This past spring, I joined 41 others in the project #OurField, to co-invest in a crop. Together with a farmer, we decided what to grow, how to grow it and what we would do with the crop. #OurField is a co-operative grains movement seeking to shift our relationship with food and its production, and working to make the food system a fairer place for farmers.
The financial and emotional support of investment allows farmers to experiment with different growing methods, learn about new opportunities and better understand public perspectives. At the same time the investors share the farmer’s risks and challenges. It’s as much about empathy and sharing the experience, as it is learning about food production.
Much has happened since I last wrote about the collective. We’ve chosen a crop, disputed how organically to grow it and grappled with taking it to market. Anyone can peer into the window of the collective decision-making process by visiting Loomio, the online platform that helped the geographically and ideologically disparate investors in #OurField, reach consensus.
In the grand scheme of our decision making, crop choice was relatively straight forward. On the first vote we agreed that we would grow spelt with a companion crop which would not be harvested but instead act as a weed suppressant and help to build soil fertility.
Things got tricky when we had to decide on whether to add nitrogen fertiliser to the crop. In the words of one co-investor ”The first decision helped give the project a bit of an identity, a face (or crop) to a name. [But] the second decision could have a big impact on the end-result of our experiment.” The vote was close with many on the fence wrestling with the sheer number of factors at play – you can find them outlined in detail on the Loomio site and in this blog from the #OurField team.
At the last minute the vote swung towards the decision not to use nitrogen fertiliser on the crop. Abby Rose, the Our Field Co-ordinator commented, “I am very pleased that a high degree of respect was maintained during all discussions online, despite differing opinions. I think everyone has found it a learning journey. So many variables come up about every decision, it constantly brings you down to earth, and we are reminded how big the task at hand is when growing 20 acres of cereals.”
As one of the investors with the least experience in the field, I found the urgency as well as the complexity of the decisions we had to make, a challenge. The crop doesn’t stop growing just because our lives are busy. You can’t ask the ripe field of spelt for an extension to read up on the pros and cons of different agricultural techniques. I don’t think I was the only one that struggled to keep up at times. The number of people involved in coming to the decision dwindled as the project progressed. Less than half have actively participated in discussions since the first vote, and half of that again have been proactive in driving the discussion. I caught up with a number of the co-op investors to see how they were finding the experience and how it faired alongside their expectations.
Urban grower and self- identified tech geek, Darren was keen to see how the online platform could be used to make it easier for people to participate in the governance of community supported agriculture. “At times I’ve found it slightly frustrating, wanting to know more, or be more involved, but there is so much to be done, and so much to understand, in both the farming process and running a project like this, transmitting all information is impossible. Considering everything, I think the team have been doing a great job.”
When asked what advice he would give to new investors, Darren declares, “Go for it. Even if you don’t think you have much time to be involved, you will learn loads about how your food is produced and will be helping to support a new, hopefully better way of organising our food production.”
Christine, like Darren has been one of the more vocal contributors. She joined due to her interest in micro-bakeries and has found that the project helped her to learn a huge amount about the supply system. “I am horrified that the value of the crop is so low and by the risks farmers have to take. I now want to know much more about farming subsidies and how that system works and how a ‘crop to mill’ cooperative could work.”
She’s struggled with the shifts in the group’s energy and the time that she’s been able to contribute and warns future potential investors “not to underestimate the amount of work needed to keep the momentum going, it shouldn’t fall to just a few”.
Many of the co-investors appreciate that consensus-making with a group of more than forty was always going to be a challenge and they have been prepared to take a back seat, investing their money, but not their time. “I knew from the beginning that this was a project I was intrigued by and keen to support, without it being one that I would necessarily dedicate myself to, beyond paying and trying to stay up to date.” Others struggled with the remote nature of the task, “I would have stayed more engaged if the key decision-making discussions took place face to face. If you hadn’t looked at Loomio for a while, it seemed too daunting to catch up.”
Unanimous among the group is that much has been learnt and the pressures upon the farmer are many and far ranging. Albeit brief, a stint in his shoes has been eye-opening and rewarding for all.
John Cherry, our innovative farmer has also learnt a lot, taking risks that he wouldn’t have afforded otherwise and great joy in the process, he says.
“I have particularly enjoyed growing a spelt crop without any inputs – something I like the idea of, but left to my own devices, I couldn’t have resisted spraying most of the weeds out and giving it a dollop of fertiliser. It was a disappointing year for spring crops with the long dry periods and poor growing conditions, so quite possibly the no input regime was the best thing we could have done!
It is a fairly pain-free way of trying something new…it’s not your decision so you don’t kick yourself for mistakes, and financially you are sharing the risk with other people. More importantly it is fun and educational…having to explain what [farmers] do, to such a clever bunch of people helped me see things through the eyes of others. Farmers don’t get out very often…”
This month the group will decide where to sell the spelt, which unfortunately wasn’t of a high enough Hagberg number to be milled for bread flour, we are assessing options such as beer, gin, animal feed and biscuit grain. We will also have to decide how to proceed in the year ahead. Will John keep us on for another year? Will any of the collective cash out? Keep an eye on Loomio for final updates and watch this space for a handbook so you can start your own #OurField project anywhere in the world.
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