in turn contribute meaningfully to the development of the Farm.
- Community Integration – The Farm aims to create and maintain a welcoming and supportive social network to create an accessible community resource.
- The Environment – The Farm will promote sustainable development in an environmentally friendly way that supports and respects wildlife and provides its animals with the highest welfare standards.
Education is key and we aim to have regular visits from local schools and businesses to raise the awareness of what can be achieved. We will develop educational programmes that strive to raise the awareness of the social and economic importance of agriculture in our daily lives.
We have run several workshop days over the last two years, which have been very successful, allowing people to get really involved both in the production and cultivation of the crops themselves and what it could mean to be a member or a farmer.
So how does all this work logistically? The Community Farm is set up as a Community Benefit Society – a not for profit enterprise. From our first year’s experience over a three-acre trial, it was evident that for a large-scale vegetable operation you needed a full time grower and a number of staff. The following year Phil Haughton approached us to see if he could grow 10 acres of vegetables and to continue to develop a community supported agriculture project (a CSA). Now the Community Farm has a committee of 11 people, all volunteers, 16 Staff, and over 450 investors, and we supply over 400 vegetable boxes per week to families in and around Bristol and Bath. The Community Farm is registered as a Community Interest Company with the Financial Services Authority, so that the members involved can assist in running the project and in helping to build a community. Knowing the farm gives people an insight into the seasons, the land, and their food – and it gives them access to a place where their children and grandchildren can learn about nature and farming.
In 2011 we launched a Community investment share offer: people can invest anything from £50 up to £20,000 to become involved and to shape the future of the farm – and we’ve already raised a staggering £180,000 from just over 460 investors. The capital enabled us to transfer some of the assets of the existing business and to pay for additional infrastructure works and staff to develop it further. While the financial return on investment may be limited, the social return and community benefits will more than compensate. In the long term we are hoping to be able to provide a return on any investment over £500 but the initial commitment is for three years and it will be up to the board to decide how the shareholders ultimately take their dividends.
What of the future? Local Government and councils need to adapt to the future of food and farming and wake up to the crisis that is looming. There needs to be a reallocation of land, and partnerships created with councils, businesses and individuals to enable good honest community led organisations to feel empowered and to make a difference to the place in which they live. We need to centralise the network of food businesses and to get the end consumer to realise that good healthy food is just around the corner. Shaking the hand that feeds you is exactly how communities need to live and respect each other. CSAs are a tool in creating the future systems of our food network — and allow anyone to get involved. In fact they do not even have to evolve around a farm or land. We need to develop CSAs that complete the story and have community led food hubs / supermarkets / shops and restaurants. The end consumer can change the future. By supporting local farmers today, they will be helping to ensure there will be farms in the community tomorrow.
Over the short time I have been farming I have become increasingly concerned about the future of food and agriculture. For me the biggest issue facing us today is how to engage with young people and get the next generation involved. The Community Farm allows this to happen – for you do not need to own land to farm land; and our farming systems do not have to be large-scale operations as the supermarkets and others lead us to believe.
With the growing recognition of the need for environmentally sustainable production systems that are less reliant on fossil fuels, I am confident that The Community Farm has a lot to offer and believe that a fully integrated system can work for any local town or village. The Community Farm aims to become a unique model of food and farming and one that can be transferred to other places around the UK.