State of the … not the nation, but the farm

The Oak Tree Farm didn’t come with a job description.  Indeed, when I first bought the land I hadn’t heard of Community Supported Agriculture.  All I knew was that, since the age 25, I had absolutely wanted to grow food and other useful stuff on a substantial piece of land.  As my understanding of the potentially devastating effects of climate change and biodiversity loss grew, they also formed a major part of my plan.

It took me 14 years of working in offices to earn enough money to get there.  At age 39, in November 2009, I stood on my own 12-acre piece of land, which we now know as The Oak Tree.  It had cost £103,000.  My husband Richard put not only faith into the project, but also about half the money.  About £10,000 was left over to spend on equipment and supplies to get us started.  It wasn’t a lot of money for my plans for the farm, but it was enough.  Just.

The Oak Tree Farm November 2009

Three years later, almost to the day, it is time to take stock of where we are.  The Oak Tree is now very much “we” and no longer just “I”.  We are home to Suffolk’s first vegetable community supported agriculture scheme, Ipswich’s first pig club of recent times, and we have plans to expand into eggs, meat chickens, Christmas geese and goodness knows what else.  Maybe bread, herbs, cider, mushrooms?

We have become a not for profit social enterprise, we are growing in membership size too, and about to welcome Tom Wilmot as the second person doing paid work on the farm.  This is fantastic news, and I am very excited about the future for The Oak Tree.  I truly hope that you are too!

Our plans for next year, many of them are already here! Though we have dropped the plans for the vinyard and added our beautiful geese.

Now “paid” is a big word for the monthly sum of £500 that Tom and I will receive for our work on the farm.  I hardly dare calculate my hourly rate.  When I have started this calculation during the busy season I have ended up with realistic estimates of about £2 an hour, or less.  My first job when I left university was a summer job with Goldman Sachs.  I hated it, and despised the work they did.  Despite my qualifications that would have given me a good chance of a job as a city trader, I never applied.  I work at The Oak Tree because I love it, not for money.

But The Oak Tree is maturing and we need to take a more sustainable approach to our people, as well as to our farming methods.  Two pounds an hour is not a realistic, or fair, wage for anyone, including myself.  When I first set up the farm I said that I was willing, and prepared, to work for very little, and to work very hard, with little leisure time, for two years.  It has now been three years.  I have worked six-day, sometimes seven-day, weeks, and I have taken at most one week of holiday a year.  I am proud of what we have achieved in this time, and I feel my efforts have been worthwhile.  But I confess to being somewhat weary, indeed the high workload has had a negative effect on my health at times and I am in need of some more time spent away from the farm, not least to get some perspective on what we are doing at The Oak Tree.

Our aim is (as quoted on the home page of our website) “… to produce good food all year round, with the lowest possibly carbon emissions, as a viable business – and having a good time while doing so!”  Viable business should, and indeed must, include paying people a living wage.  £500 a month is not a living full time wage, but it is all the farm budget can spare at the moment.  Our longer term plan as the business grows is for Tom and I to earn a decent wage at the market rate for people running a CSA (to give you an idea of what that might be, here is a job ad for a similar role at Canalside CSA in Leamington Spa.)

From the beginning of January when Tom joins, he and I will split the week so that one of us harvests and cares for the poultry on Monday and Tuesday, and the other on Thursday and Friday.  We won’t be harvesting on Wednesdays, rather that will be the day when he and I will work on the farm together.  We’ll take it in turns to run Saturday working parties, which will take place every Saturday from the beginning of Janaury.  There is also the background organisational work to do.  Which is substantial, including, but not limited to, accounts, VAT returns, ordering supplies for the farm, publicity, communications, and organising day to day things like how many seeds we will need next year!

We want to keep the price of food from The Oak Tree as affordable as possible.  We have promised not to increase our veg box prices next year, despite rampant food price inflation, particularly notable for fresh produce.  So to square this circle, for the moment, Tom and I must supplement our incomes from elsewhere.

I am delighted to say that I have just accepted the post of “Community and Environmental Advisor” for the charity Groundwork East of England.  This is a two-day per week part time maternity leave cover post. I’ll be running community environmental projects, the first project will be organising the planting of a dormouse hedgerow in North Essex.  This job is just about perfect for me at the moment.  It is flexible enough that I can fit it in with my harvesting and poultry care responsibilities at the farm, even before Tom joins, and so that he can take a holiday too from time to time once he has joined!  It also complements my work at The Oak Tree really well as I’ll work on, and develop, similar projects, gaining ideas and experience that I can apply back on the farm.  And, it will be really nice to have enough money to buy a new coat without worrying about my bank balance!  Fetching though the bulldog clip that I have been using to hold my old waxed jacket together is, it will be nice to have a new coat that doesn’t leak. Please be aware that I may be less available by phone/email than I have been up to now when I start my new job next week.

As the farm is now a not for profit social enterprise we now have the possibility of applying for grants, such as lottery money.  I have put together a couple of grant applications, one to the “Awards for All” Lottery fund for additional farm equipment, and another to the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation for help with Tom’s wages, and a training budget for he and I – for example we both really really want to go on a course with Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm when he comes to the UK!  We’re waiting to hear whether or not these applications will be accepted.

CSA member Sue Hall has, incredibly generously, offered to help with more substantial funding applications, particularly for our straw bale building plans.  Sue works professionally in the field of voluntary and not for profit organisations so her expertise will be incredibly helpful!  Thank you Sue!

I’m looking forward to the next three years, and beyond, at The Oak Tree.  Our little community is growing and developing, and it is down to us all to make the most of the many, many exciting possibilities that the farm offers us!

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