4 minute read

Cofarming - a new approach to planning the land

By Gavin Shelton and Ian Houlston

Gavin Shelton is the founder and CEO of CoFarm Foundation.

Ian Houlston is a landscape architect and environmental planner at LDA Design.

Eating healthily is more important than ever, but there are barriers. Soil is becoming more degraded and depleted, which affects the nutritional value of crops. The UK is relying more on imports from climate-vulnerable countries, which, quite apart from the wider ethics, increases its carbon footprint, and pushes up the price of fruit and vegetables. A third of the fresh produce needed in the UK could come from switching an area equivalent to just one percent of existing agricultural land over to small scale, community-based food growing enterprises. Gavin Shelton, founder and CEO of CoFarm Foundation, discusses the transition to a more sustainable future with Ian Houlston, a landscape architect and environmental planner at LDA Design.

Ian – There is much more interest nowadays in where food comes from and how it is grown, but it is often assumed that community-based enterprise can never make a serious enough contribution to the volume needed. Is it true, though, that on one acre of land you can grow enough fresh produce to feed 100 households for most of the year? Gavin – You certainly can farm that efficiently, and in harmony with nature by following the principles of agroecology (1) .

We employ professional horticulturists to manage operations. Cofarming differs from allotment growing because no one has their own individual patch. This year, on our pilot holding in Cambridge, which is church estate land, 180 volunteer cofarmers have so far produced 4.5 tonnes of organic vegetables with a market value of £20K. This was all achieved on 0.66 acres. Next year, we expect to at least double that output by cultivating more of our site over a longer growing season: the pandemic delayed the planting out of seedlings till June. Ian – It’s also very much about community, isn’t it? When space is put aside for food growing, there is a magnetic point of interaction between new and existing communities, because whatever your ethnicity, religion or class, you can share your stories and lives through food. Gavin – Yes, the CoFarm is a great place for both socialising with the community and growing nutritious food. When we were designing CoFarm.

This year, because of the pandemic, we decided to donate everything we grew to emergency food hubs in Cambridge. This has certainly helped engender a sense of shared endeavour. Seeing nature bounce back, people growing together, and food miles reduced to food metres is very empowering – it gives people license to feel optimistic. Ian – I know your vision is to create a distributed estate of cofarms in every local authority in the UK. How is that going? Gavin – We have incorporated the charitable foundation – my wife and I were able to inject the capital needed – and local businesses and individuals have contributed to the pilot farm. Now we are generating the support needed by cofarms, including a digital platform to track collective impact in key areas, such as community cohesion, local economic inclusion and health and wellbeing. Ian – How can we persuade more developers to incorporate food growing in their masterplans? The idea of a distributed cofarm estate fits beautifully into the 20-minute neighbourhood. It can be part of the reimagining of the land within and around towns and villages and new settlements. It can enhance the quality of Green Belt land and give it a tangible purpose in people’s lives. But developers often like formality and manicured spaces – growing spaces can often look scruffy and chaotic. Gavin – You can control how the place looks and functions. Food growing has a rustic, rugged charm and seasonal interest – those areas just have to be cared for and well-tended. We fill our farm with a riot of colourful flowers, for example, and local architects RH Partnership have designed for us a flexible open barn structure which will house easy-on-the-eye wooden clad shipping containers to store crops and tools.

Spaces should reflect the character of the communities they serve. It can be just an acre here or a quarter of an acre there dotted through masterplans, including rooftops. Skilled horticulturists can manage multiple smaller sites and a community engagement manager can help people cultivate and enjoy the spaces. Ian – It seems that community food growing suits less contrived spaces, where the rules are slightly different. Maybe right now developers and landscape professionals need to relax their desire to over curate space and focus on supporting the process of co-creation? People adopt places which feel purposeful and well colonised. It seems the challenge is to make the space and do less to achieve more.

All images taken at the CoFarm in Cambridge

All images taken at the CoFarm in Cambridge

© CoFarming Foundation


1 Agroecology is an integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of food and agricultural systems. It seeks to optimize the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system.” UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAOs): 10 elements of agroecology: http://www.fao.org/3/i9037en/I9037EN.pdf


J M Fortier in Canada: https://www.themarketgardener. com

The Lean Farm approach practised by Ben Hartman at Clay Bottom Farm, US: https:// www.claybottomfarm.com/

Ridgedale Farm, Sweden: http://www.ridgedalepermaculture. com/

Brooklyn Grange a highly productive system on New York rooftops: https://www.brooklyngrangefarm. com/

Sole Food Farms in Vancouver use relocatable plastic containers to achieve similar results on car parks etc: https://solefoodfarms.com/