Here’s a food and land issue I feel in my bones, so much so that I just gave a little money towards a Crowdfunder fundraising campaign and am hoping some of you will as well, if you can. Watch the video and learn how a (lower-case “c”) cooperative group is seeking funds to get professional aid in organising and presenting themselves as realistic potential farm buyers.

The Co-operative — (with an uppercase “C”) — for people outside Britain– is a business group, mainly a supermarket chain and bank, that is mutually owned by “members” though managed as big business.  Members vote for issues it wishes the Co-op to honour throughout its practice — community service, fair-trade, good labour standards, environmental awareness, and much more.  The Co-op represents a model of business at a national level that many of us find preferable to other more ruthless versions of marketing in the food field.  (For my American readers, I can think of nothing comparable…)

Recently, however, after bad banking losses, executives have made an unpopular decision to sell assets like farms, around which there has been member rallying to which management has been unresponsive.  Many of us feel the importance of not selling farmland which, when co-operatively owned or managed by small players, speaks to a vision of ethics and sustainability close to the heart of the historical Co-op.

This Ecologist article explains it well.

Here, Molly Scott Cato, Green economist and now Member of the European Parliament for Stroud (!!!) argues for keeping farms as integral to a sustainable food chain.  Really worth a read.

British farmland is expensive and desirable, and I and many many members want sales of Co-op land to be halted and slowed so that large corporate buyers with the most immediate leverage are not given automatic preference.  There are plenty of small buyers and smaller cooperatives who just need a little time to get it together.  Time– so little to ask for really.

This is the 38 Degrees Petition demanding Executives to delay if not halt the sale of these farms.

I see this also as a chance to keep farming land in small, sustainable and successful hands against the larger players who represent food-as-business and as commodity with less regard and responsiveness to consumers, bio-diversity, horticultural variety and community embeddedness.  These are all the hallmarks of an agriculture that will feed the world better and more fairly in the coming rocky times of climate weirding.  This is keeping food local at a scale between smallest and large, where lots of hope lies.

At Tillington in particular, it’s loads of old apple trees  (“an orchard containing as many as 1,000 varieties of rare and endangered apples at the brink of extinction”).  And its too damned horrible to imagine anyone could own that place who might not love them and  who might– hideously, egregriously, as happens — destroy them.

OK: here’s the Crowdfunder link one last time:

http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/Tillington-Farm–Community-Land-Trust-

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http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/may/28/farmland-food-security-small-farmers

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Here’s the gutting letter I received in my email on 9 June 2014

Hello kitchencounterculture,

There is a new Update at Tillington Farm Community Land Trust, you can check it here:

Tillington Update

Thank you very much for your offer to financially support a bid to buy the Co-op’s Tillington Fruit Farm by establishing a new Community Land Trust.

Unfortunately following the farm visit last Thursday it has become clear that it will not be possible to either establish a group to act as a serious buyer, or to make a solid bid for Tillington Farm that will meet the Coop Group’s requirements. The reasons for this are set out in more detail below but as the work that you generously pledged your support for will not be going ahead we are closing the campaign and will not be collecting the pledged funds. We very much appreciate your support and are sorry that we are unable to proceed with this campaign.

At the visit to the farm on Thursday 5th June we received additional information that highlighted both the complexity of separating out a single farm from the Coop Group portfolio and raised concerns at the viability of moving the farm to a more agroecological approach. Issues included:

i) tenancies on over half the estate would need to be renegotiated with the landlords if the farm was sold separately from the whole Co-op farm estate

(ii) we can only see full accounts for the farm if all the people likely to view them were to sign a confidentially agreement. This could take several days to negotiate and eat further into the time left before bids have to be submitted (17.00 on 15th June)

(iii) the farm itself is run very intensively and is in the process of adopting growing techniques that allow a higher level of mechanisation. Considerable additional investment in new trees would be required if the current model and level of production was maintained. All packing and processing is undertaken off site and under contract.

Producing a convincing business plan by 15th June would therefore be difficult, in particular how the estate could be managed to shift it from intensive to an agroecological approach with greater diversity and biological pest and disease control.  It was clear that the current farm management were not supportive of the proposal and the Co-op and Savills (the estate agents) also made it very clear that the preferred option was to sell the whole portfolio (land and business) to one buyer.

Although people attending from Herefordshire and surrounding counties wanted the farm to be retained within co-operative/mutual ownership and management, many people felt that given the complexities and the short timescales we would be very unlikely to succeed. There was therefore insufficient interest to form a local steering group to establish the new farm trust as a vehicle for a bid.

Whilst there was some discussion of putting in a bid as a way of communicating the desire to see a new cooperative future for the farm, on reflection we concluded that it would not be honest for us to use your money to fund a proposal that was anything short of a full and credible bid.

Therefore, after careful deliberation we decided on Friday morning not to proceed with drafting a bid and not to draw on the funds pledged during the Crowd Funder Appeal. Therefore your pledge sum will not be taken from your account.

We will continue to monitor developments at Tillington and, in particular, the need to safeguard the national apple collection held there.

There were several positive outcomes from this campaign which should enable us to be better prepared next time there is an opportunity to buy farm land for community benefit. It also demonstrated that there is a strong network in Herefordshire with an interest in purchasing other farms with a more straightforward bidding process in the future.

Once again thanks for your support and encouragement. We thought there was a realistic chance of being accepted by the Co-op as a bona fide bidder but unfortunately the short timescales, the difficulties of getting full and timely information from Co-op Group, and the complexities of the business meant that any bid would have been symbolic rather than the realistic proposition that we were fundraising for. Had we reached this stage in April then things might have been different.

Next time!

Yours sincerely

Pete Riley, Martin Large, Mark Walton

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