Collaboration and cluster groups

A feature article looks at the launch of a new Environmental Farmers Group cell in the region
Farm collaboration 1 - do not use elsewhere

The UK Government’s plans for nature recovery and climate action have resulted in a shift in agricultural policy in England towards payments for public goods, and the emergence of private sector nature markets for carbon, biodiversity and water.

This creates funding opportunities for large scale landscape restoration projects delivered through collaboration between multiple landowners and land managers. Collaboration can reduce costs and be of value for accessing public or private funding, where potential buyers of environmental services can approach a single entity, making it simpler for the buyer and increases opportunities for landowners and managers of all business size.

One example of this kind of collaboration is the Environmental Farmers Group (EFG), which recently launched its latest cell including land managers in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Rutland, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.

Environmental Farmers Group

EFG has been set up by farmers, for farmers, so they can work together to improve their farmed environment and enter nature markets with confidence and at scale. Over 170 farmers gathered at the Allerton Project in Leicestershire and Courteenhall Estate in Northamptonshire to launch the new Central England cell of the EFG.

The aim of the cooperative is to provide natural capital buyers or funders for nature-based projects a single point of contact. This ensures that participating farmers receive fair reward for delivering nature recovery and climate change mitigation on a huge scale. The first EFG cell was set up in Hampshire in 2022 with funding from the Defra Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund. Its success has led to expansion in other areas.

Natural Capital Advisory (NCA), a subsidiary of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), brokers trades on behalf of EFG and provides its environmental auditing service, guaranteeing a high level of assurance.

GWCT Chief Executive Teresa Dent said: “It’s wonderful that such a large group of neighbouring farmers has shown enthusiasm for the concept of the rapidly expanding EFG. We look forward to welcoming them into the wider group and working with them on their large-scale conservation plan whilst helping them develop their distinctive cell with its unique geographical and cultural identity.

“Given the group’s proximity to large industrial urban areas there is huge potential for central England farmers to play a key role in delivering statuary and voluntary environmental offsets, meeting and beating government nature positive targets in the process.”

Dr Johnny Wake is Chairman of EFG Central England and managing partner of Courteenhall Farms in Northamptonshire. He said: “We’ve had a wide range of land managers showing interest from smallholders to big estates and tenant farmers to landlords. As the biggest group geographically, we have got an exciting opportunity to deliver environmental improvement at scale and to help our members to gain access to natural capital markets.

“We were delighted to host more than 100 farmers at one of the two inaugural meetings of the new EFG group here at Courteenhall and the Allerton Project launch event was equally well attended, with both venues at full capacity. The first farmers to join the group will benefit from the first trades and be ahead of the game as natural capital markets emerge.

The EFG is a natural evolution of the farmer cluster principle also developed by the GWCT, which provides a structure for neighbouring groups of farmers to access funds to coordinate landscape scale conservation projects.

Farm collaboration 2 - do not use elsewhere
Guests meeting at the Courteenhall Estate launch event

Suffolk Cluster

A successful example of such collaboration is a farm cluster involved in a Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Landscape Recovery project in Suffolk. In September 2023, Suffolk Wildlife Trust, the Stour Valley Farm Cluster, and the Wool Towns Farm Cluster submitted a joint bid to DEFRA for the second round of the Landscape Recovery pilot.

DEFRA approved the project and awarded £750,000 to fund feasibility works for a 2 year period for what is hoped will end up being a long term agreement funded through a mix of private and public finance. The pilot is one of 34 second-round projects and part of the Environmental Land Management schemes (ELM). The aim of the project is to enhance and connect wildlife habitats across farmlands in the project area - which extends through the Stour, Brett, and Box valleys.

It is believed there are now around 14 farm cluster groups in Suffolk and this pilot follows on from a first round of the Landscape Recovery project involving Waveney and Little Ouse Headwaters.

Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund

Defra has a history of funding land manager collaboration through the Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund, which was set up in response to the success of the first farmer clusters. The future plans for the fund are being considered by Defra, who plan on launching an updated and expanded version of the fund later this year.

Tips for farm cluster success and pitfalls to avoid

The CLA and Charles Russell Speechlys, a full service law firm, have combined to develop the following list of considerations for farm collaboration and clusters.

  • Seek professional advice early: The sooner you engage professionals to advise on tax and legal aspects of collaboration, the easier and more cost effective it can be. It can take some time to negotiate joint venture agreements, shareholders’ agreements etc., so it is best to be prepared well in advance of anticipated collaboration.
  • Consider the group’s size: Smaller groups may pay more per member for overhead costs but may also have more successful outcomes and be easier to manage or facilitate.
  • Choosing the right adviser or facilitator: The adviser should be someone trusted by those farmers involved, with an understanding of the local area and businesses, and up to date with current policy and opportunities.
  • Seeking additional funding opportunities: Some funding may be limited or restricted (e.g. CS Facilitation Fund, which only pays for a facilitators time and only some activities). This may be supplemented with additional funding such as from local government, Environment Agency, water companies or conservation charities. Farmers may also choose to part-fund group activities themselves, for example topping up the facilitators funding to allow them to go beyond what is permitted through government funding schemes.
  • Agree on shared goals: Having common goals, ideally clearly articulated and written down will help give the group focus.
  • Manage the timing/pace of activity: Building trust and working relationships can take time. Doing too much too soon may mean that the resulting collaboration is more fragile and could break down, especially under pressure from difficulties or risks.
  • Decide on how much risk to take on and pool. Collaboration may just involve group discussions or pooling resources to hire a group facilitator. More risk is entailed in entering joint agreements or projects under a contract.