Chris Huskins and Emily of Fanfield Farm in East Sussex

Small farms, land co-ops and farm housing: Chris Huskins of Fanfield Farm

Today I’m talking with Chris Huskins of Fanfield Farm – an Ecological Land Co-op plot – who is going to build his own house on his smallholding. He’s also trading using mutual credit, via the Open Credit Network.

Hello Chris. There are three things I want to talk to you about. The first is becoming a tenant smallholder with the Ecological Land Co-op. The second is your plans for your smallholding, and the third thing is that you’ve become a member of the Open Credit Network and you’ve traded in mutual credit. I’d just like feedback – what you thought of the experience and how we might help you to trade more. So, the Ecological Land Co-op – they liked your application then?

They did. It took a long time and I asked them not to print our application because it was so many pages. But we wouldn’t be here without them.

It’s a wonderful thing isn’t it, the ELC? I used to be on their board. I left just as Chris Smaje joined. So you’re one of a cluster of three smallholdings in Sussex.

Yeah – in East Sussex, in Arlington, near Eastbourne. There will be three homes here. There’s currently two and a third family going through the process that we’ve successfully gone through already, for the third plot on this piece of land. We have 3.7 acres; our lovely neighbours Sinead and Adam have just about four and a half and then there’s an eight and a half acre plot as well, all sort of split up in a way that everyone can work together.

Were you local?

No, I’m originally from Southampton and lived in Hampshire so it was not too far. The family come and visit. It’s a four hour round trip, so we’re hoping that in summer people enjoy staying a bit more.

What relevant experience did you have?

We spent a couple of years doing what the Americans call urban farming. That was purely a necessity so we turned our back garden and front garden into what I call farming plots. We hired another guy’s large front garden and we took on allotments to really practice what we want to do here. We had 25-foot raised beds whereas here we’re doing them 100-foot. We always knew that we could scale up with the same techniques. We did that for a couple of years. We didn’t run a veg box scheme, which is what we want to do here. We were just slowly taking them to markets around the local area. We got direct feedback and we could see how passionate people are about buying local food and that’s what cemented us on wanting to do it on a bigger scale.

So we’re registered as a community-supported agriculture project and we will be running a local veg box scheme and we still want to want to get to the markets because we just really enjoy that side of it. We’re also looking at a local restaurants and some small shops in Brighton as well, but the main thing for me is a local veg box scheme. The mission is to feed 200 families a week in and around Arlington. It’s a small place compared to most, but we are only 20 minutes from Eastbourne and about half an hour from Brighton. We’re speaking to Zed – a company in Brighton who deliver around that area using just electric bikes and electric vans – so that would allow us to drop off to one place and then they can do the rest, as ecologically as possible.

What kind of things are you going to grow and what kind of things are going to be in the boxes?

We were signed off as organic this year and we will get another inspection, so we’ll be organic very soon, so it will be organic vegetables. We’re going to start with all the basics – tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce – we really like a Dutch strand of lettuce called Lenovo, which is really, really well-liked at the markets. But then also some colour – rainbow chard makes a box look absolutely stunning. There’ll be potatoes and onions as staples and we’ll just go from there really, and then ask customers what they want rather than just growing what we want.

Are you buying the lease on your plot?

So we’re on a rent to buy scheme, so over 25 years we’ll pay what looks like a mortgage, and after 25 years we’ll have a 150 year leasehold.

So for life, unless there’s some miracle in medical science before then?

Yeah, absolutely. It’ll outlive me.

So you said you have 3.7 acres?

That’s right. This will include the house in a development zone, so I think it’s 3.4 acres for the farm and a little bit for the development zone, which is where I’m sat now.

Do you think you can make a living from that?

Yeah, absolutely. We’re going for the raised bed system and the bio-intensive farming model, keeping everything to hand tools or a very low mechanised level, but using those raised beds and improving the soil over time so that we can grow more and more in a smaller space rather than the conventional farming model of needing large amounts of land because it’s mechanised. So yeah in short I think we can and I think most people would be surprised at the figures when you’re only looking at a couple of acres.

What sort of advice would you give to others who are having a similar idea because I think lots of people would love the idea of having a smallholding?

The ELC set up means that I couldn’t get my planning permission in a few years time and then say right I’m done with growing this as a business now. I’m just going to keep a couple of goats and a couple of cows and be self-sufficient. That’s not what this model is about, so that frightens a few people off. This has to be your business. So my main advice would be go and start doing it now. It doesn’t take much to to turn your garden into a few beds and then take it to market. It gives you a bit of experience of not only growing but taking it out and seeing what people want and selling. Big companies outside of farming always test their customers before they invest in a business, and it baffles me why we don’t do that as farmers more often.

It’s about getting your hand on some though isn’t it?

Yeah, that’s not easy, and it’s why the Ecological Land Cooperative exists. They’re there to try and help people like myself. I wouldn’t be on this piece of land without them. I didn’t have the funds to buy a piece of land outright and I certainly didn’t have the know-how or the technical capability or the funds to get through the planning system to be able to live on a bit of land – which I think makes a massive difference for us.

It’s a shame there aren’t a thousand Ecological Land Co-ops around the country.

I hope there are in a few years time. I hope it does continue to grow. This kind of idea could spread to get land into the hands of really competent smallholders. It would be a great thing, yeah. That’s what I really like and that’s why we call ourselves a farm. I think “smallholder” is a great word but I would love to break down the thought process that farmers have to have a huge amount of land. There are government campaigns that say they’re for farmers. We looked at one about planting trees and we didn’t apply because we don’t have 10 acres. Well, 10 acres is a lot of land. There’s a huge number of young smallholders or young farmers with less than that but they’re not considered. So if there were more people on smaller parcels of land and making it successful then maybe we would be considered farms as well.

