Sparkford

The Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC) is delighted to have purchased its fourth site in Sparkford, South Somerset, a 21-acre field, continuing the work of making land accessible to ecological farming. Please read the full press release here.

On Tuesday 5th February 2019, we held a community meeting for Sparkford residents where we presented and discussed our plans to create a cluster of three residential small and ecological farms accompanying land-based businesses. Each would have an agricultural tie committing the smallholders to operate farm businesses, bringing local food, employment and diversity - both ecologically and agriculturally - to the area. 

The Ecological Land Cooperative works to create affordable ecological smallholdings for new entrants to farming – those who would ordinarily be unable to afford a house in the countryside yet who wish to earn a living through farming.

At the meeting, we presented our vision and aims, our business model, our legal structure and presented the examples of our other sites and farm businesses. To read a summary of this information you can read our pamphlet here. We also showed a short film about our work which you can watch here.

We have conducted research into the financial viability of small scale farms. You can read our research report ‘Small is Successful’ here, and a booklet of ten case studies of profitable small farms can be read here.

After the presentation, we opened the floor for questions. Below is a summary of the points that were discussed during the meeting.

Visual Impact & Development

Planning policy requires that new farm businesses prove their viability before a permanent planning consent can be considered. In the first instance, applicants are required to apply for a temporary planning permission of 5 years. Smallholders need to use temporary accommodation in this period. Temporary accommodation can be, for example, a portable timber cabin, shepherd’s hut, or caravan.

If permanent planning permission were granted at the end of the temporary period, both the ELC and South Somerset Council would require the three temporary dwellings proposed with this application to be removed and replaced by permanent dwellings. These would need to be moderate in size (not larger than 140m2 with a height limit of 5.5m) and in keeping with the landscape character. The ELC would also require the dwellings to be made predominantly of natural materials. And any other permanent structures need to first be approved by South Somerset Council.

To mitigate the visual impact caused by structures, we have proposed the following:

  • The location proposed for the barn and dwellings has been sited close to the southern boundary in one development zone to restrict sprawl, and to minimise any potential visual intrusion in the open landscape.
  • To plant hedges, interspersed with trees, along the mid-section of the field to create a visual screen from the North. To plant trees around the structures within the development zone in the south east section of the field.
  • An effort would be made to set polytunnels into the landscape with the use of careful placement and plantings, which they will need for shelter anyway

Protection of the Agriculture Tie / Section 106

It is paramount that if the ELC is granted planning permission that the smallholdings are: used for an ecological agricultural business; occupied by the person(s) operating the smallholding business; and kept affordable.

We retain the freehold on our smallholdings and offer a strict tenancy agreement to our smallholders. Just as with county farms, the farm business tenancy that we use allows the ELC to evict a smallholder if they are in breach of their tenancy agreement. The tenancy agreement requires smallholders to operate a farm business on their holding, and adhere to the site's Management Plan. The Plan places obligations on the smallholder, including to manage the land ecologically.

Tenants cannot receive a windfall from their properties: if a tenant wishes to sell their holding, their tenancy requires that it must be offered back to the ELC in the first instance and in all cases must be sold at the re-sale value provided in their tenancy agreement, based on their improvements and not the housing market. Tenants cannot sub-let, and any future tenants would still be governed by the lease and management plan.  

The ELC is a member-led organisation whose members care passionately about agriculture. Our members would not allow us to fail on one of our core objectives and watch land go to ruin or be taken out of agriculture.

Traffic & Access

We anticipate that our sites with three smallholdings would generate the same levels of traffic as our pilot project, Greenham Reach which has three smallholdings. We installed a traffic monitor at Greenham and have found the site has generated an average since planning permission was granted of 5 return journeys per day, or 1.7 return journeys per household per day.

We will be consulting with the highways department at the council and will ensure the lane is suitable and safe for accessing the holdings.

We will be careful to consider the tranquillity and community use of the neighbouring Sparkford Copse in the overall site layout including additional tree planting on the field boundary of the copse.

The Businesses & Financial Viability of Small Farms

In 2010 we commissioned research into the viability of ecological holdings on less than 10 acres. The report, Small is Successful, was published in 2011. This study of eight enterprises found smallholder annual wages to be in the range of £12,000 – £16,000 on established holdings,

We have since conducted further research and compiled a booklet of ten case studies of farms making a profit on small acreages from across the UK – with the highest level of income at £80,000 per acre. You can read about the case studies here.

It would be against our values to conflict with existing local businesses – instead we aim to provide a supply of local foods and products that are lacking in the local area, or where the demand outweighs current supply. We look to collaborate with existing businesses where possible and work together to improve provision of good local food for the local community and rural economy.

Operations such as battery chicken, or other intensive livestock farming would go against our ecological and ethical values and would not be permitted under our whole site management plan. The ELC monitors each plot against the management plan and reports to the council annually.

Example business from our other sites are vegetable box scheme, salad bags, cut flowers, sheep & pigs, herbs, micro goat dairy and fruit tree grafting.

There is substantial local support for our work from existing food producers, new entrant farmers, potential applicants as well as local people working in the food sustainability sector. When considering applicants, preference will be given to local applicants assuming they fulfil the other necessary criteria.

---

If you are a local resident and have a concern that hasn’t been raised, please contact sonia@ecologicalland.coop or on 01273 766 672.

If you would like to register your interest for applying to be a farmer with us then please email Oliver at members@ecologicalland.coop and read our information about the open application process. 

If you would like to join our cooperative as a local investor member please find out more here.