Our blood transfusion: The Oxford Real Farming conference

“Coming to this conference is a blood transfusion. People get you, and get it.”

Blessed to be back in the beating heart of the agrarian revolution Oxford Real Farming Conference . This year I felt the call was louder, the solutions scalable and yet the young farmers seemed tired of fighting for their livelihood. So, I’ve signed up to volunteer for Farming Community Network that supports farmers who are often isolated, vulnerable, disconnected whilst facing failure and grief regularly on their doorstep. This organisation has a hotline where we are trained to listen, whilst having some understanding of the work. There are 400 volunteers across the UK , open seven days a week including Christmas Day. They arrange farm visits too should that be needed.

Unlike other ‘professions’ there is little coaching or management for farmers, and as we rely on them for our food, so we must value and celebrate them in our communities.

We are familiar with the horrific suicide rates for farmers across the globe, as the Guardian writes:

An Australian farmer dies by suicide every four days; in the UK, one farmer a week takes his or her own life; in France, one farmer dies by suicide every two days; in India, more than 270,000 farmers have died by suicide since 1995..

And similar figures in US where it is twice as high in farming than the general population. Take time to think about where you buy your food, who is benefitting, whose livelihood are you supporting, that deserves to be valued.

Source: https://www.instagram.com/petronellat/

From the rural to the urban: my hop, skip and jump back to the big smoke

Times have been quiet on the rural project after the summer of tidying up loose ends and honouring a request to lie low. So we did. Despite the loss of our site, we continued to find other partners and other alternatives. And friends, to be honest, I got tired, I was broke and working all hours in a local pub and volunteering as a Board Director. The purpose was gone, the opportunity swept away and the horizon seemed unclear, uninteresting and so I didn’t focus on that, but on the magic of everyday in rural Somerset. Of the network of support, of the ability of fresh air to alter your emotion completely, of the laughter and care of whom became friends and family to me. 

An opportunity landed on my lap, nudged along the way by a dear friend to facilitate and consult on the world’s largest co-living project, The Collective Old Oak in West London. The application was fun, with good questions and the role seemed to befit my skills, other than the location, it was an ideal break from the scene and a good confidence boost. My application success rate was low, so I didn’t hold out until it was rapidly followed up by an interview, and then six days later I’m on a train to London, with a suitcase befuddled, and with the buzzing feeling of being alive that I knew no matter what was in store, this was a good helpful decision. 

It has been met with guilt, abandoning the cause I was rallying to support fair rural development and promote the brilliance of a more rural existence. My advisors smiled (sometimes condescending but they are forgiven!) that the rural project idea will always be there, it does not require a depletion of your capabilities and other dreams for it to flourish, indeed as I have written before, this is a project that must be supported by wellness, by abundance and by harmony. This new tract, and it is temporary, is to immerse myself in a very commercial example of community building, one driven by a property developer and management company looking to transform how we live in cities. They are seeking heart and soul, that I can bring, and what they bring is the acumen and property knowledge that will only support my future plans. 

And, who am I to suggest that my skills, knowledge and years of experience that when sought, are not to be given? Finally, a fun, fearless property developers is recognising their responsibility to community and what it gives us humans, our bond, our belonging, our care. As facts and figures pour out about metropolitan loneliness being fatal and the rejuvenating outcome of intergenerational living (we have 700 18-70yr olds in our building), this is an innovative, exciting and new wave of living as opposed to working as co-working movement provided. This is more holistic, and perhaps, more important. 

So watch this space. I am still involved in rural regeneration and hope to see some of you at the jubilant Oxford Real Farming Conference. If not, come and see me at Old Oak in Willesden Junction. 

For now, over n’out. 

And when the stream that overflows has passed,
A consciousness remains upon the silent shore of memory;
Images and precious thought that shall not be
And cannot be destroyed.
— from the Excursion by William Wordsworth
Langford Court Farmhouse, my old home. 

Langford Court Farmhouse, my old home. 

If there wasn't a setback, it would make for a dull story

Dear friends and supporters of The Rural Project, 

I have been quiet for a couple of weeks after our plans for The Rural Project in North Somerset fell through due to unforeseen circumstances. Now that the dust has settled, The Rural Project will continue on in spirit with a search for new premises and partnership whilst I put on hold my immersion in the project and resource myself better.   

