The Land & Market Access Incubator enables the next generation of agroecological farmers by institutionally supporting and coordinating access to land, skills, infrastructure and markets. New entrants into agroecology quickly encounter difficulties to develop food growing activities, often on many fronts at the same time, whether they are farmers in transition, professional neofarmers or self growers. The Land & Market Access Incubator builds on the experiences of farmstarts, alternative local supply chains and skill sharing and tries to bring various forms of support together. It lowers the threshold for pioneers in agroecological production and seeks to create a more level playing field in a context where support generally goes to mainstream models both on the production, processing and consumption side of the food system.
The next generation of farmers is not ready
More than half of European farmers will retire within 10 years, while many have no successor inside or outside their family. At the same time, the demand for local, accessible quality food is strong and growing, and with a changing climate, the urgency for restoration, ecological stewardship, and conservation is becoming more evident. Hence the urgent question arises: ‘who is going to be the next generation of European farmers?’. The Land & Market Access Incubator starts from the observation that three types of farmers (or farmer networks) will form this new generation: conventional (generational) farmers in transition (usually successors); professional neofarmers (career starters, as part of professional career lifecycle or as part of a more general employment strategy) and (new or generational) self growers.
However, facilitating the transition between this older, conventional farming community to young agroecological farmers proves to be a challenge. General legislative, institutional and infrastructural support favours conventional farming models: land access depends on sale (high market prices) or inheritance transfers, and communities of colour and migrant communities face particular barriers to accessing land and in making the transition from urban to rural communities. Start up costs for equipment and infrastructure are high, knowledge transfer is predominantly organised by conservative institutionalised education and access to appropriate training, skills, and mentoring for agroecological farming is limited, with very few accredited schemes available. Market infrastructure (dense road and port infrastructure) is geared towards international (large-scale, bulk products and competitive) trade.
This has resulted in a countermove all over the world by the creation of incubator farms. The oldest incubator farms in North America have been operating for around 30 years. There are over 100 incubator farms currently in operation in North America and the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project runs a training initiative and network for incubator farms across the continent. FarmStart or Incubator Farm networks have since been established in Canada, France, Belgium and the United Kingdom.
Providing alternative access to land for agroecological farming require a range of strategies
The cost of agricultural land, whether bought, rented or leased, is a barrier to many new entrants. In addition, short-term tenancies on rented land can leave people with a lack of security. FarmStarts and Incubator Farms often work through a range of strategies, of which we develop three in what follows.
A first strategy observed in test-space organisation is to set aside spaces on existing farms and market garden sites - or find, and secure access to, small off-site plots to create starter-plots or espace-test — plots that enable new growers to test their ideas and develop their skills. However, these tend to be short term tenancies and it can be difficult for new entrants to progress to smallholdings or full farms at the end of their tenure without further financial support or a system that also provides affordable smallholdings and farms for lease or purchase.
Secondly, there is the supported progression to smallholdings. In the UK, many local municipalities own farms, known as County Farms, which were set up at the end of the 19th century to provide a way into farming for new entrants with no history of farming or without the means to purchase a farm. In many cases this public farms estate has been sold off in recent years and most are farmed in conventional farming methods. In contrast, organisations such as the Ecological Land Trust purchase agricultural land specifically to make it available to new entrant agroecological farmers at affordable prices. This can help to provide a route for new growers from the initial Incubator to a smallholding from which they can earn a sustainable livelihood.
Thirdly, we see often test-spaces working together with organisations specifically geared at access to land for farming (of which many are part of the network of Access to Land EU) and/or incorporate these as central partners in a wider farmstart programme (such as Terre-En-Vue within BoerenBruxselPaysans).
