What is is all about, what is the problem?
We were expecting a large financial contribution to the farm from a lovely crowd who have been contributing to the farm for some time. Through no fault of their own, they have been unable to go ahead with this large sum, which has left us with a big, and unexpected, hole in our finances.
Why are you in financial trouble?
We made plans based on the expected financial contribution, indeed the farm would have been struggling months ago if it weren’t for their preceeding kind help. Now we either go forward, or else. Shit or bust.
But you have been going for seven years, why now?
In the early days of the farm Joanne Mudhar worked on little or no wages and took few, if any, holidays. She isn’t getting any younger, and it was all getting far too much. To ever be able to take anyone on as a fellow grower we needed to pay more than the pittance she was on. We lost one lovely grower, Tom, because he couldn’t afford to continue on the dreadful wages when his wife Kirsty had their baby Leon (you can chat to they about it, they are still a members of the farm!).
Joanne’s fellow growers, Eric and John, work ridiculously hard. We need three of us to cover sick leaves, holidays, and the sheer volume of work running the farm and looking after our lovely farm members. Until recently, all three growers were on the minimum wage thanks to our financial supporters. Since the financial support stopped we are holding the farm together on ridicuously low wages (Joanne on under £3 per hour). We can’t afford to buy essential equipment. For the moment, we can’t continue much longer without external help.
Is there any hope you’ll ever be financially sustainable?
Yes, yes, yes! Thanks to our innovative community supported agriculture system we don’t waste any food, and as our soil improves (it was in a dreadful state when we started, a hangover of Industrial Agriculture) our yields will improve. We have low levels of oil based inputs, as oil prices rise, we will become more competitive.
We are developing a promising low carbon cut flower business, and our fruit trees and bushes are slowly growing. Added to this, we are in the early stages of planning a community building which will enable us to welcome visitors and run courses, drawing in much needed revenue to the farm. We are hoping to trial a “farming on prescription” service for people with mild mental health problems next year.
We are also planning to talk with our members about the possibility of variable pricing of our produce at our annual farm meeting in August (see key dates for CSA members), but we are very keen that our farm should remain accessible to as wide a group of people as possible.
We also hope that one day, a UK Government will realise that treating our soil as blotting paper for chemicals is a suicidal way of ruining our enviroment and health, and will cease to unfairly advantage large scale, cruel, destructive Industrial Agriculture. And realise that little farms like ours are making a significant contribution to addressing climate change.
Surely big scale agriculture is more efficient, so farm like The Oak Tree will inevitably go under?
No, it isn’t. Small scale agriculture has been shown, time and again, to produce more food per unit area, with fewer harmful inputs, than industrial agriculture. We also employ more people per unit area in jobs which can be creative, health an satisfying. But that story doesn’t suit the Establishment.
There are countless petty rules and regulations that are particularly onerous for small farms like our, but work fine with the economies of scale of bigger ones, such as animal factory farms.
There is also the red tape that makes it so very hard to put buildings up on farms under 5Ha in size (like The Oak Tree which is 4.96 Ha in size – and no, we can’t just buy an extra bit).
No-one takes into account the damage caused by energy intensive Industrial Agriculture on the climate, our wildlife, the quality of our food (mineral levels in veg have dropped dramatically over the past few decades). Never mind the appalling conditions of cruelly treat factory farmed animals…
Why don’t you get EU agricultural subsidies?
Because The Oak Tree, at 4.96 Hectares in size, is just under the threshold defined by the UK government (the EU allows a lower limit). We can’t buy a strip of land to get above the threshold, and the problems are wider than just the subsidies anyway.
Is it just because you’re badly organised, or just not very canny business people?
Our three growers have extensive experience in business before running The Oak Tree. An accountant once commented that we were unusually organised for a not for profit social enterprise. Joanne has worked in successful small business for years, John is a Chartered Accountant (as well as being into Amateur Dramatics!) having worked for a small local business for decades, and Eric a is professional project manager and a very canny and bright chap. Were not daft, we’re imaginative, we work hard and we are entrepreneurial.
We’re just up against an (almost) insurmountable system that tells farms to “get big, or get out”. Don’t just take it from us, listen to George Monbiot on the subject.