Thank you those who have already shown such continued belief in the project, it really helps keep the momentum and acknowledges the need for it. As an example, Stir to Action have run a feature on the project in this month's issue, ‘Cities as Counter Power’ which you can purchase here https://www.stirtoaction.com/issues/issue-18

The website will continue to be updated with news, ponders, and events. If you have any suggestions for sites, partnerships, events, or even a coffee, please do get in touch. 

In gratitude


Founder, The Rural Project 

And our first site is... North Somerset

There has been silence from the blog over the past couple of months as negotiations, fears of possibilities and disappointments meant I was quiet about shouting, standing on roof tops, bouncing on our trampoline at the potential of grounding the 'idea' here in North Somerset. An invitation was offered from a nearby landowner under the most extraordinary of circumstances that I will share down the line. 

So here we are. There is a site. It has three buildings, and acres of land. It is nestled between large villages in North Somerset, a woodyard and carbon zero solar company, twenty minutes by car south west of Bristol, accessible by two train stations, a direct bus and a cycle route. It is accessible - and that was our wish. Being the current home for a disability charity, it truly is accessible on site too.

We are navigating complex events, relationship and trust building, sharing our purpose and vision. It is literally groundbreaking and I cannot wait to open the doors to you. This year we will be focusing on the buildings to refurbish and activate them to be alive, super comfortable and befitting the space. Meanwhile the land will be prepared for next years herb farm, allotment and land-based work. 

Groups from the local area are stepping forward, particularly mens and boys leadership work, which is bang on the message of development we wish to enable. We will be hosting and running a start-up social enterprise incubation programme with six businesses on a six-monthly rotation who are from the 'hood, working with the local school and GP Practice with their chronic health patients. Our original intention for a healing and active enterprise space are coming to fruition. 

Robert Montgomery: Light poems

Robert Montgomery: Light poems

CANCELLED: EVENT: Land for land workers 23rd January 2017

Dear guests,

I'm afraid we are going to have to cancel our event on the 23rd January as it seems this is not a need for our community at the moment. We only want to offer excellent, relevant events and it wouldn't be very useful this time round.

We will be in touch with another theme and date soon. With this series, we want to tap into your needs and provide scale and network to help alleviate or solve common issues. If you have an idea, please do get in touch with us. 

With very best wishes, and hope 2017 is working out well for you so far!

Petronella, Steph, Jamie and Nessie. 

EVENT: Land for land workers 23rd January 2017

Are you a landowner? Are you seeking land for a growing or farming project? Are you interested in land access issues?

The evening will open with Humphrey Lloyd from Land Workers Alliance who will set the context for us: why is land access an issue, especially for new entrants to farming? Followed by: 

  • Matt Cracknell, FEED Bristol: his experience as a council tenant and working with new entrants on the land
  • Luke Hassel, Community Farm, The Story Farm, Valley Fest: being a landowner of Community Farm and what the benefits are to the landowner
  • Steph Wetherell, Coordinator for Beacon FarmsWhat we've learnt from the Landseekers' survey 
  • Beccy Marshall, an independent Land Agent: what to talk about when you've found your land match

Jamie, Petronella and Nessie will also be on hand to discuss their initiatives too if you missed the last event.

Light refreshments will be provided, and drinks will be available from the Canteen bar downstairs. 

Where: The Event Space (3rd floor), Hamilton House, 80 Stokes Croft, BS1 3QY (easy to get to from M32) 

When: Monday 23rd January 6:00pm - 8:00pm 

RSVP: Please email thefield@ruralproject.org or call 07950 808224 if you can or cannot make it. Spaces are limited. 

Please pass on this invite to land owners you know who may be interested, or to others who may be seeking land. 

TALK: Where is a good home for a project like this?

After my presentation on 5th December event, people have asked me to post the talk I did on here.. it isn't quite word for word, and excuse some convoluted sentences. I took the room to a place where dreams are made of.. let's hope! "The rural hub dream is well.. the dream!", said one. 

"Thank you all for coming, it is a treat to have you all in this room, some familiar faces from those I have been privileged enough to meet over the past few months and those whom have been recommended to come, drawn to this conversation and our proposed ideas. 

Now that we’ve warmed you up...you have eaten well and have heard from Jamie and Steph who are building bridges with urban and rural around food and agriculture, this goes one step further. We are going to get a little dreamy now…  I want you to think big, really out there horizontally vast plains of possibility BIG; beyond farm diversification, beyond glamping and festivals, beyond weddings and orientation games.. Aaand hold it, breathe out, before you get indigestion.