Organising access to knowledge or skill development specifically for agroecological growers
There is a widespread lack of access to training, skills and qualifications tailored to agroecological growers in the mainstream provision of agricultural training, or in more general mainstream education or training for employment programmes. It is therefore a feature of nearly all incubator farms that they provide a range of opportunities for new growers to develop their skills - both in terms of their technical skills and knowledge as growers, and business skills such as financial planning and marketing. The range of methods used are wide but include:
Structured volunteering and informal learning opportunities;
Formal agroecological courses leading to certified qualifications which may be paid for by the individual or through state funded education, training and employment programmes;
Practical Internships, sometimes paid through state funded employment programmes;
Espace-test: starter plots that enable a new grower to test their ideas for crops and understand how they might develop their ideas into a fully fledged business;
Mentoring, working with and alongside more experienced growers. These will most often be established employees of an existing agroecological growing site, but in some may include farmers who are retiring and wish to upskill a new entrant to take over the farm in the longer term. They can introduce new entrants to established networks, potential markets, and support them in the day to day challenges they may face;
Business skills development. In addition to the technical skills required for successful growing new entrant farmers also need to be able to manage their businesses, including financial management, regulatory compliance and marketing;
Or, outside the agroecological community: Urban education and employment strategies tend to undervalue land skills, focussing more often on supporting skills for industry sectors that are seen as high value such as technology, construction, and service industries. However as the sector develops and is able to demonstrate its ability to provide employment and education opportunities it will increasingly be seen as making a positive contribution to local economic development.
Facilitating access to (local) markets and communities
A key challenge facing many new entrants is establishing routes to market, especially alongside getting the practical side of the operation up and running. Incubator farms help them to connect to their existing supply chains including via:
Supply side (accessing customers)
CSA and other cooperative/subscription models (sharing risk and responsibilities), eg CSA Network (BE), Herenboeren (NL), ...
Online sale and direct delivery to customers through box schemes (e.g. GASAP, Voedselteams, ...)
Cooperative wholesalers and retailers (BEES Coop)
Direct sales to restaurants, in particular those who wish to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability and supporting the local economy, or who wish to purchase high value ingredients that are highly perishable and do not travel well such as herbs, salad leaves and flowers.
Demand side (accessing farmers):
Local public procurement: securing contracts with public bodies such as schools, hospitals or municipal food aid schemes can create a secure market, guaranteeing an income for new entrants’ produce.
Supermarkets buying more local (and even buying the farms, see example in BE)
In each of the cases above a new entrant would not be able to provide enough quantity, range or to guarantee supply. The shared infrastructure and organisation offered by the Land & Market Access Incubator would make it easier for such new entrants to operate to scale by opening up the needed networks to supply goods to these markets, derisks the process for the new entrant and ensures that they will receive an income for their produce.
Learning from concrete incubator experiences
A number of aspects of the Land & Market Access Incubator are already in place in many cities or municipalities and elsewhere, though these are often new, still growing or fragmented. Learning from the cases of the Urbanising In Place project, we see:
Organisations that bring together new farmers, share experiences and (sometimes) push for institutional change) such as Toekomstboeren (NL), OrganicLea (UK), National Farmstart Network (UK), Landwijzer/CRABE alumni network (BE), Technical Team Network of Permaculture farmers (LAT) –
Organisations that push for institutional support such as the Landworkers Alliance (UK), Sustain (UK), VoedselAnders (NL/BE), MAP (BE), Access to Land (EU)
BoerenBruxselPaysans (BE), a pilot project to support new farmers starting from a collection of different grassroots movements (access to land, access to knowledge, access to facilities, access to markets) and government (access to (public) land, access to markets and coordination)
OrganicLea (UK),a worker’s cooperative that provides access to land, grower mentoring, training (volunteering programme, horticultural courses, work placements and traineeships), marketing support, some capital and enterprise support. They are part of the National Farmstart Network.
Technical Teams (as in Rosario and the Spanish Network of Agroecological Municipalities) supporting access to markets, land, processing facilities and knowledge through municipality-led activities
Together, these examples show elements of the transformative aspects of the Land & Market Access Incubator, including (1) setting up a (recent but growing) group of new agroecological farmers, multiplying the potential to share skills and knowledge (and traineeships), (2) providing access to land through institutional support, fundraising and crowdfunding and (3) providing access to markets (through shared marketing or cooperative systems). At the same time, we observe that they encounter several shared issues. Farm-starts are often subjective to competition and market dynamics and thus only able to offer what financially stronger actors neglect which hinders a more strategic approach regarding landscape, soil, … Another obstacle is the lack of progression of farmers after the period of testing within the incubator. Provided they were able to access permanent land, its position is often too far from the test-space to keep the community of eaters involved, there is often a need to start from scratch when it comes to building good healthy soil, etc.
