On Sunday 3rd March 2019 – a truly filthy day of blustery winds, constant drizzle and bursts of heavy rain – five Tablehurst employees and about twenty community volunteers gathered in a muddy field just up the hill from our farm shop. After a short demonstration of how to dig a hole properly, we spent eight hours planting around 1,000 trees, which will become a permanent addition to the Tablehurst landscape, providing shelter, protection for our chicken flocks , food for our animals and some fruit for our farm shop. After four hours in the rain, we broke for a simple lunch of soup and bread in the farm dining room, and I can only describe the mood among the soaking wet, mud-caked gang as full of joy.
So what was going on here? Why would a disparate group of local people choose to spend a day in the cold and wet for no obvious personal return, and why did they end up having so much fun? This post tries to explore these questions, and the important themes that lie behind them.
Tablehurst is far from unique in claiming to be a community farm. The concept is widespread and growing, with over 100 such farms in the UK alone. Some farms are owned by community members, some are community-led, and many take annual subscriptions in return for a share of the produce. The common thread is some level of community involvement in the farm, but there are no hard and fast rules about what this means in practice, and there has been a wonderful flowering of different approaches over the last 25 years.
Who owns Tablehurst?
Tablehurst came into being in its current form in 1994, when a group of local people raised the funds to buy the farm assets, and created a co-operative to own the farm business. The underlying concept was that community members would have the opportunity to share responsibility for the land and the farming with the farmers. This arrangement still sustains today and – together with our sister farm, Plaw Hatch – we have about 600 shareholders. Nobody takes a profit out of the farms; they are social enterprises, working in service of the community, and this is what our shareholders support. We very much welcome new shareholders - just email email@example.com if you would like to join their growing number. A share costs £100 and the application process is simple.
What is Tablehurst trying to do?
Tablehurst strives to produce food sustainably by following biodynamic principles. This is a complicated enough challenge and one we will doubtless explore here in depth in a future post. However, we don’t believe that merely farming well is sufficient on its own. Over the last fifty years or so, the western world has rejected the agricultural wisdom of centuries and adopted farming methods which result in food that lacks essential nutrients, depends on unsustainable inputs, shows no respect for animals, destroys the soil and does catastrophic harm to the climate and the environment. At the same time, most of the people living in highly developed countries have lost any real connection with farming and know little about how food is produced. With this as our context, we feel it is vitally important not just to farm in the right way, but that we reach out and involve as many people as possible in what we are doing. We want the wider population to reconnect with farming - one of the most vital of all human activities.
What does community involvement look like for Tablehurst? Every individual who encounters our farm is different, so we approach the question in many different ways. Our guiding principles are:
We nearly all learn by reading, watching or listening, but opportunities to get involved – to actively participate – are likely to forge the strongest and most memorable connections.
We think that community is important. We look for opportunities to create mutual benefit by giving away what we can in the hope that others will reciprocate. Interdependence is an essential part of being human, and we want to do everything we can to foster it.
Putting it into practice
Can we connect these high-minded ideals to the real world? In the last 12 months, Tablehurst has hosted over forty events which were either open to the general public or laid on for particular interest groups, and supported a variety of other community activities. Here’s a taste of what has been going on, and how we would like to things to develop in the future.
School and university visits. We had about a dozen visits to the farm last year, mostly hosted by a farm volunteer. We would love to be doing more work with schools, and particularly hope to forge connections to local state schools as we think Tablehurst could be a really valuable educational resource.
Tablehurst Young Farmers is an independent initiative which the farm actively supports to offer farm-based education to young people aged 7 to 12. The group meets regularly on a Thursday in term time, providing mainly for home-schooled children, and will shortly be starting a Saturday group open to everyone.
Events for farmers and growers. These vary from year to year. Recently we hosted a seed-saving day, a networking event for growers, and a lecture and lunch for winemakers on biodynamic viticulture.
Public workshops. We hosted fifteen workshops in the last year. Most were food-related, covering topics ranging from fermented vegetables to chocolate-making and how to live the Paleo diet. But they also included our annual workshops on the biodynamic preparations, and a weekend course on how to make a “sunhive” (a beehive which supports wild bee colonies).
"Open Farm” events. Last year, these included two lambing days, “Open Farm Sunday” in June, a guided garden walk in July and, jointly with Plaw Hatch Farm, our Harvest Celebration in September. These events are intended to be highly accessible and they attract a lot of first time visitors to the farm. Although we don’t have capacity for more big events, we would love to increase the number of smaller guided walks and talks to give as many people as possible the chance to catch a glimpse of what we do.
Cultural events. Last year these included two visits by a local theatre company who converted our cow barn into a theatre, and our annual barn dance.
Volunteering days. We love welcoming volunteers onto the farm. Recent volunteer days have included our annual workshops on the biodynamic preparations, and the memorable tree-planting day that I described at the start of this post. We have recently introduced “Volunteer Wednesday” every week – open to all and a great chance to get really involved with the farm. We have mulched our new trees, picked flowers for the biodynamic preparations, painted the bakery and helped to clear the mill pond of an invasive weed. The programme will continue right through into the autumn, and possibly beyond.
Individual volunteers. A number of intrepid individuals have approached us to offer their services individually. Their contributions have included bringing invaluable expertise to our care home, undertaking practical repair jobs around the farm site, planting and caring for flowering plants in the shop and café area, working in the farm garden and working in the butchery.
House construction. Peter Brown, our former farmer, has been building a straw bale house at Tablehurst for his retirement. Funded by donations, this building has been built almost entirely by Peter himself and an ever-changing stream of volunteers. It has been a wonderful testament to Peter’s contribution to the farm over more than 20 years, and a great opportunity for so many people to learn about straw bale construction methods and to make a permanent contribution to the farm.
The power of volunteering
Occasionally, it is suggested that utilising volunteers is exploitative, that we are denying people paid work and taking advantage of their generosity. However, the reality is very different. Tablehurst is proud of being one of the larger employers in our village, and our paid workforce is absolutely the core of our enterprise. But the work of volunteers brings a different quality to the farm. At one level, we can simply achieve many things – especially in the community sphere – which would be beyond our capacity otherwise. But at a deeper level, volunteers bring something unique to the farm, because they are each making a gift, rather than participating in a transaction. The power of this gesture to alter the farm’s culture for the better is immeasurable.
So the farm benefits hugely from the presence and activity of its volunteers, but what’s in it for them? The first answer to this question is that you would have to ask each and every one of them, because every individual is unique, and each contributes differently and benefits in their own particular way. But there is a substantial body of evidence that people who volunteer regularly experience improved levels of personal well-being.
We think volunteers are wonderful and that they have a deep power to benefit the farm far beyond just the extra work that gets done. If you would like to be part of this remarkable phenomenon, just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get on board.
Looking to the future
For Tablehurst, producing food to the highest standards and doing so in ways which are sustainable for the very long term will always be our first priority. Our programme of community engagement could be seen as distracting us from that core focus, but actually, it is essential. Food production is one of the few truly essential human activities, and the way much of it is being done in the developed world is very harmful. We hope that by bringing many people to the farm and affording them the opportunity to encounter what we do, we can encourage a everyone to ask two simple questions whenever they place a morsel of food in their mouths. Where did it come from? How was it produced? If we can get everyone asking these questions, we could make a real difference to the future of farming not just here at Tablehurst but wherever our community members go in the future.