A new five-mile Avalon ‘agroecological’ area will boost wildlife and future-proof local food supplies

An ambitious coalition of farmers, growers, conservationists and local councils have decided to take up the challenge of transitioning to more nature-friendly and regenerative farming methods with the creation of the new zone around Glastonbury and Street.

Agroecology is a set of farming practices, a science and a growing movement for sustainable farming and food, with huge potential to improve health, tackle climate change, regenerate landscapes and restore nature.

Five councils, five conservation organisations and five farmers and growers are involved in the new project, within a five-mile radius of Glastonbury.

Participating farms have committed to help restore biodiversity in the area by phasing out reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides and reducing fossil fuel use, using agroecological practices. The blueprint for their transition to agroecology is a ‘toolkit’ provided by the UN and adapted for use in Somerset with help from the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group.

Glastonbury has a rich agricultural history and sits at the heart of one of the world’s greatest wetlands. The area is home to an increasing number of growers, farmers and community schemes focused on building sustainable farming practices and supply chains, including a thriving organic food co-op. Many residents feel a strong spiritual connection with nature and support for locally grown, sustainable food is evident at the bustling weekly food market, the town’s many independent food shops, cafes, restaurants, neighbouring gastropubs and farm shops that favour local sustainable food suppliers.

‘We’re not afraid to do things differently here in Glastonbury’, says Mayor of Glastonbury and Mendip councillor Jon Cousins, who sits on the working group for the project, called 5FF (5 miles farming and food). ‘We were the first town council to ban the use of glyphosate (pesticide) on council land and we’re one of the few towns of this size to have our own Climate Emergency and Resilience Officer, Melissa Taylor, who has been doing some amazing work bringing ‘climate adaptation’ onto the agenda at all levels of town planning.’

Great British Life: Amy harvesting peppers 5FF's Plotgate Community Farm. Photo: Jason TaylorAmy harvesting peppers 5FF's Plotgate Community Farm. Photo: Jason Taylor

One of the projects recently greenlit for Town Deal funding in Glastonbury is a new, community-led Food and Regenerative Farming Centre Bridie’s Farm, Beckery, at the south-west end of the town. This takes in 23 newly acquired acres of under-used alluvial pastureland, set to be transformed using agroecological farming techniques to dramatically increase the town’s food growing capacity and to teach agroecology as part of the 5FF pilot.

Graham Harvey, environmental campaigner and former scriptwriter and farming editor of the BBC’s longest-running radio drama, The Archers, has recently become a Trustee of Sustainable Food Somerset. This local advocacy group is working towards a more nature-friendly food system and is responsible for the Somerset Food Trail, a consumer guide to the county’s regenerative food producers, with an annual July festival that last year encompassed over 190 venues. Hugely aware of the complex politics of farming, Graham says: ‘With subsidy payments going down, costs rising and prices for produce being squeezed, food producers are under unprecedented pressure – we’re watching many farmers change tack, or leave farming altogether. Agroecological farming brings new hope: a reduction in input costs, access to new markets, more autonomy, and the satisfaction of restoring the balance with nature at the same time. It is a win-win-win choice!’

He adds: ‘The new Environmental Land Management subsidy schemes (ELMS) offer some opportunities for farmers and growers to transition to agroecological methods, but are only a small part of what’s required, in terms of community support, alongside technical and advisory services. 5FF is a great way of demonstrating the range and benefits of agroecological practices and how communities can help to enable the transition to agroecology, within a supportive framework.’

‘Whether you’re an allotment holder, a hundred-acre farmer, school cook or window box herb grower, we want you to be part of this’, says Deputy Mayor of Glastonbury, Indra Donfrancesco. ‘What we’re working on here is a ‘movement’ – a step-change in behaviour, and it’s very exciting to see the seeds of it starting here, on our local patch.’