Understandably, the question we get asked most is ‘Have you found a farm yet?’’ And, always, as I take a breath to answer, I feel a real longing to be able to give you that significant news. But (incredibly, I feel) your response always reminds me that the progress we are making is significant; whether that’s the farms we’ve looked at and what we’re learnt, fruit trees we’ve grafted for the agroforestry system or our work to grow the markets in preparation for establishing the farm.
We have visited and considered a number of farms over the last 6 months and even went so far as getting a valuation done for one of them and we have learnt loads that is helping us with our ongoing search. You can read more about this on our website in the last farm search update.
However, we wanted this update to respond to the interest you have shown for the whole picture; to fill you in on what we’re learning from the land agents, as well as about our wider work to establish Kindling Farm. We hope you find it interesting and as always please do keep the questions flowing, chatting with you this year has been an absolute pleasure.
Since the original farm fell through, the search for a farm for Kindling has been a mix of feeling like an overwhelmingly huge task, scrambling to get valuations completed to a frustratingly slow waiting game. We decided back in February that we needed to enlist the help of someone who had both the inside contacts and the capacity to actively seek out farms coming on to the market. Will Parry was recommended to us immediately by a trusted land agent who had done the valuation on Moss Side farm for us. We were told that with his knowledge, contacts and experience, if anyone could find us a farm - on or off the market - Will could.
This meant our involvement went from checking all the relevant websites as much as possible, staying in touch with local farmers and ringing round the land agents to remind them we exist, to waiting to hear from Will. We did have a brief flurry of activity and meetings in May, as the original farm owner got back in touch. He wanted to see how we were and was still interested to see if we could come to an arrangement. However, continued discussion is needed at their end.
Farms have come on to the market or we have been told the owners are thinking of selling, but for various reasons - similar to those discussed in the February update (e.g. distance, no buildings and therefore potential planning issues, price), we have not gone further with those farms.
According to Will (and other agents), the market for farm sales has been very slow. There are various opinions about why that is - from the ongoing uncertainties from covid and Brexit; to retiring farmers waiting to find out what the exit sum will be (and then it not being enough to sell up); to the government's recent approach to climate change being to encourage corporations to pay farmers to plant trees; to a dominant buyer with significant resources buying up land in the area.
Interestingly, the low numbers of farms coming on the market seems to be particularly the case here. I say interestingly, because according to Will this isn’t necessarily bad. In other areas of the UK, where land is traded more regularly, it is perhaps thought of as more of a commodity and therefore will always go to the highest bidder. Here, farmers seem to hold on to their land more, which could be due to their relationship with their land. While that means less farms come up for sale, Will feels that the story behind Kindling Farm means that someone will want to sell to us, for our values and vision for farming.
And Will isn’t the only person of this opinion. Recently as part of our plan to spread the word, we’ve done several interviews for the mainstream farming press, including The Farmers Mart, Arable Farming Magazine and Farmers Guardian. Being that we are not (by most standards) what is thought of as mainstream, we were slightly nervous about these encounters, especially with our aim being to appeal to a retiring farmer reading one of these publications. However, we received a surprising and genuinely positive reception.
The journalists loved not only our vision, but how they felt other farmers could benefit from what we’ve done and said we would be exactly what a retiring farmer would be looking for. The end of the feature in Farmers Mart (written by its founder and, according to a rural land agent we know, one of the most read publications among farmers), bought a real skip to our step:
“The Kindling Trust and Kindling Farm really is a huge entrepreneurial success story, as a result of both hard work on the ground and equal diligence, commitment, planning and a little daring behind the scenes. I cannot wait until Helen, Chris and the Kindling Farm team acquire the farm and begin the next stage of their development. Watch this space.” Ian Wilkinson, Managing Director of The Farmers Mart
Part of what made Ian feel so inspired by our story - and which is a key chunk of our work that progresses us towards the farm - is that he visited our thriving Community Food Hub in Stockport. Ian was able to get a real taster of Kindling Farm, by: meeting our FarmStart trainees and seeing the fields and polytunnels bursting with tasty organic produce; seeing a few of the (9000!) heritage fruit trees we have been grafting over the last 15 months, waiting to be planted out in the community or at Kindling Farm; hearing about the weekly social prescribing session with Kurdish refugees (and all the delicious recipes they’ve been teaching us!); noticing the Open Farm Sunday banner and talking about the success of the packed community engagement programme; and passing the Veg Box People collection point on his way out.
This leads me on to a hugely important part of our work to establish Kindling Farm. We have built a good strong market for organic fruit and veg in Greater Manchester over the years and our customers are crying out for us to produce more. But, as we tell the FarmStart trainees, however good a grower you are, building and maintaining customer numbers is crucial and continuous work.
It’s been a pretty full on couple of years for organic food businesses. Nationally veg box customer numbers have been shooting up and down (during lockdown and as restrictions lifted), costs have rocketed with brexit and the cost of living crisis makes it a marketplace that not all small food businesses have survived.
Our work to develop and retain our relationships with our customers gives us a strong foundation for the farm which is as important now as ever. Our model is more than one of trading veg, our customers believe in our vision for a more sustainable food system and are part of the story and reality of how we will get there. So it is crucial that we work with them and support them where we can. Over recent months this has included for example: working closely with Veg Box People to develop their marketing and attract new customers at their collection points; working with the University of Manchester chefs to menu plan; holding events with Open Kitchen and with Unicorn Grocers, as well as working to increase biodiversity at their site in Glazebury. All of our customers and their customers are key to the future of Kindling Farm.
So I’ll stop there, before this progress summary gets even longer! There’s been a fair bit to be getting on with while the search for a farm continues, that will help us get Kindling Farm established. We’re learning loads along the way, that will not only help us buy the right farm, but will make sure that we establish a farm business with good strong foundations that will last for the long term and will mean others can learn from our lessons too.
I’ll finish with a final thank you. As we’re getting to meet more of you (at events both in person and virtually) we’re learning about who our members are; that you are people who understand how much is involved in creating a better food system and want to support and be part of that. So we want to say thank you for that and for all your encouragement. It makes this exciting, challenging (and not always straightforward) journey, a lot better knowing that you’re on it with us.