From empty fields with no tracks and trees came a community agricultural enterprise that brought a host of volunteers and plentiful organic produce to the land. The result is a farm where crops are grown in rotation, with rich wildlife habitats, where biodiversity is valued and visitors are always welcome. Emma Clegg visits The Community Farm in Chew Magna
Once upon a time (not so very long ago) agriculture relied on countless small farms to produce the foods that sustained the population. However since the 1960s agriculture has become dominated by large-scale corporations using industrial processes and fertilisers and pesticides that exploit animals, destroy natural habitats and generate pollution and climate-change emissions. The resulting food produce is lower cost, but doesn’t have local provenance and falls short on quality and goodness. Now small independent and family-run farms use only 8% of all agricultural land.
Thankfully The Community Farm in Chew Magna, overlooking Chew Valley Lake, has a local chunk of this percentage, and they are doing things very differently. The project grew from the initiative of organic farmer Luke Hasell who owns the land and Phil Haughton, founder of Better Food organic supermarkets in Bristol, who teamed up to create a Community Supported Agriculture project.
They started with empty fields in 2011. There were no tracks, no trees, no structures, no irrigation system, no crops. Just grass and a cold tap. They wanted to create a community owned farm that would convert the land to organic, allow nature to flourish, grow vegetables for sale locally, and most importantly welcome people onto the land. Chair of Trustees Angela Raffle, who was part of the initial group, says, “The reason we wanted to start the farm was because talking to people about what’s wrong with the food system is a waste of time, because all you do is make people feel gloomy. Whereas if you say ‘come and spend a day on the land’ everybody goes home feeling better.”
The first stages were funded by selling shares to establish enough working capital to put up polytunnels and buy a tractor. “The early years were really very difficult”, Angela recollects.
“We were literally just working in a muddy field. But gradually we established our identity. And we got the hang of growing. It was a slow process. We managed to start publicising that we sell boxes and we started to look after our volunteers properly. So in the early days, we had this hardy crew of volunteers who were completely impervious to stress and didn’t mind what weather it was – they were just determined to make the project a success.”
Funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation a couple of years later enabled the employment of a community farmer to look after the committed volunteers, who have continued to sustain the workings of the farm, especially the planting and harvesting.
While the production and sale of organic fruit and vegetables has been the priority to ensure the farm’s survival, The Community Farm is so much more than a food delivery business. “When we ask our customers why they choose us, they tell us that it’s partly the organic produce, but also because it’s a local business with a short supply chain. And nobody can individually profit from what we’re doing, because everything goes back into the development of our resources and our communities programmes,” says Angela.
As well as having volunteers every week of the year, the farm invites diverse groups from the community: young children, refugees, teenagers, those suffering with their mental health and women’s groups. It also works with Earthwise (who specialise in outdoor fun for children) and Ecowild (who specialise in nature connection and wellbeing). Of Earthwise, Angela says, “The way the children’s day is organised is very earth-connected. They start by learning about the soil, the little microbes and mycorrhizas. Then they pick some crops and then cook pizzas in the cob oven. After that they will come with their little hi-vis jackets and see the vegetable boxes being packed.”
The farm also teams up with charities who bring refugees and asylum seekers to experience the farm and help out. “Some of the refugees are incredibly traumatised and still have an uncertain status. One of them said to us, “This is the first time I have felt joyful,” says Angela. Another young visitor to the farm’s Learning Area came with crippling stomach pains caused through anxiety, which disappeared throughout the day spent in the Learning Area gardens. Thanks to funders and supporters, many of these community experiences, along with various wellbeing groups and activities, are free.
Corporate groups also use the facilities, renting out one of the spaces for a team-building activity. “We supply them with lunch and they spend the afternoon on the farm. It’s fantastic for team building, because if you all go and harvest leeks together, the chat is just of a new quality.”
The growing land at The Community Farm covers about eight acres and crops are grown in fields, in the minimum-till market garden and in four polytunnels. Crops are grown in rotation over six years: cabbages, onions, squash, and a mix of chard, spinach, lettuce and beans before the soil is rested and restored for two years in a fertility building ley. Market Garden crops include salad, beans, courgettes, squash, alliums, chard and herbs. The polytunnels produce tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and herbs, as well as chillies and peppers. No artificial fertilisers, pesticides or chemical weed control are used.
“The evidence that conventional farming is bad for the natural world is stark, but the evidence that it’s bad for human health is getting stronger and stronger”, says Angela. It’s very hard to choose organic in a supermarket because there is a ‘choice’ every time, whereas if you shop from us, you make that decision once – you say, ‘I’m going organic’.”
Wildlife and biodiversity are actively encouraged by the farm, which has regular visits from skylarks, woodpeckers, owls, lapwings, buzzards, kestrels, stoats, badgers and deer, and more recently there has been evidence of dormice (an endangered species) nesting in the hedges and tawny owls in the owl boxes. Groups of volunteers regularly do butterfly and bee counts, figures that are fed into the national database.
This does sometimes affect what crops are grown. “We don’t grow corn on the cob, because we’ve got badgers who just come and eat the whole lot,” says Angela. Despite the lack of corn on the cob, the badgers are thriving and The Somerset Badger group keeps a close eye on them.
During the pandemic the farm’s weekly deliveries went up to around 1000, as people – faced with the depletion of key produce in the supermarkets – sought local supplies of organic food. But in 2022 the orders fell back due to the cost of living crisis, resulting in critical decisions about how to keep the business thriving. With a massive effort from volunteers, staff who reduced their hours temporarily, and a grant from WECA (West of England Combined Authority) the future became more certain.
“Fast forward to now and we have a million-pound turnover and about 15 (full-time equivalent) staff. We do around 600 home-deliveries each week of delicious organic foods, but we desperately want to get back to 1000 customers a week to enable us to do more with the land for local people and wildlife.”
This is an achievement of community enterprise where many threads are woven into this productive and nourishing centre of activity that harks back to the small farms once peppered all around our countryside.
In the words of Wendy, a volunteer who was taking part in a butterfly count: “I love it here. It’s a sociable experience with like-minded people who are into good food and nature and you can just go at your own pace. And I think it’s the only job I’ve ever had where at the end of the day you are effusively thanked.”
The Community Farm, Denny Lane, Chew Magna, Bristol BS40 8SZ. Organic home deliveries are available via the online shop at thecommunityfarm.co.uk