Plotgate Community Farm
Photograph: Dan Britton
Photographs: Jane Sweetman
Plotgate Community Farm, in Barton St David, is potentially now nearly twice the size that it was a short while ago. They made a successful bid at auction for 16 acres of land right next to their existing holding, and then put in an offer for a further three acres that had not reached the reserve price at the auction. They have been raising the necessary funds – nearly £200,000 – by issuing loan stock through the Plotgate Venture Land Trust, which actually owns the land they farm. As I write they are still £20,000 short of the total amount needed (farmland is not cheap!) They have arranged a bridging loan facility in case they haven’t completed their fundraising by April 26th, when the deal must be finalised, and they have already effectively taken possession of the land. During a celebration meeting of those who had pledged money towards the purchase, they cut a hole through the hedge to give themselves access to the new land. I visited the farm soon after this memorable moment.
The River Brue, before substantial re-engineering that took place in the middle ages, flowed through part of this land. Now known as Cunlease Rhine, this stretch of waterway has not been maintained and is in very bad condition and polluted by sewage discharge and chemical run-off. Otherwise the new land has rich soil and potential for an effective irrigation system to meet the challenge of hot, dry summers predicted due to climate change. They are also confident of dealing with the pollution, and are taking advice from Jay Abrahams of Biologic Design, who has considerable experience of using wetland-based design systems to convert pollutants into nutrients. They are also approaching Wessex Water, the Brue Drainage Board, the Environment Agency and neighbouring farmers, and describe this as ‘a great opportunity to do something amazing, together’.
Plotgate was established in 2011. Its core business is growing vegetables and supplying them to local people, principally through their veg box scheme. Their agroecological approach sees food production in the context of the overall ecology of the land, and they are developing it as a mixed farm with pigs, sheep and hens as well as fruit and vegetables – always with care and consideration for the wildlife that they share the land with, treating it as a wildlife habitat as well as a productive farm. Maintaining soil fertility is based on composting. They have also already done considerable work with the water flowing through their land, balancing dry areas with wet areas to prevent them being drought-ridden or waterlogged. The land purchase opens up new possibilities for each of these areas of work.
Besides all this, the farm also acts as something of a social hub, with considerable input from volunteers – who are described in the farm’s literature as ‘the backbone of the project’ who ‘make it all possible’. This means a cheerful gathering of people twice a week, in a busy but socially relaxed atmosphere – each person going home after work with the basis of a healthy diet packed into a well-earned veg box. Plotgate has always been rooted in its community connections, with both the farm and the Community Land Trust being registered co-operatives; and those who pay for loan stock are encouraged to become members of the co-op and to contribute to the project’s governance.
Plotgate was (collectively) one of the five farmers and growers who have been taking part in the Avalon Five Mile Food and Farming pilot project, leading up to the Glastonbury Town Hall food and farming event in March. Plotgate is a local pioneer in this kind of community-based and agoecological farming, and has been for twelve years. I was curious as to what was important for themselves in being part of 5FF, and when I was there I asked Dan – with Amy one of the two key people at the farm – what they had got from it themselves. ‘Outreach’ he replied, without a moment’s hesitation. ‘We’re several miles outside Glastonbury, and people don’t automatically think of us when it comes to buying healthy food’. 5FF seems to have helped.
Dan was one of the speakers at the Town Hall event, which arrived at just the right time to help support Plotgate in its urgent need to raise money – so that they didn’t miss the opportunity presented by the land next door coming up for sale. With the help of an appeal at the event, and with less than a month to go, the Land Trust successfully raised enough in pledges of financial support to give them confidence to go to the auction. But I suspect that there was more to it than just luck and good timing. The undercurrent of good will was already there, Plotgate and its dozen years of steady experience makes an important contribution to the wider regenerative community that is now successfully growing and becoming more noticeable. The strength of each part makes the whole stronger too.
Now that the new land is bought, and its own new challenges can be realistically addressed, the results can make tangible new assets a part of this wider community. The projected ‘in-house citizen’s science project’ is a very good example. This is needed to identify and measure pollution, but will probably also be used to track and measure progress with regenerating and invigorating the soil itself – at a microbial level. This is something that more and more projects are going to be requiring, and that will add to the credibility of the whole. Similarly, though less tangibly, if Plotgate can establish creative relationships with even some of their potential ‘future partners’, in tackling the pollution issue for instance, then this too could have a ripple effect because it would change people’s perceptions of this new approach to agriculture and its potential value.
‘Should we be successful in creating a precedent, it could catalyse action on pollution everywhere’. It could, but not just on pollution; with our modern way of life coming under increasing pressure from every direction, then those who perhaps are finally making headway after years of living on the margin might just find themselves being able to offer answers – a new kind of answers – to the pressing questions and problems that are now besetting our planet. Turning pollutants into nutrients could become a metaphor for a change in our whole way of life.
If you wish to volunteer, or to buy veg boxes, email: email@example.com
If you are interested in purchasing loan stock, phone Roger Pelly on 07768 253239, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
On the evening of Wednesday April 26th Dan emailed Plotgate’s supporters to say, “We did it! With a nail-biting finish right up to the last minute, at 4.59 on the 26th of April 2023 the vendor’s solicitors confirmed payment, and The Land Is Ours!”
This was the main lot, the 16 acres that they had bid for successfully at the auction. The two smaller fields were still to be paid for, though there was no firm deadline looming for completion. A few days later they needed only a further £7,500, and there seemed little doubt that they would raise that much very soon – though they could do with a further £20,000 for additional infrastructure. So if you feel like buying some loan stock, your contribution would still be very welcome!
After dealing with all the legal complexities, and juggling the last-minute investments and ID checks, so far as the 16 acres were concerned they were now successfully over the line. “Now” said Dan, “the real excitement starts”. Besides stopping to arrange a celebration, “Right now in the lab at Plotgate we are building the sensor equipment for gathering the real-time data on pollution, to be deployed soon. It’s time to rally for action on pollution”.
Replies came in one after another, with expressions of excitement, delight and pride in the achievement. May they enjoy their celebration, and may all the work that will follow be successful.
From Glastonbury Climate and Ecological Emergency Advisory Committee newsletter No 11, June 2023. Research and design Susannah Clemence.
Tuesday 18th July: ‘We didn’t manage to secure the additional land in Barton St David (known as Lots B & C)’.
As agreed at the meeting on 19th June (of members of and recent investors in the Plotgate Venture Land Trust), the steering group arranged an independent valuation, and on the basis of this made a reduced offer, which was rejected. Having considered the situation and still wanting the land, they again approached the agent, who advised that to have any chance of success they would need to reinstate their original offer – which they did. However, this offer was also rejected, with the vendor stating that they were going to sell to a third party.
Plotgate Venture Land Trust
With that, I shall stop adding bits to this post. In any case, Plotgate Venture Land Trust is in the process of developing its own website. But I didn’t want to leave the story hanging in the air unfinished.
In the mean time, I have found myself getting more and more involved with Plotgate myself, first as a volunteer on the community farm; then as an investor (in a small way), and now – if I’m accepted – as a member of the Plotgate Venture Land Trust co-operative. I am looking forward to the up-coming AGM.
I feel it’s a shame that the land has not been bought, though I’m sure the priority needs to be putting Plotgate’s energy into developing and taking forward plans for Lot A. Perhaps the first step could be finding a proper name for it!