Jubilee Farm, in Glynn near Larne, County Antrim is a radical venture of Christian praxis. It is a new community-led, Christian-based agricultural and environmental co-operative, well on the way to establishing the first community-owned farm in Northern Ireland.
I caught up with Farm Manager Jonny Hanson to ask him how a community farm works when community has been closed down due to Coronavirus. As ever Jonny is practical and insightful in his responses.
What was happening on the farm before you were locked down?
After a challenging first year of operations, we were just hitting our stride at the start of our second: seedlings were being planted for a doubling of our vegbox production; there were pigs of all shapes, sizes and stages - everywhere; our wheelchair-accessible greenhouse was being built; refugees and asylum seekers, referred to us one day per week from the International Meeting Point, and adults with learning difficulties, referred to us two days per week from the NHSCT, were participating in our care farming programmes; we'd signed up our first two partner churches to our church partnership programme, with a third in the pipeline (no Presbyterian ones yet though 😉); we'd recently taken part in a series of high profile events, including the 4 Corners Festival and headlining the NI Science Festival Sustainability Fair; and to top it all, on the 18th March - the day we had to close the farm to all non-essential visits - we were profiled in the Belfast Telegraph.
At what stage did you are start thinking that you might have to close?
Because we were having twice-weekly visits from NHS service users and staff we were aware by early March that our care farming visits from the NHSCT were likely to be put on hold. By St Patrick's Day we realised that all non-essential visits would also have to be cancelled for the foreseeable future.
What way does the lock down impinge on the farm?
The greatest strength of a community farm is that in does what it says on the tin: it involves the community in the farm, and all the varied activities and processes that take place on and off it. But at the moment, that strength is also our greatest weakness because the majority of the community aspects - care farming, educational and church visits, community volunteer days, internships - are on hold.
That has created two interrelated problems for us: 1) Our income from services, which are a key part of our social enterprise business model, has disappeared; 2) Our access to labour, whether staff, volunteer or intern, has reduced significantly, causing particular problems in the market garden, which is the most labour intensive part of our operation.
Are there ways that you can use the downtime?
Our 3 children have been drafted in to help with particular tasks, such as packing the biweekly vegboxes, which are still going out. It's also given us space as an organisation to think about our operations over the last year: what worked well, what didn't, what we need more of, and what we need less of. We're also keeping up our communications, providing stories and images of life on the farm, in that sense bringing the farm to the community.
Are there are any ways that the public can help you?
You can buy our pork - either quarter pigs or sausages and burgers - or make a donation. You can pray for us. If you're free on Tuesdays, you could also come and volunteer in the market garden, which is consistent with official guidelines, subject to social distancing and other safeguards being in place. You can also sign up to our monthly email newsletter via our website and follow us on social media.
What are you planning for what this is all over?
Getting all our community services - care farming, church partnerships, school visits, community volunteer days - up and running again. We're currently researching and scoping out an extended care farming project with refugees and asylum seekers, which would extend our provision to 3 days per week, but also work with a partner organisation to train and resource a network of social farms across Northern Ireland to do the same (our community consultation questionnaire on the proposed project is here - please fill it in).
We're also about to submit a planning application for our multi-purpose barn, which is another exciting project that will greatly expand our facilities at Jubilee Farm, for people and other animals.
Any books on the Environment that we can be reading in this downtime?
In general, I'm wary of seeing 'the environment' as a separate topic that we need separate books on, that we can then choose to read or ignore, depending on our interests and preferences. Rather, integrating and noticing environmental issues in every aspect of society, culture and the economy, including fiction and non-fiction books, is a key thing.
For instance, I've just finished reading George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and was struck by the fact that, even in the grimdark fantasy world of Westeros, environmental issues such as land - conflict over it - and weather - winter is coming - dictate life. Therefore for Westeros as for planet earth: there is no history without geography.
Similarly, I've also recently read No Short Cuts to the Top by Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb all of the 14 peak over 8,000m. It's an extraordinary tale of his adventures but it reminded me of an extraordinary fact: be it viruses, climate chaos or indomitable mountains, humanity, and its house of cards, is very fragile, especially when compared to the awesome power of the natural world, on which it is utterly dependent. A good dose of humility is therefore prescribed for the human race, along with a Covid-19 vaccine.
more info and how to donate and buy - https://www.jubilee.coop/jubileefarm/