Farmer Stories

The Community Farm – Connecting people to the food they eat

Case Study
community-supported agriculture

Mahtola Eagle-Lippiatt

A dozen or so miles outside Bristol lies The Community Farm, which has transformed several acres of formerly intensively managed land into a site producing organic fruit and vegetables and forging connections between people, the city and the countryside.

Farms are an ever-present part of the landscape in the Chew Valley, a beautiful rural area located to the south of the city of Bristol. One corner of this intensively farmed area, though, is given over to a different model of agriculture.

The Community Farm is a not-for-profit social enterprise using nature-friendly farming methods to produce organic fruit and vegetables. It is the hub for a veg box delivery service which supplies fresh, high-quality produce made by dozens of independent local businesses to hundreds of people each week in the surrounding cities and towns of Bristol, Bath, Frome and Weston-Super-Mare.

Darren Clementson

As the name suggests, it’s also a place that highly prizes bringing people together. It draws hundreds of people each year to its site around a dozen miles from Bristol, forging a community based around being in nature, growing fresh food and enjoying the therapeutic benefits that come from being outside and spending time in the countryside.

At the heart of the project is the complete transformation of the site The Community Farm sits on. In total, the site occupies 15 acres, of which 8.3 acres are currently being farmed. It had been farmed by the family of Luke Hasell for generations, but when Luke’s father died unexpectedly and his mother passed away a few years later in the early 2000s, Luke abandoned civil engineering, the subject he had trained in, and came home to be a farmer.

However, right from the start he envisaged something very different to the intensive agricultural approach designed to maximise food production which was the typical style of farming in Britain after World War Two. He was interested in a community-based project, and eventually, this would cause him to cross paths with a group of people in the Bristol area who were also looking at grassroots ways of connecting people to the food they ate.

The Commmunity Farm

Dr Angela Raffle has been involved with The Community Farm from day one. Her interest in community agriculture came via the Transition Towns movement, which is all about local people getting together to start building a low-carbon and socially just future themselves rather than waiting for the government to act. The Community Farm is one of several community-supported agriculture projects that started in the area.

After what Angela described as “about a year of head-scratching working out how to make this thing happen” she was part of the group which ultimately got the project off the ground. A donation of £20,000 to the project was a turning point, allowing them to bring in paid help to write the business plan and launch a community share offer, which saw around 400 people putting money in to support the fledgling organisation. The Community Farm was born, and as a Community Benefit Society is now a tenant of Luke and his brother Marcus.

When the team creating The Community Farm first stepped onto the site, it was nothing like the organic fruit and veg farm that exists today.

Luke’s grandfather was a very go-ahead man and was very proud of being an early adopter of chemicals. The site hadn’t been organic at all. It had been pasture and the hedges had been severely flailed. The field margins didn’t really exist. The site was very blank, there was nothing much there apart from a standpipe. There were no tracks, no trees, no structures and not much biodiversity.

Dr Angela Raffle

The team began the onerous task of converting this blank canvas into an organic site, letting the verges grow, allowing hedgerows to flourish with trimming around every three years and some laying. Angela says the arrival of several people with a real passion for biodiversity has led to the creation of a group to oversee the wildlife aspect of the farm, and as a result, there are pollinator-friendly flowers in many locations and the hedges are far bigger and wilder than had been thought possible in the early days. As the transformation got underway, the landowner was one of those most supportive of the changes.

“Luke was a main driving force,” Angela says. “He’s a very strong advocate for regenerative farming. The group of us who had got together all had the same motivation, which was to create somewhere people could come and experience a day on the land. That united us all. We wanted to reconnect people with land and food and Luke was completely onboard with that. His brother was cautious in the beginning and is now very supportive and fond of the farm.”

The Community Farm is certified organic by The Soil Association and all the crops are propagated on site. In 2015, Luke and Marcus built a warehouse for the farm to rent right next to the fields, allowing crops to be harvested, prepared and sent out to customers with maximum freshness. Angela says this is a far cry from the early days of the operation when the boxes were packed in a dingy warehouse half a mile down the road, and the only structure the volunteers and staff had for sheltering from the elements or eating their lunch was a tarpaulin, and the administrative work took place in a Portakabin with a Portaloo.