The Land & Market Access Incubator supports farmers that are facing multiple bottlenecks in the current disabling context (difficulties in access to land, training, market, nutrients, funding,...) on many (if not all) of these fronts at the same time. It develops and organises institutional support for the agricultural/ agroecological use of land (greenbelt, municipal agroparks, etc., ) (related to BB Peri-urban Agroecological Food Park) and coordinates this with an appropriate programme for farmers access to land and to markets (i.e. business incubators, access to selling areas, provision of infrastructure to transform produce, or to link up with public services through public procurement, etc.). In doing so it not only provides opportunities for new growers to learn skills and receive accredited qualifications, it also provides an important opportunity for people who wish to progress to becoming fully fledged farmers to test their farming and growing ideas in a protected environment, whilst building the knowledge, skills, confidence and experience to progress to their own farm or market garden. The Incubator exists to provide potential new entrant growers with “an opportunity for people to test their farming and growing ideas in a protected environment, whilst building the knowledge, skills, confidence and experience to progress to their own farm or market garden” .
Growing can be a solitary occupation. Incubators provide a community of fellow growers as well as a wider food system and politicised agroecological movement, providing important social connections and support based around shared values and interests.
Whilst we tend to view agroecological incubators as rural in nature and focussed on farming and food production, their location in the urban or peri urban context mean that they are also sites which deliver impacts and benefits in that context, and may be part of a wider (non food focussed) infrastructure, including:
Urban management: as part of wider green infrastructure such as parks or public open spaces
Urban renewal incubators: supporting the development of new enterprises or micro businesses such as businesses creating preserves, bakeries, micro breweries etc.
Educational Hubs: providing a wide range of practical vocational training
Urban community centres: providing a wide range of social support services, community kitchens etc.
Land and Market Access Incubators respond to the political claims of the political pedagogies network. In some cases it is fed by activists in such political pedagogies networks (such as in the case of Spain and Argentina, partly grassroots, partly institutional) as mediators between land, technical knowledge, market and policy.
Land & Market Access Incubator may take a variety of forms:
Institutional resourcing (done by grassroots movements)
Incubator as a place and infrastructure: providing growing space, equipment etc
Incubator as a network: eg. Technical Team providing skills, knowledge and mentoring
The Red de municipios por la agroecología is uniting several Spanish municipalities and local organisations since 2017 with the mission to link social services with food policies. The approach is translocal as it tries to build mutual support between local authorities. The network engages in a wide range of support and facilitations activities. Two members of each city are compensated to attend the monthly meetings where they share experiences, guaranteeing the active participation of the municipalities. There is a technical advisory team supporting the network, composed of all (former) farmers or pastoralists that have followed an agroecological training. They help out the public servants, for whom agriculture is traditionally not part of their standard policy tasks and mediate between different authorities on what could be feasible or desirable from a technical agroecological perspective. As such, they are able to link policy with concrete action; they coordinate wholesale markets geared towards more local produce, they set up farmstarts, small processing centres, composting infrastructure, mobile slaughterhouses and a local labelling system. Parallelly, they continue to develop the capacity building of network attendees by organising monthly webinars and offering customised programmes depending on the size, history and capacity of the city. While the interest in agroecology in the bigger cities (and their environmental departments) usually stem from both the organisation of their environmental goals as well as the upgrade of new and existing community gardens, the old Arab cities in Spain have an active agricultural department and are looking for technical insights, since they still have productive lands within their municipal boundary. In smaller towns, the technical team collaborates more with economic departments and positions agroecology as an experiment for alternative rural development. By not focussing directly on physical infrastructure but rather on training and capacity building within administrations and mediating between different policy sectors, the network is able to lobby local policy from a very concrete, action-based perspective that transcends political tenures.
