How the scheme worked
The training was one of six pilot programmes funded by Defra as part of their New Entrant Support Scheme, which was designed to support new farmers to develop their business ideas and grow their business skills.
The pilot was available to ‘start ups’ (people with some farming experience but not their own land-based business) and ‘scale ups’ (people with 4 to 10 years’ experience running a land-based farming business).
Shared Assets provided overall coordination and project management, as well as delivering some of the support. OrganicLea led on delivering to the startup cohorts in London and wider south east, Eve’s Hill Veg Co led the delivery to the startup cohort in East Anglia, and The Ubele Initiative provided co-coordination of the startup application support and shortlisting process with OrganicLea and Eve’s Hill Veg Co. They also provided assistance to Black and People of Colour (BPOC) applicants throughout the program. Meanwhile, the Landworkers' Alliance took the lead in project delivery for the scale-up cohort.
We focussed on peri-urban farm businesses and supported 34 start ups and 27 scale ups across Greater London and the South East of England. Participants were able to access an online curriculum of learning covering 10 different topics including business planning, fundraising, routes to market, decision making and leadership. These were supplemented by online learning forums which included peer-to-peer learning, bespoke coaching or mentoring, site visits, and support to develop their business plans and pitch their ideas to funders and landowners.
What worked well
In person and online peer learning built a sense of community and encouragement for farm workers who are often isolated. It also provided opportunities for future collaboration e.g. finding routes to market, and bringing together peri-urban and more rural farmers allowed a really useful sharing, comparing and contrasting of knowledge, approaches and experience. Individual mentorship which provided bespoke support for new entrants from established farmers was also highly valued by participants. The provision of free lunches/travel for site visits made the programme more accessible to those on a low income.
For us as delivery organisations it was also great to have the opportunity to work closely together to deliver something that drew on an amazing breadth and depth of knowledge across the sector and to build a comprehensive suite of learning materials with our learning partners, Kindling Trust and Apricot Centre.
What worked less well
Delays to the start of the programme resulting from the political upheavals of autumn 2022 meant that the programme was shorter and more compressed than planned and also extended into the growing season. This meant that participants sometimes struggled to find the time to keep up with the pace of a programme where modules were being released weekly rather than every 2-3 weeks as planned. The online elements of the learning were also harder to access and digest than the face to face learning and 1:1 coaching and mentoring.
Beyond a lack of business skills there are structural barriers to new entrants aiming to create a livelihood in agroecological farming which were not the focus of the programme and which we were therefore less able to address.
The high price of land, concentrated land ownership, and a food system that undervalues the work of producers make it difficult for anyone to enter and thrive in small-scale agroecological farming. Participants were able to articulate these issues clearly from their own experience and whilst we sought to address these to some extent within the course programme including a module on Business Resilience, it remains frustrating that the focus of programmes such as the New Entrant Support Scheme remains on individual skills rather than addressing systemic issues. This was something raised by participants in our evaluation work with several calling for more land to be made available for new entrant agroecological growing.
“It's crazy that most agroecological growers currently struggle to make a living at all. All make huge sacrifices. [We need] schemes to sort this. For example - providing small parcels of land to budding agroecological growers or making sure every village has a market garden & every town has several. Cities should have thousands.” - Start up participant
One such systemic issue is that the UK farming sector is the least diverse profession in terms of racialised identity, with only 0.8% of all farmers identified as people of colour (Norrie, 2017. ) BPOC farmers face particular issues of marginalisation, racism, and lack of access to land as highlighted in the Jumping Fences report produced by Land In Our Names, the Ecological Land Cooperative and the Landworkers’ Alliance in 2023. During the programme BPOC participants set up their own informal network and support group to assist each other in navigating through additional barriers to entry they face as new entrants. While this can be seen as a positive outcome of the programme, placing the onus for systemic change upon those excluded from farming because of their identity, adds extra work onto their already busy farming lives. Any future programme must consider what Defra can do to make access to/staying in the farming profession more open to everyone.
As programme delivery partners we also faced these systemic issues. Working with multiple partners, and facing time and financial pressures during the development of the proposal and programme delivery, meant that we were less able to tailor the programme in ways that helped address some of these systemic challenges of access and marginalisation, both for partners and participants.
Insight and learning
One to one mentoring, in-person tutorials and site visits were invaluable, and the business, organisational and finance side of small-scale agroecological enterprise is key knowledge that is not easily found, but it is not in itself enough. There is a need for training programmes such as the new entrant support scheme to be sustained and to link up with broader and more long term support, for example with land access, financing, and subsidy programmes.
For ourselves, delivery of this programme has also reinforced the extent to which the time and financial constraints associated with programmes like this can reproduce these systemic barriers, such as the marginalisation and decentering of Black and people of colour in the food and land system. We need to ensure that we create the time, space, budget, resourcing and governance in programme design and delivery to ensure that programmes are inclusive, representative, accessible, supportive and equitable.
We are keen to continue to work with our programme partners Organiclea, Landworkers’ Alliance, The Ubele Initiative and Eves Hill Veg Co, as well as others, to ensure that new entrant support remains a priority for the government and that the programme resources remain free to access and can be improved, adapted and developed to ensure they address the needs of all new entrants both now and in the future.