Dr Jonny Hanson is aiming to put “the culture back in agriculture” in his role as managing director of Northern Ireland’s first community farm. He co-founded Jubilee Farm, near Larne, with around 150 shareholders from the local community who have invested in an inspirational initiative.
The farm’s commitment to the community and to organic and ethical food production was recently recognised as ‘One to Watch’ in the Social Enterprise Awards Northern Ireland. The judges were impressed by the farm’s focus on growing organic vegetables and rearing pigs and goats ethically for direct sale to people in the surrounding area and from further afield.
Jonny, who has a farming background, was also named ‘Young Social Entrepreneur of the Year’ in recognition of his inspirational leadership.
As a child, Jonny wanted to be both a farmer and a conservationist. “With this job at Jubilee Farm I really have a foot in both camps with my interests in nature and wildlife on one hand, and in sustainable agriculture and agroecology on the other hand,” he explains.
Based at Glynn, the farm, owned by the community shareholders, covers over 13 acres from which it sells boxes of heritage vegetables and free range pork especially through a novel Pig Club. The club enables people to buy a section of the pig to enjoy at Christmas.
In addition, the farm rears goats and has plans to use their milk in craft cheese production. Free range turkeys are being reared for the forthcoming Christmas season.
The novel farm, a registered co-operative, operates an extensive programme of activities for the local community and especially for school pupils. It welcomes volunteers interested in farming and ethical food production.
“In idyllic and accessible surroundings, we also offer a range of activities with small supervised groups of up to 3-4 individuals. Through our community activities we aim to provide good, affordable food in the form of free range meat and seasonal chemical-free vegetables. Our supporters also have the chance to be involved in food production. In this way, we’re cultivating a community that’s based on Christian values in the development of the first community farm scheme in Northern Ireland, and putting culture back into agriculture,” he says
Commenting on the awards, Jonny says: “We were thrilled to receive this important endorsement for our local community engagement. The two awards are a marvellous boost for our work with and for the local community and the commitment of our shareholders,” he adds.
Jubilee Farm, a Food NI member company, raised £300,000 through a community appeal to enable it to acquire the small farm outside Larne for organic food production and other community focused activities. These activities include a unique programme for asylum seekers and refugees living in Belfast to gain experience growing their own food and to enjoy the Co Antrim countryside.
Refugees and asylum seekers from the Ivory Coast, Syria and Iran, several of whom farmed in their own countries, have already worked at the farm.
“We are essentially a Community Benefit Society – a form of cooperative social enterprise – that’s focused on supporting the community. All our funds and cash from the sale of produce are invested in the farm and our programme of community work,” Jonny explains.
“These community activities include work with churches and local schools on growing vegetables in particular. We regularly host nature education visits for pupils keen to see how we grow organic vegetables and rear livestock. They love getting out into the countryside and it’s great to see them exploring the farm, getting their hands dirty and enjoying the fresh air.”
Established in 2017, Jubilee Farm, Jonny, a father of three young children, continues, is underpinned by ‘creation care’ which he defines as “environmental and agricultural stewardship that incorporates flourishing, fairness, wellbeing and welfare”.
He adds: “In seeking to implement this holistic vision, our mission is to practise and promote care farming, community-supported agriculture, and conservation education and engagement.”
Another important role of the farm is “to provide literal and figurative common ground for all sections of the community to come together”. In setting up Northern Ireland’s first community farm, restoring our relationships with nature is also a means to restoring our relationships with each other.
“As well as cultivating vegetables and wild flowers and livestock, we’re building community, using ecology and agro-ecology as tools to promote reconciliation in our still-divided, post-conflict society,” he explains.
An ambitious five-year plan has been shaped “to embrace organic farming, educational outreach, school and group visits, care farming and an internship programme”. A planned glamping initiative will encourage rural staycations.
“Jubilee Farm is fundamentally owned by the community and for the community and, importantly, welcomes people of all backgrounds and beliefs. Everyone is welcome. It’s a common ground for good in many ways,” he says
“Our care farming services focus on human health and well-being, notably the many benefits – physical, mental, social and spiritual – that come from working with animals, plants, soil and other people.”