BoerenBruxselPaysans is a pilot project in the peri-urban fringe of Brussels seeking to offer new farmers the needed impulse to provide Brussels with local, healthy, qualitative and affordable food. Through the coalition of existing grassroots movements with government aid under the coordination of the Brussels regional authority and European funding, the project was able to set up a broad range of supportive infrastructure for starting farmers. The municipality of Anderlecht offers land as an espace-test or farmstart for farmers that want to test out their business model. The grassroots movement Début des Haricots offers practical training courses and links the test-farmers with their spin-off network GASAP—different consumer groups in the city of Brussels that are running a vegetable box-scheme. Maison Verte et Bleue runs a community kitchen and will help the local farmers to operate the future conserverie and packaging facility and Terre-en-vue, an access to land organisation, scouts more permanent and lasting land use agreements across the city for when farmers went through the testing period. The municipality of Anderlecht chose not to sell off residual agricultural infrastructure that marked the neighbourhood, but rather invest in the renovation and programming of these farm buildings to support growers and food initiatives in this part of the city. By focusing on infrastructure, BoerenBruxselPaysans creates literally the supporting environment that enables a constant inflow of new and transitioning farmers. It also creates a node in a wider landscape, holding the potential to offer their supporting infrastructure to many more farms in the area. Could we imagine the migration of the farm start to other locations, rather than moving the farmers that have invested in the soil and have in the meantime become networked within a local community?
“Agroecology demands the complete reorganisation of municipalities. People from social economy, food production, the environment, health and planning, they all have to work as one multidisciplinary team.” according to Raul Terrile, one of the driving forces behind the Urban Agriculture Programme of Rosario. “ Key member of the agroecological movement joined the ranks of the municipal administration and reached out to their new colleagues across different departments. It set off a wave of collaboration and capacity building across the urban administration that ensures the rootedness of healthy food in the capillaries of urban policies and investments.
Dormant public land was made available; the former plant nursery for urban park management became an agroecological reference centre; parks were turned into garden parks, urban waste streams resourced for composting, buffer strips between roads rendered productive; the housing department started to stimulate growing on terraces and balconies; hospitals provided land for medicinal gardens; prisons set up demonstration gardens and many schools today cultivate their own educational garden. Looking at the list of what has been set up in the last 20 years, one begins to see the cross-over between urban and agroecological infrastructure. This summary can be read as a wish list for a future urban centre for agroecology. It is the result, however, of a persistent and consequent strategy to wield agroecology as an integrating and transversal urban strategy and bundle public investments accordingly.
The Rosario Agroecological Centre (CAR) is a public space that was implemented in 2017 within the framework of the Urban Agriculture Program of the Social Economy Secretariat of the Municipality of Rosario, to seek innovative responses to the demands of new actors interested in urban agriculture. The centre played an important role in valorizing and giving visibility to the knowledge and techniques built jointly in the territory during the last 30 years. The CAR works with research institutes, educational institutions, orchard organizations and non-governmental organizations, social movements and is associated with the Secretary of Extension of the National University of Rosario, the Polytechnic Institute, the Ministries of Production and of Health of the province and the Secretaries of Health, Environment and Production among other municipal dependencies; the Municipal Employees Association (AMTRAM), the Institute of Physics Rosario (CONICET – National University of Rosario), the National Institute of Agricultural Technology INTA and the Association for Biological-Dynamic Agriculture of Argentina.
A cluster of functions supporting growers on many fronts
In conclusion, the Land & Market Access Incubator is perhaps best conceived of as a cluster of functions that surround and support the grower’s progression, for a specific (limited) amount of time, protecting them from some aspects of the market (for produce, land and services) and enabling them to focus on developing their skills. In different areas the institutions, organisations and individuals that provide these functions will be different, but the functions are likely to include:
Skills development: An established training process that enables the development of a range of technical and business skills which may include formal accredited qualifications.
Access to markets: a market or distribution hub or system such as a CSA, market stall box scheme or wholesale operation
Access to land, facilities and equipment: at least one site (or a cluster of sites) that can provide access to land for suitable for growing for a limited period and at low or no cost
Mentoring: The Incubator provides an essential route for new entrant growers to have their first exposure to growing through volunteering and training programmes, to gain confidence and skills within a protected, supportive and appropriately resourced environment, and also supports the newly skilled grower to find longer term employment or their own land to start start growing at scale, or to enter other parts of the agroecological food system - as activists, educators, processors or retailers..
Community, solidarity and networking
Your Land, My Land, Our Land (2020)