Farm Clusters are a growing mechanism for farmers and landowners to work collaboratively for the benefit of their individual farm businesses.
The new North Essex Farm Cluster was launched last November and sits within the Blackwater River Catchment (which incorporates the Rivers Pant, Blackwater and Brain as well as smaller streams) and covers around 56,000 hectares stretching from Saffron Walden to Maldon via Braintree. The Cluster involves landowners and farmers coming together to exchange knowledge and experience, working together at scale, looking at how they can enhance water and soil quality and exploring new markets for farmers through improving biodiversity and sequestering carbon on their land.
The group has secured initial funding from Essex County Council, the Environment Agency, Essex and Suffolk Water, Anglian Water and the RSPB. The Farm Cluster’s coordinators, husband and wife team Emma and Joe Gray, are farmers themselves within the catchment and see that as a key factor in taking the Cluster forward.
Cluster coordinator, Emma Gray, explained “The North Essex Farm Cluster is run by farmers, for farmers, and that is going to be key to achieving success. As farmers ourselves, we understand the pressures that farm businesses are under, but we also know how proud farmers are of the landscape they farm in and that they want to do their absolute best to look after it.
The Farm Cluster will support farms to protect and enhance the natural environment, while delivering environmental gains that wider society will benefit from. It’s vital that farmers can do this in a way that is compatible with running a profitable farm business, so the Cluster will have a role in advocating for farmers to ensure that changes to farming practice are sustainable.
By working collaboratively, farmers are able to work at scale across a number of holdings, aggregating environmental benefits. The cluster will serve as a single point of contact for businesses and organisations wanting to engage with farmers, and will identify where projects can be connected for greater environmental outcomes.”
Following a launch event late last year, the cluster has run a series of events for its members, including a Winter Bird Day, looking at stewardship options aimed at supporting farmland birds through the winter months and a Water Resources day, exploring how farmers and landowners can act now to prepare their farm business for a future where rainfall is becoming unpredictable and scarce.
The group also has a strong advocacy role, taking the views of farmers on the ground and relaying them through consultations with Defra and NGOs, giving valuable, independent farmer-led feedback on issues affecting the development of agricultural and food policy.
Cluster coordinator, Joe Gray, commented: “It’s great to see so many farmers coming forward to be part of the North Essex Farm Cluster, it really highlights the appetite that farmers have for working together and embracing new opportunities. Now we have a core group of farmers that are interested in being part of the cluster, we are out and about in the Cluster area, visiting farms and identifying opportunities for projects and collaborative working. This could involve new habitats being created, from hedgerows to wetlands, or the improvement of existing habitats and soil through regen-ag approaches, with the aim of connecting a corridor of good practice through the Cluster.”
In April, Scrutton Bland became sponsors of the North Essex Farm Cluster and will be supporting the Cluster with accountancy services. James Tucker, Business Advisory Partner explained: “Scrutton Bland have been supporting farmers and the wider rural economy in Essex and Suffolk for over 100 years, and throughout that time our focus has always been very much on the future. In a period of change for agriculture and the natural world we are delighted to be supporting the North Essex Farm Cluster in its important work to create a sustainable and wildlife friendly environment for farming in North Essex”
The North Essex Farm Cluster is currently open to new members. For more information on their work or to find out how to become part of the Cluster, please contact Emma & Joe Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org.