As we embark on our third year of FarmStart-ing, things are looking pretty exciting. We’ve got a brand new co-ordinator in the form of experienced organic grower Alex Firman; four new TestCroppers; and some major improvements to the programme that’ll not only benefit our FarmStarters but also the other projects nationally that are supporting new farmers and growers.
FarmStart is our incubator farm initiative, providing training, creating employment and improving the local food system by supporting new entrants into commercial organic growing. It’s located at Abbey Leys Farm in High Legh, Cheshire.
Entering the new growing season, things are looking really positive. All eleven growers with us last year have re-applied, with several progressing onto larger areas of land, and we have four new first years for 2015. With two years of successful FarmStart-ing under our belt, we’ve refined and improved the programme to include a much more intensive training package for the first year ‘TestCroppers’ who'll now share a ¼ acre site between them, with the main focus being on building up and sharing their knowledge and skills.
We’re also now able to start the growing season much earlier, thanks to the two polytunnels we built last year. One of our growers, Lindsay, will be getting stuck into production pretty soon, with the rest not far behind Depending on the weather, Alex is going to get work on cultivating the land as soon as the ground is ready, to help them get going as soon as possible.
Before starting up here, Alex spent several weeks in the USA, learning about organic growing in Oregon and Washington and meeting other FarmStart-style projects. They’ve existed in the US and Cananda since the 1980s so as Alex says, “it was a great chance to see mature farm incubator initiatives in action”. Among others he met the manager of Headwaters incubator farm, which is 60 acres in size! “Being America”, Alex explains, “everything is done larger; most growers are renting at least an acre but also have to develop their own markets from scratch. But since the nearest city is Portland, a hub of all things alternative, there’s a great demand for local organic veg”.
With an experienced grower at the helm, working full-time, the TestCroppers and other growers are now going to have access to much more one-on-one advice and mentoring. With a longer growing season and more support, our growers should be going from strength to strength.
But that’s not all. As well as improving the programme for our own new farmers, we’re working with others around the UK to make the training we provide at FarmStart “the mother of all training programmes”, as our Helen puts it!
There’s lots of interest nationally in supporting new entrants into growing, so we’ve been participating in various discussions on the subject. Alex has recently taken part in a seminar in London, where a group in the Lea Valley were particularly interested in our model as they’re currently working with the local council to develop their own scheme.
Through the Growing Livelihoods programme, we're working with and learning from others also supporting and training new growers. Our improved training will then be made available to all incubator farms, starter farms or any other programmes supporting new producers - so that they can use the sections and ideas that suit them best, and not have to re-invent the wheel. We'll be putting this together online later this year.
One of the brilliant organisations we’ve made links with is Nourish Scotland, who bring people from across Scotland together for training for two days a month, while the rest of the year they do paid placements at market gardens and farms all over the country. Helen was able to take part in their evaluation of their programme a couple of weeks ago, and learnt loads – “It's a really interesting model and it could be great to look at running the Nourish programme here alongside FarmStart (maybe at Kindling's Future Farm - with Nourish!). We just need to grow more growers who could take on the placements”.
Finally, we'll also be running a couple of conferences in the Autumn, one in Scotland with Nourish and one in Manchester presenting FarmStart alongside other models like starter and patchwork farms. It will most likely be run in partnership with Growing Communities and the Earth Trust and will be for interested groups, local authorities and land owners across the UK - to show what can be done and what a great way these models are for getting people into training and employment, as well as increasing access to local sustainable food!