I’ve been asked by a number of groups here in Australia how Kindling works to support a new generation of farmers.
As part of Kindling's work to build a sustainable food system from the bottom up we are continually working to balance supply & demand. We may stimulate demand by engaging the public sector or Manchester Veg People may go to a trade fair, but we have consistently found that supply is the medium-term issue.
Farming in the UK is under assault from Supermarkets – who drive down prices and so it is in decline, burdened with mounting debt and financial insecurity. Farmers are tired and feel undervalued by society. Those who have flourished have adopted either submissive trading relationships with supermarkets or diversified to 'add value' to their products.
Unable to compete with the efficiencies of large agribusinesses, small and family farmers have been encouraged to diversify or sell direct to the consumer. Farmers Markets, Farm Shops, Box Schemes have been a life-line to many growers, allowing some farmers to claw back some control of both their farming decisions and trading relations.
Kindling and its partners have chosen to compliment this more direct selling to concerning customers through the establishment of Manchester Veg People: a co-op of farmers and public sector & commercial buyers who work together.
But, what we are finding this that there are simply not enough farmers out there who are growing organically or sustainably, who are willing to join these new ways of trading that are crucial for the future of a healthy farming sector. And because ramping up supply for existing and potential new MVP buyers takes many years we are always having to look two or three growing seasons ahead.
The approach we have taken is to create a ladder for people and groups of people to progress up. The steps are not too large but we also don't make it too easy to climb. We want everyone to step onto the first rung, but only a few will want to make it to the top and become commercial farmers.
The first step is Greater Manchester Land Army. We offer work days on farms with training and opportunities for people to get to know their local farmers.
The second step is for anyone who has been out on Land Army missions and wants to learn more are short courses on things ranging from fruit tree grafting to tools maintenance.
Thirdly, twice a year we run a half-a-day session called Do you Want to be a Farmer? Where we attempt to dispel this rather romantic view of farming. We encourage people to look honesty at their skills, personal circumstances and aspirations before they progress further up the ladder.
Once a person decides that they would like to give farming ago we encourage them to join our 5-day commercial horticulture course. The selection process is quite strict, attendees must carry out an assignment and spend a number of days working on the local farms. The course is held on four different farms around Gtr Manchester, each day dedicated to a different area of farming. One day they may be learning to drive a tractor, the next filling out spreadsheets.
The final rung is Farm Start – an incubator farm concept proving its success in America and Canada. Successful applicates pay around £500 for a 1/8 acre lot of land which is ploughed and prepared by the farmers we rent the land from. The CropTesters – the name we give to first years are provided with training and shared equipment to grow an agreed crop for the year. They have access to a produce preparation area, farming advice and supported to sell their produce via a local farmers market and through Manchester Veg People.
Each year, they must apply again and if they have met our criteria, e.g. kept weeds down, shown commitment to selling produce etc. they can request additional land. After 5 years, they may have acquired a number of acres at Farm Start, and will have built their growing business considerable, but are required to move, to their own site.
So in short, we are creating a ladder, with steps addressing each of the challenges people new to farming are going to face. We like to think of the side rails of the ladder as Manchester Veg People and Feeding Manchester.