With that openness, I want you to think about your working day.  who you see, how old / young they are, what they do, what their work is, and then what you’re doing tomorrow? Who you’ll see, what they do, what you will do even… Now, I want you to reimagine your working day.

Some of you already have a significant relationship with the land, for those who don’t, how might we resolve our connection with the land in a more harmonious way, daily. How might we receive the benefits from being more connected to the natural cycles? What would our products, our services look like? How would this contribute to a meaningful livelihood for our younger generations? 

We are again in a time of uncertainty and volatility. There is a cry for to be more self sufficient again, not only of the land, but of ourselves, to be more resilient, to revitalize our communities, our villages and the links to the farms. 

The rural project is a culmination of a physical space where people come to work, to grow, to learn, practice, to celebrate, to volunteer and to slow down. It is also an expression of a wider movement, where people and the planet are longing for holistic, land-based skills particularly in our young. This project provides the space for those ideas, those connections and the output of sustainable solutions to a widespread problem we are only now starting to feel. 

To provide: from the latin providere: pro (before), videre (to see) = to foresee, to prepare, to get ready

The purpose is to appreciate the natural world, to prevent isolation and bring a sense of belonging for people who feel displaced. The activity is diverse with a running theme of self sufficiency to look after oneself and others. As our working / job patterns shift too, we need to grow accustomed to working less, with less job security and job availability for all of us, and thus we need to relearn consume less and make more ourselves. 

These series of talks are part of this too, to bring rural life, from deepening our understanding of a familiar landscape from Daithi’s indigenous Bristol; transferring indigenous ideas to this city, to land matching in January, to tonight, the launch of paper napkin idea born out of the growing-element of the rural project. A nice-to-have on one piece of land, but let’s really shift something here and scale it up, it only takes people, you here tonight, to make it work.

In ecosystems it is at the edge, between a forest and a meadow for example, where there is the highest biodiversity and most number of relationships between different species. As a result it is there that evolution is the most powerful, where change and innovation are boosted.

Let’s start at the beginning. I’m going to concentric circles to describe the space, starting from the outside ring and bring it closer in. The vision I hold for the rural project is a piece of land, acres high grade for growing on, poorer quality for self-build projects and for land restoration work with land space for people to rent, a supply of affordable land for land-based innovations, projects that require scale, prototyping and security, like SNUG homes, or a natural dye garden. 

Next ring: The Outbuildings for light industrial use, people who need space to develop or produce, people who need space to craft their woodwork, people who need space to practice their art, people who need unfussy space to make a mess, to store their work and to make a noise. 

As we step into the next circle, this is where that last statement and the next could clash… the hearth. The therapy rooms, the offices and shared deskspace, the event space for courses, performances and talks,. I want you to picture for me the mix of those energies, of those flows… the proof of concept being this building where you sit tonight, the mixture of activity here and who’s users have called for a rural workspace too... 

Imagine two men carrying a piece of stone for a sculptor, of kids running around in the woods beyond ‘rewilding’, of small businesses having conference calls, of solo workers meeting each other in the cafe and starting a project together, of a band tuning up for their performance later that evening, of a meditation class happening in a therapy room whilst next door a man is counselled, and outside the window an elderly group with dementia are having horticultural therapy.. Phew! This is a place that breathes life, that embraces our edges, that embraces our differences, that the land, the same piece of land, can support. 

The last two years, I have been actively researching and developing plans for this site, pulling in inspiration and suggestions from overseas in Spain, Canada, France, Sweden, as well as visiting sites here in the UK, one trip by bicycle Lands End to John O'Groats. From high end retreat sites to simple low impact dwellings, where I learnt self-build skills, to lambing on traditional farms. Like an apprentice, I have been observing the field, whilst noticing a gap in the offering for a place where people could come to work, with reliable internet, facilities, a community, space and stimulation, and where people could pop in once a month, to learn a new practice, to see a band, to volunteer on the farm… yes it is a hub and it is informed by the growth and development work experienced by learning from others, from mixed disciplines of artists and growers and whomever walks through the gate. 

When we say a place for growth, it is not only the vegetables, it is the people. Helping on a self build of an eco-building to house new therapy rooms, for example when many of us may not imagine we can build our own homes, and experiencing that as a group is quite powerful. 

Secondly, it is the growth in the youth, Imayla are here tonight, a CIC who take out kids from the inner city and surrounds to welcome rural self sufficiency and a different type of territory into these kids lives, leaving them to entertain themselves, create their own entertainment...even in the rain! They are looking for a permanent project they can visit and be involved with. Similarly, a summer school for kids 16-21 who face many decisions, and whom don’t often feel equipped to make such a decision. Giving them leadership and land based skill development, would influence those decisions, taking a step back away from the urgency and short-termism, and recognise the important, or the real work.

There are a range of possibilities depending on the site, and with them a variety of business models and plans. We have reams of research, data, figures that support the demand and market for a project serving mixed needs, financial models that seem to change every hour!

What we have is our network and our following, and the vision that this is beyond a business park, beyond an educational farm, beyond a retreat site… this is an inclusive site that invites soft and hard industry to work side by side. We ask you to reimagine your working day. 

Why have I invited you here? To see the breadth of possibilities ahead, and also the bigger, yet local cry we need respond to. You here have an opportunity to contribute to this, the more we are based in the natural world, the more we understand, the more we care, the more we value.

So, who has a spare barn for me? 

For more info on the business model, finances and requirements, come find me."

Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make sense any more.
— Rumi



The human pace: using human energy to man-u-facture

Rural Project has been one of the South West community businesses involved in a Community Business Leadership Programme with the RSA, Power to Change and Real Ideas Organisation to understand more closely the needs of community businesses and what resources we would need to extend our reach and impact. What it really gives, agreed by the other nine members spreading from Falmouth, to Plymouth, Buckfastleigh to Salisbury, is the network, the shared experiences, learning from our peers trials and wins. 

One of the inspiring visits we had recently was to the Frome, the mecca for grassroots transformational economic planning that reinvigorated community responsibility for decision making and employment possibilities. The previous mayor Peter MacFadyen, the author of Flat Pack Democracy and pioneer, spoke of his experience encouraging and willing a different way to lead and govern a market town. 

What is prescient are the conditions that led to this bright innovation in leadership that enabled enterprise, local produce, values and collectivism to flourish, independently. Academia, civil rights and media attention celebrated the Independent Frome movement, held up by infrastructure such as Forward Space and the market. An aesthetic city with good transport links to London, the profile was raised and the town could afford to reimagine itself.

One such unique example and one I was keen to visit and hear more about, was Edventure. Edventure is based in the Welsh Mill Hub, a workspace they manage too in a residential part of the town along the river. Inside, they house a number of workshops, a community ‘toolbox', an indoor greenhouse, and the deskspace room-hire model. There is much correlation with the Rural Project on project learning, skill, team and self development. Their purpose is anchored in education: "Progressing young adults to a livelihood that matters to them." 

So, how do they achieve this? Collectively, local challenges are identified around a multi stakeholder meeting that welcomes suggestions around local needs that affect us globally: housing, nutrition, isolation, intergenerational interaction, fair opportunities… These conversations are held in the hub with a considered guest list, for example a recent campaign for Fair Housing Frome, included architects, councillors, planners, estate agents - a multistakeholder approach. The community has the idea, the students are given the autonomy within that frame to manifest it how they choose. 

With solutions they find, they prepare the ground for a start-up and recruit students who are willing to collaborate, co-design and make whilst acknowledging the team development that is well facilitated throughout the process. For example in cultural sensitivities in workstyle approach, in working closely together, in communication styles. They use action based learning with the final week spent in the natural world on a vision quest to set an intention for the next six months after they leave. Almost like an incubator, they help other social enterprises launch but the IP of those enterprises still belongs to Edventure. "People just get it straight away" - that was a key quote for me, when I get lost in trying to explain, justifying the reason why my project is important.

Under the umbrella of Edventure, there is Elderventure - the intergeneration aspect that helps older people be more resourceful for young people. I was impressed with their partnerships, with the job centre in guiding people to a different way to upskill yourself. The courses are free, commitment and value can be an issue, but the participant has to raise their own funds to resource the idea and materials. 

It does sound a little too good to be true and looking at the range and number of funders and supporters, I questioned the financial sustainability. Three quarters of their trading arms are profit making and the balance is delicately held between loss making activity and income making ones. Something I am well versed in. 

What I took away was the clarity of how they express their impact and measure that. I guess practical solutions are what they do well. Their use of graphics and measurements makes you trust them, and with authenticity that they are serious about change. Since then, we have met and look forward to working more closely once i’m up and running.