Blogpost: Why start a cereal co-op?

What happens when you get together six ladies; a lust for good food; and a passion for looking after farming, people and the environment? Well, says Abi Aspen, they start a cereal co-op movement, of course! (originally written for The Real Bread Campaign publication)

#OurField is a cereal co-operative movement that aims to change the way we grow grains forever. To begin with it’s a year-long project where a field of heritage grain will be grown on a conventional farm in Hertfordshire. This field will be co-owned and managed by a group of 40 people, alongside our farmer, John Cherry.

Like a Community Supporter Agriculture (CSA) enterprise, the 40 co-investors will take part in key decisions throughout the year, led by John and a facilitator, and participate in events on the farm. They will be making decisions alongside the farmer, for example: whether to convert to organic farming, use a cover crop, try no-till planting and so on. At the end of the year, they will vote and decide on where to sell their grain and see whether they have made a financial return at the end of it all.

We will be documenting the process and creating a blueprint to share with others and spread the #OurField co-operative movement.

Who’s behind #OurField?

#OurField is an amalgamation of the Future Farm Lab team, Farmerama Radio and a couple of extra awesome ladies. But actually the six of us have such diverse backgrounds. I’m a cellular agriculturalist by day (right now I’m growing meat in the lab), Phoebe recently came out of synthetic biology and now grows and teaches in Totnes, Abby works on ‘tech-for-good’ developing small scale farming apps and Farmerama Radio, Sophie is a science journalist and Annie and Carolin work with the Food Assembly.

Oh of course our brilliant first #OurField farmer John Cherry and his amazing family at Weston Farm!

However we have a much appreciated and loved extended family. From our graphics designer Tom, Steven our organic guru, the passionate waste food pioneers at the Skip Garden and Feedback Global. None of this could be possible without them.

How did you come together?

We all met over the course of 2016 some bizarrely (at a meeting all about ‘the senses’), some serendipitously (housemates and a waste food dinner) and some through a passion for food and farming.

Within about five minutes of chatting separately and together we all knew we had to do something together to positively change the food system.

Abby was part of A Field of Wheat, the artistic project that inspired #OurField, a year long participatory art project that inspired #OurField, which brought a collective of 42 people together to invest in a 22 acre field of wheat in Branston Booths, Lincolnshire.

Abby invited me along to their harvest festival, a final celebration of the year long co-farming endeavour. It was the clear the artists behind the project, Anne-Marie Culhane and Ruth Levene, had created an unique way for people to be involved in the complex world of growing grains. Abby led a discussion about the future of cereals in the UK – it was then we realised we had to carry this on as a cereal CSA, people need to know what is happening in the fields across our country, and this is a really fun way to do it!

Why do we need #OurFields?

We want to use this co-operative model to support farmers to make the transition to more agroecological practises, while re-inventing farm economics, connecting people to farmers and the land, and increasing the amount of milling-grade, high-quality heritage grain grown in the UK.

Why? At the moment, 13 million tonnes of low-quality grain are grown and diverted for animal consumption; modern grains in our bread are increasingly linked to health problems and there is a lack of support to aid farmers operating on slim financial margins to move to less intensive farming methods.

Won’t it just be people who can afford an investment?

We really want to build a movement that includes everybody. We don’t think the future lies in private roundtable discussions behind closed doors.

We have been incredibly lucky that a brilliant co-investor has offered to subsidise a number of youth scholarships in collaboration with the brilliant charities Global Generation and Dusty Knuckle Bakery. This gives the opportunity to diversify the #OurField collective beyond those that can easily afford a long term investment.

What’s the long term plan?

#OurField is just the beginning. One field on its own won’t change the world, however we need that one field to act as a positive economic, social and environmental model for others to follow. That one field can become an open source blueprint that makes it easier for other individuals and communities to replicate, and can have a huge effect on the way farmers grow their crops and the way the public perceive them.  For this to become a movement our aim is to change policy, growing, retailers and consumers

Since we’d also like anyone to be able to run an #OurField project after us, we are also trying to make this happen with minimum funding - no frills, no fancy dinners, just a proper, off-the-ground, movement for better grain, community support and taking back control of our food.

If you would like to be kept up to date and support the #OurField project then you sign up on our website: http://www.ourfieldproject.org/ and say hello to us on twitter/instagram @OurFieldProject. And if you want to hear a bit more about the Field of Wheat project that inspired #OurField then tune in to episode 6 of Farmerama.

 

Abi Aspen Glencross