It’s a really good point – you can be a 3.7 acre farm – farming doesn’t have to be thousands of acres with aerial spraying.

No, and it’s funny because I come from a dairy farming background. The name of our farm actually comes from a thousand-acre dairy farm near Sheffield, which unfortunately has been sold off. I took the name and carried on the memory if you like. That was a huge huge farm yet the profits were minuscule. I’m sure a lot of dairy farmers in the UK will be feeling the stress of the profit they can make on milk. It’s amazing when you compare the acreage they had compared to the size we’ve got here and the numbers we’re hoping to achieve.

The farm subsidies don’t kick in, do they, until you’ve got around ten acres?

No, exactly. It’s almost like we’ve been forgotten about, which is a real shame.

Is there a possibility that might change now we’re going to be out of the EU?

That’s a good question. It may well do. I don’t think there are enough smallholdings and small farmers with less than ten acres but I’m hoping that projects like this get the word out a little bit more and and get them a little bit more mainstream, so the government might lower it. I don’t know if it’s been European Union rules that have stated that or if that will change I don’t know. In France small farms are universally popular and the model’s been proven across the world, so hopefully we can prove it here in the UK.

I don’t think there are many people who would say they don’t like small farms.

I hope not. We’ve been very well received locally here, which is nice.

What about your house – what are you planning for that?

Yes, so the way that this works is that we’ve got to prove within four years that this is a successful agricultural business and the lines for that are a little bit blurred, but the way we read it is within four years, in any one year you need to have made the minimum wage for one person full-time from the land in order to prove it’s a successful business. Then you will be able to build a proper house. Until that point you have to be in what they call temporary accommodation, which falls within the Caravans Act of a certain year (I can’t remember which), which sounds terrible but it’s really not, because I mean we’re now living in a static caravan which from the inside you couldn’t tell it’s a caravan. It’s 35 feet wide, it’s as big as a two bed apartment really. It’s really comfortable and when I clad the outside in the summer it’ll be like a nice wood cabin. It’s off-grid, and sitting here with the fire on it certainly doesn’t feel so bad.

And if you’re successful, what are your plans? What kind of a house would you like to build?

Well you mentioned Chris Smaje earlier, who is on the board of the ELC. We went to volunteer at his farm, Vallis Veg, for a week in the summer and they’ve just had their ecological house built which is gorgeous. It’s the perfect size wooden house and it’s absolutely stunning, with solar panels etc. That ties in with the ELC – they want it to be affordable for farmers, so if we ever want to move off, they want it to be affordable for the next people. So I couldn’t build a two million pound mansion here and I certainly couldn’t afford to anyway, but it has to be certain dimensions, it has to be built ecologically, with height restrictions, and there’s a certain amount that we can spend building it. We knew that going in and it aligned with our values, so we want to build a nice wooden ecological house.

Okay, so you don’t see that as a restriction?

No, I’m completely on board with it. We don’t want a big house. We’ve got acres of farm so if Emily and I argue, then I’ll just go out there! When you’re in a farming environment, well I will add my study onto my tool shed for example, so farms really don’t need to have these big elaborate farmhouses. I think that’s where the planning falls down for a lot of people looking to live on their farms, because when you picture a farmhouse you picture a big elaborate old stone house that’s overly huge for two people and I think that’s where people struggle a little bit when they’re applying for planning permission. So no I don’t see that as a restriction. The ELC were open about that from the off so it was never a surprise; and we’re aligned, like I say, with their values. I guess the size of farm houses is a barrier. It just makes the farm too expensive for young farmers.

So if you just buy some land without the farmhouse, you’re not allowed to build a house so you’re stuck completely.

Yeah, absolutely. Unless again you have that sort of conversation up front and you work towards temporary accommodation and improving an agricultural business, which I think is opening up more with planning departments. Some councils now see the importance of smaller more local farms. I think we’ll see that increase as well, but if you go into this hoping that the farm is an excuse to build a big house then it’s completely the wrong reason for doing it.

Will you build the house yourself?

I really want to. Our neighbours keep mentioning that Emily and I do everything ourselves and we should ask for help more – but I’m really keen to give things a go and so we will see. I really want to. I would love to give it a go and self-build. I’m envious of people who have built their own houses.

And what kind of a house do you think you’ll build?

Well, I really love timber frame and I actually trained for two years as engineer under a UK house builder and then I left when they merged with another big house builder. As much as I enjoyed my time there, every house they built was almost a Ctrl-C Ctrl-V copy and paste of the last one we built. Housing sites would have a hundred and twenty houses for example and you can’t tell the difference between any house, so I sort of fell in love at that point with the idea of the Huf Haus – the German flat-packed house that has the two sides and then the roof sits with a very big glass front. Now I’m a little bit more ecologically-minded I think, and so I love the idea of timber frame and I really like outside timber-clad houses. But the idea of having nice open glass areas and a nice wooden roof that’s pitched at the right angle for solar and that sort of thing will come into play and hopefully it’ll look nice. I think I will need help from an architect to design it though.

Part 2 coming soon – small farms and mutual credit

Highlights

  1. We’re on a rent-to-buy scheme with the Ecological Land Co-op. We wouldn’t be on this piece of land without them. In 25 years, we’ll own a 150-year lease on this property.
  2. The Ecological Land Co-op obtained planning permission for us to build our own home on the smallholding.
  3. We can make a living selling vegetables via a veg box scheme, plus some other part-time work, such as web development and marketing.

 

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