Community ownership is a recipe for success

Community ownership is a recipe for success
The Herald Scotland

At Whitmuir Farm near West Linton they grow fruit and vegetables and livestock but most of all they grow community spirit and hope for a healthier, more sustainable approach to agriculture. With the blessing of its presents owners, Whitmuir is in the process of turning itself into Scotland’s first community-owned farm. Having set up a Community Benefit Society, with the aim of buying the 130-acre organic farm, the 18-strong steering group already has raised nearly half the £400,000 needed to complete the land deal by selling shares. By the end of the exercise, it is hoped that Whitmuir will have hundreds of owners, more perhaps than the 608 individuals who own half of Scotland between them.

Whitmuir already welcomes 70,000 visitors a year but the owners believe community ownership is the best way of ensuring the farm continues to be a public asset. In England, 150 community farming ventures have been launched in recent years, though a decade ago there were only five. Not all of them involve land ownership. In some cases community groups rent the land and employ the farmer to produce food which they then consume or sell. Community farming has been slow to take off in Scotland, perhaps because of the continuing concentration of land ownership in so few hands. However, there is a feeling of zeitgeist in this project.

If the horsemeat scandal has a silver lining, it is the way it has made members of the public much more curious about where their food comes from. It has alerted consumers to the dangers of monocultures and agribusinesses, focused exclusively on driving down costs, and the long and complicated supply chains that they generate. There is far less scope for criminal activity when supply chains are short and simple. It is also much better for the environment .

Community ownership takes the process a step further, with members of the public supplying both funding and a customer base for projects that farm sustainably. (It is similar to Farmhopping, an online initiative that uses crowdsourcing and collaborative consumption to support small sustainable farms in developing countries. Another extension could be a land trust that buys land and rents it back to community groups at affordable prices.)

Just 16 miles from Edinburgh, Whitmuir is well-placed to educate children from urban backgrounds who have little notion of how food gets on to supermarket shelves.

Rather than throwing down the gauntlet to agribusiness – a David and Goliath struggle they would be unlikely to win – those behind projects such as this are merely showing that things can be done differently. They deserve to be supported and encouraged. For those who care about the planet they will bequeath to their grandchildren and lament the environmental degradation and wasted energy that characterises modern farming techniques, this could be the beginning of an agrarian renaissance.