The Community Farm

Now the farm has a mixture of fields, polytunnels and market gardens. The polytunnels produce tomatoes, cucumbers, chillies, peppers, climbing beans, winter salad and herbs, while field crops include lots of varieties of winter squash, brassicas including kale, cabbages, cavolo nero, purple sprouting broccoli, leeks, shallots, red onions, courgettes and beans. The market garden beds, which began in 2020, contain crops including more courgettes, salad, beans and garlic.

Each area of the farm uses nature-friendly principles. In the market garden, the farm is experimenting with a minimum-till approach, constantly learning how to better manage perennial weeds, such as dock and couch grass. As soon as a crop is harvested a green manure goes in.

Many field crops are planted through a biomulch made of corn starch or potato starch, which helps keep the weeds down while retaining moisture. The mulch biodegrades in a few months. Clover is sown between the beds and mown regularly. The field operation is on a six-year rotation, with two consecutive years under fertility-building ley. A local shepherd brings sheep to graze the field after certain crops are harvested.

The four, soon to be five, polytunnels are an important part of the year-round growing operation. Composted woodchip, organic farm manure, and vegetable compost are used to feed the soil, while pollinator-friendly plants help with pest control. The team ensures the tunnels are as ventilated as possible while bark and woodchip are used on the paths.

Developing soil health across the whole of the farm is an ongoing effort. Grower Will Warin says: “We don't quite know what Home Field has been used for at different times in the past or what kind of disruption to the land there's been, but it's very visible, especially when you sow a green manure in the market garden. One patch will be absolutely thriving and right next to it will be another where it's really peaky-looking. I think that is a barometer for the differences in soil health that we're gradually trying to even out by constantly looking after the soil with green manure and extra organic matter.”

In terms of attracting biodiversity, the farm’s efforts have paid off. The hedgerows are now a habitat for dormice, which are regarded as an important indicator species. A family of tawny owls have nested in one of the owl boxes installed by volunteers, there are bats and bat boxes and barn owls are nesting on the field next door to it. The planting of pollinator-friendly species is undoubtedly linked to the rise in bees detected from the monthly bee counts that have taken place for several years, while monthly butterfly counts have now been initiated. A biodiversity plant survey revealed more than 100 different species.

The Community Farm has also enjoyed notable success when it comes to finding a customer base for its produce.  The team had originally been inspired by community agriculture in places such as the town of Stroud, where it is relatively easy for farmers to find a large number of ecologically-minded people interested in food production who live within easy walking, cycling or driving distance. The Chew Valley, by contrast, is a relatively affluent area with a lot of existing traditional farms and where people interested in organic food were mainly growing their own produce already.

The Community Farm

“We knew that at the start we needed to look more to Bristol and Bath to find enough supporters, and over the years we have built a presence in the valley and are now making lots of friendships locally,” Angela says. “This is why the home delivery box scheme is such an important part of our business model.”

To ensure the farm’s neighbours were onside with the idea, the community farm held an open day before they launched the share offer, with a temporary marquee, a bouncy slide and a beer tent. More than 150 people came along and were able to witness the team’s vision.

The list of customers further afield grew quickly too. The farm currently delivers veg boxes to around 600 households a week, a figure which fluctuates considerably due to seasons and holidays. Constant marketing is needed, and a concerted autumn campaign is hoping to help the farm go above the 700-customer mark, which is where Angela says it needs to be.

However, the scheme reached its high point during the Covid-19 pandemic, when lockdowns and restrictions on movement prompted people to value local businesses and what was on their doorsteps more highly. During that time the farm was shifting up to 1,000 veg boxes to customers each week, allowing the operation to put around £1,400 into its reserves each month.

