New Leaf Project

This piece comes from Chas Griffin’s book: More Scenes from a Smallholding (2006). His proposal to take over a large barley farm in East Anglia and convert it into a mixed organic farm, consisting of about 33 organic farming enterprises cooperatively run was maybe an idea before its time back then. But we’re living in post Fordhall Farm, post Joel Salatin days. So why just one such farm; rather let’s have a whole network of them! Four issues: • Everyone wants more and cheaper organic veg. • Lots of people want to get out of the cities. • Nobody is happy paying East Anglian barley barons millions to not grow crops. • And everyone deplores the depletion of wildlife and habitat, and the depopulation of the countryside. Could we combine these four problems, I wonder? And find a joined-up solution, perhaps thus: Why not set up a Trust whose brief is ‘to buy a 500-acre ex-barley farm in East Anglia, and to split it up into smaller units, whose purpose is to co-operatively produce lots of affordable organic food’? The split-up might be into, say, 1 x 150-acre farm; 2 x 50 acres; 10 x 10 acres; plus 50 acres split into 20 lots of varying sizes. Two things become apparent here: 1. We’ve lost a hundred acres somewhere (but read on), and 2. We’re talking about not just a gaffer, a day-man, and several huge machines, but a population of at least fifty people. Who are these people, and where do they come from? Some would come from the ranks of organic organisations who have always wanted to try living off the land, but could never afford to buy in. Others would come from training schemes set up by various bodies, including government initiatives. And others would come from elsewhere, including Holland, if I know anything. We’re talking about building a hamlet, really. That’s a very big deal, and expensive. Obviously the settlers would keep costs down by self-building, using appropriate technology and materials to minimise running costs. Once up and running (and we don’t need all thirty-three units to start on the same day) they produce organic food, as economically as possible. This means appropriate co-operation. Big Farm does the ploughing for everyone, for example, and small farmers help pick Big Farm’s two acres of runner beans. Details TBA. Marketing needs to be carefully thought through in advance by the Trustees and at least some of the farmers. Top priority would be to sell locally, including ‘at the gate’, then further afield, primarily to small shops. Some cautious arrangements might be made with some supermarkets for bulk crops. Value-added processing would be high on the agenda, particularly as a means of generating income off-season. Polytunnels producing salad crops might need to import labour, thus creating local jobs. So let’s assume all thirty-three units have negotiated their relationships, via a suitably mandated council of their own members, and are happily marketing hundreds of tons of lovely veg. In the evenings, if they so wish, they entertain and bore themselves and each other with charades* and Bruce Willis videos, or pitch into communal projects like laying new water lines, or working on the ‘Big Green Brother’ Video Diary to sell to the BBC as ‘diversification’. And there’s more! The whole place should be a hive of experiment, training, and education. Sooner or later facilities would be built on the hundred acres that went missing from the calculation above, to house weekend learners from the cities; students on bursaries; paying guests; WWOOFers; visitors from university agronomy departments, checking on their projects; holiday-makers who are sick of being ripped off and bored rigid at the seaside; scout and guide groups; Portuguese Woodcraft Folk; gardening clubs on bargain breaks; all manner of people, all wanting to learn, and happy to sing for their home-grown supper (unless physically restrained, in certain cases). More formal research and education takes place in the experimental plots, laboratory, and lecture hall.** This is only the broadest of pictures, but you get the drift. Would it work? Well, I’ll guarantee that ninety-nine out of a hundred readers will shake their heads and smile at such naivety: ‘It’ll never work.’ They may be right. But I also guarantee that there will also be that hundredth person, the one with a dash of spirit, who’ll say: ‘Now that’s what I call a worthwhile challenge.’ About fifty thousand people will read this article. One per cent equals five hundred live-wires. Not a bad start. Australia probably started with less. So I don’t doubt that thirty-three good wo/men and true will be findable. What about the money? Trickier. I’ve no idea how to cost this adventure, but I’m absolutely certain somebody does. That somebody should be on the Trust. Who else should be there? A worthy and competent patron with ‘gravitas power’; also, the persons who prime the financial pumps, who might well be pop stars or lottery winners, or successful entrepreneurs, who are looking for a creative and worthwhile cause; and an organic guru. Other experts will be co-opted as necessary. A foolish fancy that would just soak away millions? I don’t see why, because the New Leaf Project would have a sound business plan, using its mountains of prime veg to pay its way and refund its set-up costs, if appropriate. What’s more, it would gradually build up enough capital to eventually buy the 500-acre farm next door, co-operatively independent Project. Some years on, both Projects would buy a third farm. The scheme would grow … organically. Eventually the UK would become organically self-sufficient. And those ‘four issues’ would be resolved en route. I can probably think of more snags and problems than you can, but I also know that the longest journey begins with the first step. And we all know this journey must be undertaken sooner rather than later. Why not now? Any views? * * * After this article first appeared in the HDRA magazine, about a dozen people contacted me with an interest in the New Leaf Project. Two snags quickly became apparent. First, most people assumed that just because I’d mooted the idea, I was then going to organise the whole thing myself. A couple of bold souls did pitch in with some ideas of their own, but as we lived hundreds of miles apart, we couldn’t really make any progress, even by email. The second snag was much more important. I still think all the points I make above are valid, but they all hang on one thing which I didn’t broach in any depth: ownership. OK, a Trust … but what then? Would individuals rent their properties from the Trust? Would private ownership be possible in any way? If not, then people moving in might either lose their place on the property ladder when they felt they wanted to pull out for whatever reason, if they had sold up when joining NLP. Or, conversely, maybe some people would use the scheme as a means of finding a subsidised billet while they rented out their own house at a big profit. Problems. If private ownership was to be allowed, how would it be administered? Who would be ‘worthy’ of joining? And could the Trust reasonably impose restrictions on who the new owners might or might not eventually sell to? Might some people just use the scheme as a get-rich-quick investment opportunity? And would the idealistic venture just end up as yet another island of middle-class consumerism? No doubt wiser souls than I can suggest workable solutions to this problem. I’m sure there must be precedents. Bearing all this in mind, think back: after reading the article, did you find yourself thinking something like ‘Wow … that sounds fun!’ before you thought ‘It’ll never work’? I think an awful lot of people will find the basic idea appealing: a meaningful, human-scale, productive, and co- operative life. And once an idea is ‘out there’, if it really is a good one, somebody sometime will take it up and run with it. Whether it actually succeeds or not will depend on a thousand things, but most of all it will depend on a few individuals having the courage to think it through and get it moving. There will be other snags, of course. Precisely who will be on the Trust? And why? What will the Constitution of the Trust be? Who will devise it? Who will select the thirty-three incomers? By which criteria? How will disputes be solved? How will the NLP ‘vision’ or ‘programme’ be developed? By whom? I expect you can think of other snags as well. But none of them is beyond the wit of wo/man to solve. Personally, I think you would need a strong democratic base to elect a strong manager, who would be the gaffer until pitched out on his ear by said strong democratic base. The danger I can foresee is of the vision becoming enfeebled by political manipulators and power-game queens. Some people are like that, you know. I would put a lot of effort into keeping the power-freaks away from power. Another constant worry for the Trust, before the NLP could be set up, would be the problem of the supermarkets. I’m sorry to keep banging on about this, but they will do everything in their power to reduce the producers of veg to serfdom. They will promise all, then pull the plug, and leave you in a mess. Then, unless you have laid your plans well, you’ll have to crawl back to them, on their terms, which will be beyond extortionate. Thus, the Trust would need to be supremely careful in its marketing strategies, right from well before planting the first seed. Sensible caveats aside, many other people have set up successful co-operative ventures. A group of three villages in North Wales bought a mountain, to improve local job prospects. Several schemes are up and running in Scotland too. It can be done. Chas Griffin * The last time I got suckered into playing charades, you got your subject by lucky dip from a list of TV programmes. While other people got easy stuff like The Bill (project fingers forward in front of mouth; raise and lower thumb beneath them) and Top Gear (waggle a gearstick about in a non-suggestive manner), I got Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Go on … I defy you. ** If you think there is nothing left to research in farming/gardening, read Tompkins and Bird’s two astonishing books: The Secret Life of Plants and Secrets of the Soil.

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