Our search for a farm in 2021
This year we are doubling our efforts to find a farm to buy. Following a hugely successful community shares campaign and a well attended online workshop at the Oxford Real Farming Conference on how we raised the £1million, we are chomping at the bit to make the Kindling Farm a reality.
Before we introduce the things we are going to do in 2022 to find a farm, we thought it would be good to share with you the things we have done and learnt since July 2021.
Just to refresh your memory, we went into last Spring’s community shares campaign with a farm we were keen to buy, but half way through the campaign the owner said he wasn’t ready to sell. So we refined our share offer and communicated with our investors our intention to start looking for another farm – giving ourselves a year to find suitable land to realise our dream.
A week or so after the campaign - following an intensive hand-writing exercise welcoming our 600+ new members - we started our search. We were a little apprehensive, because we’d been told farms rarely become available in the region, which is one of the reasons we jumped at the chance with the first farm.
We have been pleasantly surprised, however, by the number of farms that have come onto the market that have had potential. Over the last six months we’ve looked at four farms, two of which we’ve considered buying. Anyway, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let's look at each farm individually and share our insights with you.
Moss Side Farm
We had actually looked at this farm before we started our community shares campaign, and it was still on the market seven months later.
It ticked lots of boxes for us: very close to Manchester, lots of outbuildings in amazing condition, a modest farmhouse and great veg growing soil. We visited various times, met the owner, refined the finance section of our business plan and sent the results to the bank who requested a valuation.
It was more than we were expecting to pay for a farm and was a smaller acreage than we were hoping for, but, on crunching the numbers, we felt that we could be saving a lot of money in future years, through reduced building refurbishment costs.
Something else that we discussed a lot was the soil, which was essentially peatland (drained 200 years or so ago). On the one hand we felt that it would be better for us to be there, using this incredible soil to produce food via organic agroforestry methods that protect soil health as much as possible, than for it to be farmed conventionally or used for horses. But on the other hand, we questioned whether it was right for us to be growing on this soil at all, especially when we knew that a conservation group had been buying land very close by to restore the Mosses.
In the end the report commissioned by the bank brought with it the news that the asking price was significantly more than the valuation. While the bank said we could in theory still borrow against the valued price (due to the amount we’d raised in community shares), we in no way wanted to risk over stretching ourselves financially, nor did we feel we could justify this difference in price to our new investor members.
In the end we decided to walk away from this opportunity, it was a hard choice but we think the right one.
Eaton Hall Farm
This land near Davenham fit our criteria in terms of size (just over 100 acres), distance, potential for veg growing soil and a reasonable price match, but it only had one farm building. We considered it initially because our land agent felt that getting planning for more buildings would be possible, and because there are many benefits of building from scratch, not least we could build exactly what we need to high environmental standards.
On visiting the land there were concerns about the lack of access for farm vehicles and distribution. Additionally when we discussed the issue of planning further with our land agent, it became clear that land without buildings wouldn’t work for us. There would be no way to get guaranteed planning permission before purchase, so with only one barn it would be a huge risk in terms of our long term Kindling Farm vision. We therefore decided not to pursue this land and also importantly refined our search criteria to definitely include agricultural buildings to help us hit the ground running.
This Farm just outside of Chester looked great on paper and we were keen to visit it. Like the majority of the farms we’ve looked at it had been broken up into different lots. It seems this is done (presumably with guidance from the land agents working on behalf of the owner) to maximise the price the owner gets, but rarely parcelled up in a way that optimises the farming potential. In many cases a farm yard is split up, with individual houses for sale and poor quality land packaged up with better land.
We’d have been keen to buy all the lots if it was suitable, which, to be fair, is how many farmers we’ve met would prefer to sell their farms (to keep the whole farm together and in food production).
It was a lovely farm on rolling hills overlooking Chester Zoo, however, the soil wasn’t suitable for veg production. Soil is our number one priority when looking for a farm and so we dig a lot of holes when we visit. In every field Stu will walk out into the middle and dig a 2 or 3 foot hole down through the subsoil and take samples to carry out a few tests.
Again another farm just outside of Chester, a convenient 45 minute journey from South Manchester, straight down the M56. This farm is in Wales, just across the border.
Location is another significant consideration for us. Although a lot of the farms we’ve looked at out this way are pretty quick to get to from South Manchester, we do have concerns that they are perhaps a little too far away. While 45 minutes by car is fine, this part of the NorthWest is less accessible by train and bus than other farm’s we have looked at.
Also if the farm is closer to Manchester, we could potentially save significant money on renting a packing unit in Manchester for our veg box scheme.
We were first hesitant to consider this property, because it had been flagged as land that would be affected by rising sea levels in the next 50 years, using a climate change mapping tool. However our visit and subsequent discussions with the owner, as well as discussions with others about the climate mapping tool (which we are looking at further) have given us a slightly different perspective on this.
The area - known as Sealands - has, for hundreds of years, had the infrastructure, bylaws and public bodies to deal with the fact it is a very low lying region. This made us wonder if perhaps in a future where the UK will be struggling with impacts of climate change, being located in an area where the local authorities are historically accustomed to maintaining sea defences, dredging ditches and so on might have its advantages.
There were various pros and cons about this farm in terms of our plan:
- We loved the feel of the farm itself and really appreciated the time and honesty of the owner in answering our questions.
- The soil, while low in organic matter content, had good potential for veg growing - a sandy soil with good crumbly structure (totally uniform throughout the farm), good drainage, dry even after rainfall (and in an area showing the lowest rainfall regionally) and a bore hole already installed (though the farmer explained it hadn’t been used since then, so parts may have needed replacing). However the pH levels were high and this was a potential concern for the fruit trees, which is a large part of the Kindling Farm system.
- There were a good number of farm buildings but as a diary many of these would need completely rebuilding, though of course far better to do that on existing hard standing than on soil (and more likely to get planning permission).
- The guide price was higher than our original budget and we would have had to get a valuation for the bank. As another offer had gone in for the whole farm (we only wanted lots 1-4 of 5) at close to the asking price, it felt unlikely that the vendors would go for our offer (with additional time needed to get the valuation done).
We felt that had the farm been closer to Manchester we would have seriously considered putting in an offer, but that on balance the varying issues lead to the decision not to put an offer in on this farm.
Our search continues in 2022
Each visit stimulates debate, helps us hone our criteria and the more farms we can compare gives us confidence that we are getting the balancing of competing needs right.
As we go into spring 2022 we are optimistic that the right farm in the right area and at the right price will be found.