A JOURNEY AMONG NORTHERN IRISH CO-OPERATIVES

Case study 1

Jubilee Farm – a community benefit society

Two years on from their successful share offer, which raised £309,020 to purchase the farm and farmhouse, Jubilee Farm is a community benefit society, a type of co-operative, which is really going places. UTV Rare Breed viewers will already recognise Jubilee Manager, Jonny Hanson. We asked him some questions about Jubilee Farm.

 

Why did you choose to become a co-operative?

It all started when Jonny had a vision of how he wanted to create a farm that would bring community-minded people together; a common ground for future growth run by the community for the community.

When researching the cooperative model Jonny knew it was an intrinsically perfect platform for community farming. Farming in this way by its nature, relies on a group of people to help purchase and equip the farm; a willing team to provide labour and ultimately, successfully targeting a market of people who wish to buy produce.

 

What type of co-op are you?

“As a Community Benefit Society, Jubilee Farm is best described as a cooperative enterprise. We chose this model because we could issue community shares to raise capital, rather than embarking on the loan route only, but also because it offered an efficient way to pursue our social and environmental goals using an enterprise model.” Jonny revealed.

 

What do you actually do?

This venture engages in activities, which build community support from all backgrounds and beliefs, including the practice of care farming which is yet another first for Northern Ireland. This project brought together Syrian refugees and asylum seekers affording them the opportunity to learn new skills, although social farming is well established in Northern Ireland, Jubilee’s extension to include this community group is yet another first for Northern Ireland. While community-supported agriculture (CSA), endorses conservation education, enabling the production of pork, goat and vegetables. With a pig club, veg box delivery and school outreach programme jostling for space beside the farm’s busy market garden; the farm’s future-proofing credentials just keep strengthening.

 

What are the main benefits of being a coop, in your opinion?

Jubilee’s ethos is firmly rooted in its people. “The one-member, one-vote approach of being a cooperative member reminds us that the ultimate unit of value in life is not the pound, the euro or the dollar, but the person.  Coops are a great way to involve a diverse range of people in achieving a shared goal, in our case the environmental and agricultural stewardship of our lovely little farm.” Jonny explains.

 

Who are the coop members?

Speaking of members, to date Jubilee has chalked up a total of 155 people from all walks of life and all parts of the world. Many who live within Northern Ireland are also customers; those living close to the farm are also volunteers. They gain satisfaction from seeing a dynamic and innovative project continue to grow and one, which inspires change close to home and further afield.

Jonny breaks the demographic down. “We serve two communities: one, a geographical community, is the area of South and East Antrim, especially the Larne and surrounding area. Most of our customers come from this area and benefit from our great food and the great outdoors. The other is a community of interest: the churches of Ireland. We aspire to inspire churchgoers of all denominations (and none) to see environmental and agricultural stewardship as a strategic and vital part of their faith in the 21stcentury. For many, Jubilee Farm is one of the few faith-based environmental responses in Northern Ireland and so members from this community benefit from supporting pioneering change that implements and encourages positive Christian engagement with some of the defining issues of our age.”

 

What are your main challenges?

“The main challenges so far have not come from the farming aspect, although dealing with agricultural bureaucrats is a real pain in the neck, Jonny remarks. However the community end of things has brought a reality check. 155 member-owners does not mean 155 farmers, each with their own priorities and perspectives.

In practice, this would never work and so our challenge has been creating a professional and efficient operating system, whereby the members own, the board governs, I manage and a variety of staff, interns and volunteers implement. Most of the time it works fairly well, though there’s always room for improvement!”

 

What advice would you give to others?

For others who wish to look at creating their own community farm, prior to the drawing board Jonny recommends finding out as much as you can beforehand and talking to other organisations.

“Talk to and visit other similar projects to get inspiration and ideas. Find out what you’re not good at and ensure you have others to fill these key roles. Take your budget and timeframe for getting started and double it – that should give you a more accurate picture of how much time and money it will take to get up and running. Prior to becoming registered in August 2017, I spent three and a half years seeking advice from many people and organisations. That morphed into a steering committee, which became the founding board. Along the way, we had a lot of technical support from many organisations. Important to us was Cooperative Alternatives, the local co-operative development body, who helped us with the legal set up of the society and the community share offer and via them we accessed further support from the Plunkett Foundation and the Hive, Coops UK. Also we received help from UnLtd and others. I also went on a few study visits to England and Canada.

Lastly and most importantly, work hard but not too hard as your wellbeing and relationships matter more than any project, no matter how inspiring it may be.”

What aspiration do you have for the coop?

Believing that Circular Food Systems are the way forward for Northern Ireland’s only community-owned farm, Jonny purports, “perhaps the defining issue of the 21stcentury is to reconcile ecology with economy (both have the same Greek root word, Oikos, meaning ‘home’) so that all life, everywhere, can flourish on planet earth. Key to this is reimagining, and arguably in many cases decentralizing, energy and food systems so that they are both solar-powered and circular. In these two areas especially there is real scope for cooperatives in Northern Ireland to signpost the way and lead the change towards a region, and a world, that is fairer, healthier, more humane and more sustainable.”