That was particularly valuable as the margins for the farm’s growing operations are fairly tight. Angela says the finances of producing and selling crops from the community farm are “just about doable”.  The organisation’s large list of other services it offers, such as mental health and wellbeing courses and activities, is dependent on external funding. Grants from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, which promotes care of the natural world, social justice and strong communities, have been particularly helpful, while other organisations have funded work such as the construction of the roundhouse now at the farm and the learning area where schools can come to the site.

The Community Farm was always aware it would not be able to grow enough food to solely stock its boxes or see customers through the hungry gap each year. That, though, turned out to be less of a problem than an opportunity, as the team rapidly developed links with a whole host of independent growers and producers in the local area. This enabled the community farm to grow crops which were suitable to be nurtured with volunteer involvement and ensured the new organisation wasn’t competing with established organic businesses. It also helped to increase the variety of items in the boxes as the team were keen to support customers who didn’t want to go to supermarkets if they could avoid it. There is now a bespoke delivery service as well as the set boxes, with customers receiving fruit such as oranges, bananas and lemons, milk, butter, eggs, yogurt, tea, coffee, flour, muesli and tinned tomatoes.

Mahtola Eagle-Lippiatt

As well as its home delivery customers, the farm supplies like-minded restaurants in Bristol and businesses such as Better Food, the organic supermarket whose founder was part of the initial team. A number of cottage industries make products like jams and chilli sauces using the farm’s produce and these are also sold to The Community Farm’s customers.

Even with all this, though, the financial struggle is ever-present and never more than in 2022. The cost of living crisis then hit and customer numbers fell as people were looking at reducing their shopping bills. In summer 2022, the farm was forecasting to have used all its reserves by December unless sales picked up and there was a real fear that the whole operation would have to close. As it happened, the staff and volunteers were not ready to give up. Staff voluntarily reduced their hours to cut overheads, volunteers worked more hours, a word-of-mouth campaign called Stand With Us raised the customer numbers and attracted media attention, and some important grants and donations helped as well.

It was a really hard time, and there is always a danger of staff burnout, but the whole farm team is extremely dedicated to helping create food system change and their collective efforts meant that the farm survived.

John Miller, food and farming manager

As the organisation moves forward, though, it will have to face the challenges of climate change while hoping a nature-friendly approach will pay off in terms of resilience. Will says the most difficult period for this was not 2022’s searing heatwave (although this was tough) but the more unpredictable and fluctuating weather experienced in 2023.

“In summer 2022, we started harvesting as soon as the sun rose to get the crops in by 10 am and some of us would sleep at the farm. This year has been even more difficult. The cold in spring made germination really difficult. We sow everything from seed in our propagation tunnel and haven’t got huge tech to control temperature and humidity, so that was tricky. In March, the land was waterlogged so we couldn’t prepare the beds, and then it went into drought. The earth solidified into concrete golf balls and it was really hard to plant in."

“I think we just have to roll with it. We’re keen to explore ways of growing crops that are more resilient in extreme climates. We'd love to have better ways of harvesting rainwater, but that will require major investment.”

Asked to sum up the role she feels community farming can play, Angela reaches for a striking metaphor drawn from her career in medicine.

“It feels to me that the food movement globally is unstoppable because it’s essential. I’ve worked in the NHS all my life. Perhaps our efforts are like of those Dame Cicely Saunders who started the first hospice. In the NHS at that time anyone who got a diagnosis that couldn’t be cured was basically ignored. Dame Cicely didn't found her hospice because she believed she could create enough hospices to look after everybody who was dying. She did it to demonstrate what's possible. The hospice movement was in some ways too good to be true and too small to be useful, but it's changed the entire NHS. Good care at the end of life is now completely mainstream. All healthcare professionals are trained to say there's always more we can do to look after people and never say there's nothing we can do.

“I think we're at that stage with small organic food projects. They're not financially viable when everyone's still going to the supermarkets, but they're 100% essential. And I have been amazed by what we've achieved at the community farm. As one volunteer once said to me, the farm has created a very special space where people who would never otherwise meet can come, learn from each other and work together.”