Avalon Agroecological Area, 5 mile Food and Farming, and Beyond

There is little doubt that something important has happened in the local regenerative farming and growing community. Its aims are to transition to sustainable food and farming in what has been called the Avalon Agroecological Area, and to feed Glastonbury with food produced within five miles of the town. In an economic environment dominated by intensive, chemical-based farming, and a centralised food industry that has lost its local self-sufficiency and resilience, these are very challenging but important objectives. In a world suffering from climate change, an approaching ecological breakdown and severe economic imbalance, such an initiative is urgently necessary.  

It may be a long way yet from reaching these goals, but it has achieved enough to engender some sense of hope. What’s important that has happened is not that the key goals have been achieved – they are still a very long way off – but that there is now a context within which to work towards them, and some sort of encouragement in that direction from the United Nations. A disparate collection of people with different backgrounds and different priorities has sat down together and thought seriously about what those goals should be; and they have believed together that achieving them is possible.

In fact those aims have been voiced as the long-term goals of the ‘Avalon Agroecologocal Area’ (AAA) project, and the ‘Five Mile Food and Farming’ (5FF) project. These together have been a pilot project, which began last October. It was first exploring the context for sustainable food and farming, in terms of its social, political, economic and technical aspects. The participants were trialing a ‘Toolkit for Agroecological Performance Evaluation’ (TAPE), which has been developed by the UN Food and Agriculture organisation.

10 elements

Interestingly, most farmers and growers taking part were already committed to some form of regenerative agriculture. They used a modified version of the UN FAO’s ‘Toolkit’ to identify their performance for each of ten ‘elements of agroecolgy’. These are: diversity, key to ensuring food security and enhancing natural resources; co-creation and sharing of knowledge, responding to local challenges in creating agricultural innovations; building synergies to enhance key functions across food systems; efficiency – innovative agroecological practices produce more using less external resources; recycling, meaning more agricultural production with less cost; resilience – of people, communities and ecosystems; protecting and improving human and social values; culture and food traditions, supporting culturally appropriate diets; responsible governance – local, national and global; and circular and solidarity economy, reconnecting producers with consumers.

We can imagine that growers who already have a level of commitment to working with nature rather than to ‘industrial’ agriculture would mostly have scored well in most areas. The point, however, is more to take note of those where they could do with improvement – or rather, where they are interested in improvement. Their scores they can keep quietly to themselves.

The second step in the process is to identify and evaluate their performance for each of ten ‘criteria of performance’, which again would focus on what is important to each individual farmer and his or her own priorities. These are more social and economic goals, listed as ‘land tenure, productivity, income, added value, reducing exposure to pesticides, dietary diversity, women’s empowerment, youth employment, biodiversity and soil health’. 

For each of these Elements and Criteria, there will always be a next set of tools to address their primary areas of interest. For instance, for a farmer or a community that wishes to focus on resilience, there will then be a further set of criteria going more deeply into different aspects of resilience. At no stage is there any coercion or insistence, but always there is further opportunity. The hope and expectation is that different people on different holdings will have different priorities and interests, and that taken together the wider community will make overall progress. Since the ethic is one of co-creation and sharing of knowledge, everyone has the opportunity to learn and benefit.

The People’s Assembly in the Town Hall last March marked the final stage of this trial period – step 3 of the ‘TAPE’ process. This was the opportunity for the wider community to make their input into the process, in particular people who are involved in growing – at least at the level of allotments or community gardens. In line with the ethos of the process, no binding decisions were made by the assembly, but the recommendations are welcomed and will be taken forward when they can be. So far a two-month trial of the food hub is being supported, and a harvest festival has been mooted for later in the year. Many more of those great ideas are still in the new mayor’s safekeeping, and with the support of the community they will happen. It is also possible for agricultural projects or other groups to bring forward more additions to the mix, based on their skills and experience. 

There is nothing prescriptive about ‘ten elements’ or ‘ten crireria’ (for the purposes of the pilot project, for instance, things were conveniently done in fives), but the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has put a lot of work into creating a template, and if it is useful it is there to be used. From step one ‘elements’, ‘co-creation and sharing of knowledge’ and ‘responsible governance’ were identified as priorities, and from step two ‘criteria of performance’, ‘soil health’ was identified as a priority. Exactly how these were identified as priorities is not entirely clear, though they had to be chosen from those options that were listed in the TAPE process. Five priorities were chosen when the People’s Assembly results were collated, as being both popular and practical.

Proposed LCN Areas

The seventeen Local Community Networks to be created in Somerset.

Proposed Area 17

Area 17: Avalon and the Poldens. This will be the local area of Somerset in which sustainable farming and food will first be encouraged.

This is not the end of the story – far from it. The new Somerset Council is establishing 18 Local Community Networks (LCNs), including Avalon and the Polden Hills. This community network covers 23 town and parish councils stretching from Keinton Mandeville to Bawdrip, including Glastonbury and Street. Glastonbury Town Council is preparing to propose to this network that they as a whole take forward a larger version of what has so far been known as the Avalon Agroecological Area project. With the support of the South West Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG), Glastonbury’s town council looks set to propose what is termed an Integrated Local Delivery project (ILD), and is already looking for facilitators to be trained for the work. In due course farmers and growers, statutory bodies and wildlife interests within the area will be able to engage in this project, making sense of the maze of resources and funding sources that are available to help in the transition to sustainable farming and food.

But before we get too caught up in the world of all these organisations, acronyms and professional experts, let’s not forget where we started. There is little doubt that something important has happened in the local regenerative farming and growing community, and also there is something special about our little town, its history and its geography. Lets not lose sight of that. Outside bodies can help; and perhaps we can help them too, as an example of what a small town in Somerset can achieve. But for now let’s keep our attention on the five goals that our community can reach for in the fairly short term:

Better connection to the land, essentially a spiritual connection; a new approach to education, such as an annual harvest fair as a way of sharing information, as well as a celebration; better access to land, with a community land trust to provide for small–scale farmers and allotment-holders; a more self-sufficient and resilient local economy, including such things as a local food distribution hub; and encouragement for small-scale farms, co-operative and community-based projects – by extending and continuing the Avalon 5FF process, but also by taking our opportunities wherever they may appear from. In this uncertain world, governments and economies may not last so long; the land and the people have a better chance of survival.