Updated: May 4, 2022
Written by project lead Steph Wetherell, edited by Dora Taylor
In 2020, The Landworkers' Alliance's (LWA) ran a pilot for their mentoring scheme, which was funded by Farming the Future. The scheme aims to support new entrant farmers by pairing them with more experienced practitioners who can offer practical support, advice and solidarity. Farmers were supported over nine months, through a mixture of group mentoring and one-to-one sessions. This combination of individualised and group-based mentoring aims to build up a network of support and knowledge sharing that will bolster landworkers' capacity and resillience, in the short, medium and long-term.
Hélène and Stephen were two participants in this pilot, who've shared their experiences of the scheme. They run Stonelynk Organics on two acres of land in East Sussex, where they grow vegetables to sell to local businesses and individuals. They joined the scheme at the beginning of their third growing season, after seeing it advertised in the LWA newsletter. It was the perfect fit for them - their business was under 5 years old and they were at a stage where they were ready to push and develop it to become financially sustainable.
The programme “is a really good price”, says Hélène, who felt confident that, as it was being run by the Landworkers’ Alliance, that it would be geared towards “people trying to make a living” from small scale farming rather than gardening or for a hobby. Hélène found the programme really appealing because it was “adapted to the life of growers”. Because the mentors were also farmers or growers “there would be an understanding about time management. The flexibility of the programme was really attractive for us”.
When Stephen and Hélène joined the scheme in 2020, they were renting the land and keen for mentor support in finding a permanent site. For their first one-to-one mentoring session, their mentors visited their growing site and “saw how amazing it was and made us realise how great the site was. Our mentors pushed us to approach our landlord with a sensible offer to purchase the 4.5 acre site”. Prior to the visit Stephen and Hélène had been looking to move, and considering other potential sites with their mentors. Hélène explains “we were scared of looking ridiculous in asking our landlord to sell the land to us, but our mentors gave us the confidence to ask by helping us look serious by putting the case together and making a sensible offer”. They successfully purchased the site in 2021!
At the beginning of the scheme Hélène and Stephen’s mentors encouraged them to develop objectives for the year. The first was finding a permanent site (which they did), the second was to reach a target turnover, and the third to establish long-term goals and strategy. They used sessions with their mentors to sound out ideas about how to reach their target turnover. Previously they had sold produce mainly to local shops. They were encouraged by their mentors to change their model to sell more produce directly so they would receive the full price for more of the produce. Now, 18 months on, their produce is sold 70% direct through their online ordering system which customers collect from the farm or through their veg-box scheme. The remainder is sold to local shops. They reached the target turnover and more before the year was up.
The pilot scheme has been very flexible, aiming to find what works for both mentees and mentors. Stephen, Hélène and their group agreed to do group mentoring through site visits to each farm. This was “really interesting for us to see other farms, and it was very practical. It naturally triggers questions such as “what variety?” or “when did you plant?”. The rest of the mentoring was one-to-one, a mixture of online and in-person. Hélène found her mentors very “efficient” and “really organised - they asked us to think of objectives, stepping stones to get to those objectives, encouraged us to ask questions, think of questions and send them in advance of meetings, and suggest topics to talk about”.
For Stephen and Hélène the highlight of the season was coming together in their mentor group for an end of season celebration at their mentors’ farm, eating food, sitting around a fire and sharing experiences over a few drinks. They are still in touch with their fellow group mentees and, being in similar positions and running businesses in similar areas, they provide valuable solidarity and support for each other.
Overall, Hélène says, the scheme was “better than expected”. It was “all down to our mentors, they were amazing. At our first session our mentors suggested future session dates which we stuck to, and [we] always made time for them... We had such an amazing experience”.