Finding land for a new market garden is arguably one of the most challenging parts of starting a project like Hampshire Market Garden. Much of the UK is full of fields, farms and countryside but a lot of it is locked up in long family owned farms, with conventional agriculture practices at its core, and much of it locked into certain funded schemes that have it locked in year after year. Convincing a conventional farm to sell or lease a piece of that land isn’t simple and the process after that isn’t as easy as a “handshake and start growing” either.

We have been looking for land for this project with half an eye for a couple of years, but back last year in 2023 we stepped up the search and put it out there to see what opportunities could arise. We ended up having conversations with a good number of land owners and looking to progress plans a couple of times but we struggled to find somewhere that would tick all the boxes. We were looking for:

  • Approximately 2 acres of land with space to expand in the future
  • Farm buildings for prep and pack / or hard standing for development
  • Soil with a good starting place to build healthy soil 
  • Good access in a central position in Hampshire 
  • Surroundings without pesticides or already organic farm
  • Water and electricity connections
  • Good relationship with landlord

This isn’t a huge list, but not a small one either and we saw lots of opportunities that just didn’t tick enough of the boxes. In the end we needed to put this list into an order of importance and decide which of these were non-negotiable and which we could live without. We decided that the “organic / no pesticides being used in surrounding farm” point was the most important for us and this led to an early opportunity that seemed perfect having to be pulled out from.

Then one day a completely random call between one of our directors John, and someone we had been working with for a couple of years on supplying their oat mylk occurred. Our sister company Hampshire Veg Box has been supplying George, from Rushmere Farm’s, Toats Mylk to the box customers for a while now and George was supplying some of our veg bags to his customers too.

One day a conversation came about that George had been looking for someone to run a market garden on his land for a while, and that we were looking for a place to set up a market garden. From that telephone chat and a few texts back and forth we decided to have a meeting and see if it could be suitable for both parties.

Toats Mylk Hampshire Market Garden

Rushmere Farm – The Land

George took on his family farm; a 240 acre farm that produces mainly oats, barley and wheat, and converted it to organic in 2022. Not an easy job for a large scale oat farm that has been managed with conventional agriculture and chemical fertilisers for a long time. In an interview with Wicked Leeks he said: “I’ve been pushing dad on what we spend on chemicals for years; they all impact each other,” he explains. “When you use more nitrogen, you get more weeds because they grow better, so then you need more chemicals.”

We were delighted to hear the passion George had for organic and to hear he now wanted to bring some veg production to the offering at Rushmere Farm too. We initially worked on plans for a long thin parcel of a field in Hambledon, but later after some talks with a planning agent found a fantastic site taking on 2 acres of a 13 acre field that is already certified organic with the Soil Association.

Rushmere Farm Land

The land isn’t too sloped, it doesn’t seem to have had much standing water in rain storms, and has had a mix of cover crops and flowers for the last year or so.

Importantly for us too, it has a piece of hard very close proximity that we could add structures too for running the market garden and for letting the veg box company use for packing to. 

George is also passionate about sharing farming and food production with the public, showing where food comes from and brining people back to farms. Rushmere farm has established workshops, stays and charity festivals onsite, the more we heard the more the position seemed perfect for Hampshire Market Garden as our values aligned so much.

The Lease

After discussions and meetings with the partners at Rushmere Farm, we were in a position to move forward and start getting a formal lease in place. It was decided actually that planning permission would be required as the farm is within the South Downs national park, but we will talk about that process later in the story. In order to sort the planning and the lease we employed a local land agent to give us advice and officially put together plans and legal documents.

We thought that doing things this way, properly and officially, was n important factor in maintaining a good relationship with our new-to-be landlords. A lease can outline all the details of a relationship from the very beginning and means that every knows where they stand, what they can do, and how to communicate in the future.

We worked off the basic template of an Agricultural Business Tenancy , and then each added clauses or changes that were important to each party. This takes a good amount of time, it takes patience and understanding to see what is important to each party and to negotiate the right position for all. We went through a good number of iterations for the lease and open communication between us and Rushmere Farm meant that eventually we got a lease which all parties were happy with, just in time for our funding application that would help us build the new market garden (more on that later).

Driving quickly to the land agents office just before closing, to sign the lease, the night before our funding panel met. Then taking it to the Rushmere offices for them to sign the following morning; saw us cutting the timings a bit fine but we were all happy to have got an agreement in that everyone was happy and comfortable with. 

Planning Permission

We decided early on that planning permission would be important to gain to future proof the business and mitigate any risk of complaints slowing production. We thought that planning permission for 2 large polytunnels, and 2 shipping containers as prep-packing buildings would be ideal and after conversations with the landlord and the land agent decided that the best course of action would be for the landlord to gain this planning permission and lease the land with that permission.

This also opened up the opportunity for a permitted development planning permission application. According to the government website:

Permitted development means that if your farm is 5 hectares or more, you have the right to:

erect, extend or alter a building

carry out excavations and engineering operations.

The types of permitted development include:

temporary uses of land

agricultural buildings below a certain size

forestry buildings

caravan sites and related buildings in some circumstances

The benefit, in this situation, of permitted development is that it is a much quicker process, 28 days for decision, and a lot less paperwork, meetings and therefore cost too.

For the application the land agent, with our help, drew up: 

  • Site plans
  • Drawings of the polytunnels including elevations and measurements
  • Drawings of the containers including elevations and measurements
  • Detailed documentation of why the farm required the buildings
  • Form and application (plus fee payment).

This application went in at the beginning of December 2023 and we were delighted to get the thumbs up from Winchester City Council just a few days before Christmas. An extra reason to celebrate over the festive period.

Funding and The Costs of Starting a Market Garden

We are happy to be completely honest and transparent here… starting a market garden is not cheap. It is an expensive list of infrastructure, equipment, compost and people power. It costs well over £60,000 to get started and operating… We didn’t have this kind of money in any way, shape or form… and so we had to seek funding to help us get this off the ground.

We are delighted to say that we have had approval to be supported by LEAP: Loans for Enlightened Agriculture Programme. With a mix of loan and grants from this fantastic company we are able to start this new venture.

However, securing funding is not an easy thing to do. Finding funding that is worth your time is a difficult road to navigate and then pulling on multiple skill sets in business development, accountancy, writing and negotiating is key. Working with LEAP has been fantastic, as part of the second round of the funding application was to spend time with a business mentor and we were assigned the fantastic Maurice from Fresh Management Solutions.

The work we did with Maurice was invaluable, taking our outlined plans and financial predictions and turning them into a well worked spreadsheet that took into account Profit & Loss, Cashflow, Predictions and outcomes of different capital cost spend and different staffing levels and so much more. We looked at the structure of the new CiC company and how we can make it as strong as possible, whilst also having a clear mission. I can’t stress enough how powerful all of these things are when you want a business to last a long time and achieve its targets. 

Hampshire Market Garden Digital Impression

All of that is to say that not only have we now secured funding to start the market garden, but we also have solid plans, missions and financial plans to keep it going and develop a successful business for the next 5 years.

We think this couldn’t be more important as our overall mission of “getting good quality organic produce to local people at an affordable rate” is one that we want to do for a long time, not to setup and realise it is only achievable for the first few years.

So with a lease in place, funding on its way, and planning permission secured, next we need to finalise: what we are going to grow, where we are going to grow it and in what layout we start our new farm. All that in our next blog post coming soon… Follow along and don’t miss any of the story by joining our newsletter below: