TWO years on from their successful share offer, which raised £309,020 to purchase the farmhouse, Jubilee Farm is a community benefit society that is really going places.
Promoting access to the countryside, good food, good health and wellbeing is reported widely these days; the messaging is certainly up there with current measures to bring people into nature, helping them notice their environment and giving encouragement to live well. During Covid lockdowns and disruption to life at all levels, having access to green spaces has been crucial for many and has been aptly described as the Natural Health Service.
UTV Rare Breed viewers will already recognise Jubilee Manager Jonny Hanson, as he is currently giving an insight into the unusual world of Northern Ireland’s first community-owned farm on the popular series.
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.
Today, in the picturesque countryside setting just outside the County Antrim village of Glynn near Larne, this vision and belief in people has made Jubilee into what it has become in this relatively short time. Indeed, it could be said that Jubilee Farm is, to coin a well-known phrase, “rare as hen’s teeth”, certainly in Northern Ireland as it is one of a kind for the time being.
Jonny knew he was bringing something unique to the Province. And far from wishing to hold onto this status, he looks forward to the day when community farms are part of the landscape, run by other community farming cooperatives.
“Although it has been almost three and a half years since Jubilee Community Benefit Society (CBS) was formed, Jubilee Farm has just passed its second birthday. Now firmly in the grip of the ‘terrible twos’, we are looking forward to a pandemic-free and a more financially self-sustaining and less grant-dependent status.” Jonny said.
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 wiling team to provide labour and ultimately, successfully targeting a market of people who wish to buy produce.
“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 said.
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 in terms of working with refugees and asylum seekers. This project brought together refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa, affording them the opportunity to learn new skills.
While community-supported agricult-ure (CSA) endorses conservation education, it also enables 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.
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.
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 broke 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 21st century. 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.
“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. Having 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.”
Believing that circular food systems are the way forward for Northern Ireland’s only community farm, Jonny says: “Perhaps the defining issue of the 21st century 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 decentralising, 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.”