A rural oasis in the middle of one of Europe’s biggest housing estates is becoming a co-operative as it strives to secure its long-term future.
Lower Shaw Farm, in West Swindon, is a three-acre community resource, which for 30 years has given adults and children the chance to work, learn, and play among organic crops and livestock.
It is home base to the Swindon Festival of Literature, and recently cemented its reputation by scooping the Observer newspaper’s Ethical Garden Award.
In 2006 the former dairy farm hit the headlines when owners Swindon Borough Council considered selling the 200-year-old listed farmhouse and surrounding land.
When, as a result of a wave of local and national support for Lower Shaw Farm, Borough councillors became aware of its real value to thousands of people, and agreed to extend the lease and to discuss ways to ensure the farm’s future
Now, trustees, with the help of co-operative development agency Co-operative Futures, are forming a Society for the Benefit of the Community – and anyone who shares its aims and ambitions will be able to become a member.
Andrea Hirsch, who runs Lower Shaw Farm with partner Matt Holland, explained: “We aim to give the community a farm-like experience, but we are so much more than a community farm.
“We are a venue for a fascinating range of courses, that include everything from yoga to juggling, music to writing, gardening to cooking, plus a whole range of arts and crafts activities.
“People come here to discover how to grow their own food, keep chickens, cook with wholefoods, and to improve skills in any number of ways. Our motto is ‘Life is for Learning at Lower Shaw Farm.
One of the most popular events at the farm for local people is the Wednesday Café, where mums and toddlers rub shoulders with local workers on lunch breaks to enjoy tea or coffee and an organic salad from the garden, served from Lower Shaw’s collection of mismatched cups and plates.
The ramshackle nature of the farm demonstrates its reuse and recycling ethos, where the highlight of the children’s play area is a helicopter cargo net suspended from the barn’s beams, and piles of old mattresses on which to bounce.
Andrea said: “All the activities and courses we offer are provided without ongoing public subsidies, although we will apply for grants for specific projects.
“The farm is self-financing. In running it, we are greatly helped by volunteers, some of whom have been helping us for 30 years, others who are just passing through on schemes like WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
“There is more we would like to do here – like installing solar panels and rain water collectors – but the fact that our lease comes up for renewal every 18 months doesn’t give us the confidence to make long-term investments.
“Now we are talking with the Council about the idea of buying the farm, or taking on a 150-year lease. This would secure the farm’s future, but means we need a formal structure in which to negotiate, seek investment, and operate.”
Andrea first became involved in the co-operative movement 30 years ago when, as a member of Swindon Pulse Wholefoods Co-operative, she helped pack bags of produce in what is now the farm’s meeting room, home to the Children’s Project, Scratch Choir, knitting circle, and other community groups.
“We’ve always intended to become a co-operative, but it never happened. Now, thanks to Co-operative Futures, we’re incorporating at last, and receiving some sound business advice into the bargain. We’re really excited about becoming part of the wider network of co-operatives.”
To find out what’s going on down at the farm, log on to www.lowershawfarm.co.uk
Anyone who wants to start or grow a business that is a co-operative or community owned enterprise can contact Jim Pettipher at Co-operative Futures on 0845 456 2506 or at email@example.com
Pictured: Roberto Framarini, Matt Holland, Andrea Hirsch, Hilda Sheehan and Claire Parnell, a few of the co-operators at Lower Shaw Farm