A radical experiment in community supported agriculture is attempting to break farming’s reliance on fossil fuels and unsustainable practices. Andrew Wasley met green farmer Ed Hamer in this exclusive extract from The Ecologist Guide To Food.
The countryside around the village of Chagford, on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon, is the stuff of picture postcards. Rolling hills, thick forests, deep valleys, gushing streams, lots of farms.
The winding, narrow lanes that criss-cross the region follow the contours of the land closely; when the hill is steep, the road is steep; where a stream or river runs its course the road simply cuts right through – quite literally.
Village noticeboards carry posters advertising field sports. Passing 4×4 vehicles are splattered with real mud. This is traditional rural England where country pastimes remain popular and meddling by outsiders is frowned upon.
Not quite so conservative as it appears
It’s the sort of place that would have sent coachloads of people to the huge countryside protest marches periodically held in London during Tony Blair’s Labour government.
But the noticeboards here are also dotted with posters hinting at a very different community. One announces a course in Goddesses – workshops where participants apparently use “myth, journeying, movement and creativity”. Another has details on a local allotment scheme and how to get involved.
In the village centre there’s a packed wholefood cafe and health food shop that sells lots of vegetarian and vegan food. There’s adverts on the wall for organic smallholdings for sale in places such as Spain.
Three people queueing up for food are talking about the spiritual retreat – and associated detox – that they’ve just completed locally. A lady with long, long dreadlocks is chatting to someone about festivals.
Community supported food
I’m in the cafe with Ed Hamer. He’s a radical young farmer and the driving force behind a pioneering community supported agriculture scheme – Chagfood, based at Easton Cross just outside Chagford itself.
It’s increasingly attracting attention because of its vigorous rejection of conventional, oil based farming methods in favour of traditional horsepower.
Everyone in here seems to know Ed the planned Chagfood open day has just been postponed because of atrocious weather; people are asking when it’ll be rearranged for – and those that don’t will almost certainly have heard of him.
A financial commitment
Ed explains how Chagfood supplies seasonal fruit and vegetables to a growing number of local households on a weekly basis, with the recipients paying a annual subscription fee of up to £600 to secure their share of produce for the year ahead.
This unique upfront payment is partly what stands the venture out from more typical box schemes – where consumers generally pick and choose when and what to buy.
The financial commitment helps Ed, and co-founder and business partner Chinnie Kinsbury, plan and bankroll the year’s cultivation. It also means – as is central to the ethos behind community supported agriculture projects – that the the risks and rewards of production are more equally shared between consumers and producers.
“In 2010, we supplied 25 weekly boxes from 1 acre of land; in 2011 it was 50 from two acres, last year it was 75 boxes from 3 acres,” he says, “this year we are planning to increase this further … but not too much.”
Shareholders receive a full box of produce between June and December – the bountiful months – and a smaller clutch of items in the leaner times between January and May.
At the moment, subscribers can expect some seasonal salad, brassicas and a large bunch of leeks; once the full growing season is underway this will expand to include up to a dozen items, all grown in Chagfood’s own polytunnels and fields.
Cutting the food miles
The venture started life in 2009 after a public meeting organised by think-tank the New Economics Foundation found that a significant cross section of the local community wanted to try and “shorten the distance” between local food producers and consumers.
Residents said they wanted access to fresh and affordable produce and so initial plans to establish a community-owned market garden were put in place.
Following the securing of a suitable site – a small plot rented out from a sympathetic farmer – a core group, Ed and Chinnie, supported by an enthusiastic body of friends and volunteers, spent much of the autumn and winter of 2009 preparing the ground to begin sowing their first crops.
The project then managed to secure financial backing from a number of sources, including the Big Lottery Fund’s local food programme – enabling the purchase of essential tools and helping underwrite costs in the teething phase – which helped make the whole thing viable.
Ed is certain the venture would have happened anyway, even if there was some scepticism amongst the regions’ veteran – and sometimes weary – farmers. “It was certainly easier having a history”, says Ed, recalling his many months of mis-spent youth working on local farms. “But in that first year a lot of farmers were sceptical.” However the scepicism transformed into open support with the year “once they saw it working through”.
Chagfood wouldn’t be possible without the physical assistance of the shareholders and other supporters. Because of the upfront outlay many subscribers have a lot more interest in being directly involved in helping with the planting, harvesting and other farm tasks, Ed says.
“Each week we have between 10-15 people helping out. It’s about the community aspect and the cultural side of farming, a side that’s been lost. We have harvest and a spring festival, and the kids are always involved.”
Horse drawn power
Now, impressively, with the scheme in its fourth year proper, Ed confirms that Chagfood is financially self supporting with two wages (admittedly low, even by farming standards) being paid and essential operating costs covered.
The cost of the operation is kept low in part by the deployment of horse-power in place of diesel-thirsty tractors and other vehicles typically used in conventional farming.
Chagfood uses Samson, a Welsh-cob-horse-cross-Dartmoor-pony, to carry out most of the cultivation and tillaging of its fields – the original site at Easton Cross has just been joined by another nearby field leased from a local organic farm – and to transport its produce.
Until recently, Samson has worked the fields attached to a tillage device known as the Kassine, which originates in France where horse drawn agriculture is more commonplace, especially amongst peasant farmers.
Now, the arsenal at Chagfood’s disposal includes another contraption called the Pioneer Homesteader. Ed imported the old fashioned yet sturdy-looking device from an Amish community in the US.
“These are hand made”, Ed says, showing me the device as we shelter in a small shed that offers little protection from the driving rain. “There’s been 200 sold so far – this is the first one in Europe.” Like a Massey Ferguson tractor it straddles the bed and can take a variety of different tools, each for a specific job.
“It’s the principal of mechanisation applied to horses”, Ed enthuses. The system gives him the best of all worlds – a relief from the back-breaking slog and zero fuel bills, while protecting all-important soil structure: “There’s less compaction on the soil and little running costs.”
Ed’s enthusiasm for using a horse in place of a tractor or other machinery runs deeper than simple financial calculations.
As well as being a farmer, he’s co-editor of the radical The Land magazine, and a founder of the campaign group Reclaim the Fields, which seeks to empower those seeking greater access to land across Europe.
He argues that conventional farming and agribusiness is fundamentally wrong because of its reliance on financial subsidies, and says that two of the biggest hurdles facing those wanting to farm are access to land and skills.
He believes that – stripping it all down – what Chagfood is doing is actually just growing food and selling it at a realistic price:
“It’s the real cost of food, our costs are the same since we started, compared with the supermarket. We’re able to tailor production to local demand. Local food schemes are more resilient, we’re not plugged into the food infrastructure. We are connecting people to local food.”
This is an edited extract from The Ecologist Guide to Food, published by Leaping Hare on February 24th