A permaculture garden or weedy mess?
Farming for the Future - despite what the neighbours think
Ever feel you are swimming against the tide? Rebecca Hosking describes the sometimes lonely and uncomfortable position of being a farmer willing to experiment with new techniques and practices used in Holistic Management, Permaculture Design and Renegenative Agriculture and therefore face a sea of criticism from local (conventional) farmers.
Over the past few of weeks I've been reflecting on those common cultural barriers and mental blockers that we feel have hindered our progress toward a sustainable, resilient future on our farm.
Not so long along ago I had phone call from a very exasperated friend of mine. Having carefully planted her newly acquired allotment using permaculture principles, a couple of months into the growing season she received a stiff letter from her allotment association requesting her to tidy up her 'messy planting', informing her there were standards she was required to meet if she wished to continue utilising that allotment space.
Being a considerate soul she pulled up a few 'weeds' she would rather have kept and scaled back her nettle and comfrey patch. My friend was sure that gardening with permaculture principles was the right way to go but not only was she finding it increasingly difficult to accommodate the arbitrary rules of her allotment committee, she was also feeling rather uncomfortable with the noticeable disapproval of the more conventional gardeners around her.
After some more tutting at her unruly green manure cover crop and on hearing the 'absolutely no trees' ruling she ended up letting the allotment go and concentrating her efforts on her considerably smaller back garden. My friend is not a weak person but, on this occasion, she was not in the mood for a fight. The point is that even if we are absolutely sure everyone else around us is on the wrong path, there is a relentless human pressure to conform. As a social animal, it is normal to crave acceptance and inclusion.
Now, apart from the obvious issue of scale, forging a new direction for a farm is like changing the way you grow vegetables on an allotment. Whatever you do to the land, it never goes without being noticed by someone and commented on.
Most of the farming families that surround us I've known since being a little girl. For the most part they are good, kind people so we don't really mind them thinking we're a bit wacky and a bit 'eco' or 'greenies' or whatever else they call us – that's fine, it goes with the territory. However, for us personally, this is a bit by the by because we have to answer to an older generation on this farm and they are very much concerned about upholding their local public image and not standing out from the farming crowd.
Not bucking the trend
We, like my friend with the allotment, have found ourselves curtailing what we've wished to do to avoid arguments. For instance, we would like to move to smaller native hardy breeds of livestock for a number of sound ecological and economical reasons but we're blocked from doing so because 'proper farmers have big animals, small ones are for hobby farmers and smallholders'.
Conventional farming shares with conventional gardening a love affair with order and neatness. Straight lines, clipped hedges, uniform crops and pasture that looks like the fairway at Gleneagles is a strange shorthand for 'good farming'. No matter how gruff and self-assured farmers may appear, none of them want to be thought of as bad farmers and there is nothing that says 'bad farming' in pasture more than weeds. There is a big storm brewing on the horizon here regarding what we call 'The Weeds of Shame'.
It is our desire to turn this farm into a shining example of regenerative agriculture. As such, there are management practices we wish to introduce that actively and deliberately encourage the proliferation of 'weeds'. We even want to go as far as broadcast sowing 'weeds' into our pastures because as an animal fodder they are highly nutritious, being high in trace minerals and proteins.
Additionally by introducing them it will increase stabilisation of the pasture root structure drastically improving the water cycle, build topsoil, sequester carbon, accumulate minerals, hugely benefit insect life and pollinators which will benefit our fruit trees and the wild bird population... so the list goes on. However, 'weeds' in your fields are something to be ashamed of!
Conventionally, docks, dandelions, thistles, nettles etc. means poor pasture management and the worry will be your neighbours will be judging you for mismanaging the land. No one wants to be ridiculed or judged and I do understand my family's concerns; however, the reason we are trying hard to shed the worry of what others think is that we have seen what those who have freed themselves from those shackles have managed to achieve.
Pioneers Joel Salatin & Neil Dennis
For some it's come more naturally, and some positively thrive off standing out from the crowd and being different. Fast becoming the poster boy of holistic farming, Joel Salatin revels in it. I've heard him described as a punchbag whose smile gets bigger the more he gets hit. But I doubt anyone could argue with what he has achieved at Polyface Farm in terms of land and business health.
Similarly, in Canada, on the holistically managed ranch of Neil Dennis the land speaks for itself. Every year there is more biodiversity and more resilience as his business goes from strength to strength. And his main tool for achieving this is a massive steaming, stomping mob of over 1000 cattle. Neil says that becoming a Holistic practitioner means you simultaneously provide your local community with a free service. He goes on to describe how his farming neighbours are now all so busy criticising and bitching about his farming methods that they forget to fight amongst themselves anymore.
We view ourselves very much as second or even third wave following these pioneering farmers. But even so these farming methods are still very much viewed as 'fringe' by conventional agriculture, much as permaculture is viewed as 'fringe'. As such one of the toughest things to cope with on a regular basis is that feeling of isolation from those around you.
Find like minds
Isolation can induce horrible negativity. We've found it saps our energy, stifles us and slows down making actual physical progress on the farm. It's a struggle to keep up enthusiasm and as a result we have in the past ground to a complete halt. For us, the easiest way to cope is to occasionally change our neighbours for the day. By that I mean go out and find like minds.
Luckily on the rare occasions we attend courses and events there are now the same sustainable-minded farmers turning up and it's a real joy to see their faces. You know you're in good company for the day where everyone has an interest in what's being debated and nobody is there to belittle or put it down. On those days you know you can openly talk 'shop' in great detail and get valued advice from on hand experts. There is a huge relief in knowing you're not alone.
We've had friends ask in the past, "I want to buy a plot of land what should I be looking for?". Now we know how relatively straightforward it is to heal land using regenerative/ecological/permaculture principles our recommendations have changed from just looking at the topography and quality of the land.
I would still say ideally look for south facing land with its own water supply but, after that, really the most important thing of all is to have like-minded folks around you. The land in a way is the easy part, you can practically transform that relatively quickly. What takes far more work and can be a lot harder to build are personal connections, rapport and affiliations with the community around you. As you're starting up it helps so much if at least one other person close by understands what you are trying to achieve.
I guess we all desire a level of social acceptance, and not to feel too fringe from society or be judged. For anyone practising permaculture there is a keenness for the ecological concepts we're working with to have greater understanding from a wider part of society. It would certainly help with a vast number of ecological problems we're facing. Until that time we all have to contend with what the neighbours think. Be aware of it and be neighbourly but don't let it hold you back.
Rebecca Hosking and Tim Green made the BBC2 film 'A Farm for the Future' and write a regular blog about their experiments and experiences putting permaculture, holistic management and other regenerative agriculture techniques into practise on the farm and in their garden. To find out more click HERE.
For more information about Renegnerative Agriculture & Holistic Management courses worldwide see http://regenag.com
For upcoming courses in the UK see http://www.regenerativeagriculture.co.uk/
That's very supportive and helpful to me.
Here in North Wales we are developing a permaculture coop farm, but stockfree too.(and gift economy.)
I really appreciate what you said.
Mind you, you know, around where I am one or two of the farms have been pioneers too and experienced these judgemental attitudes themselves, so can be empathetic. Our farm is small but my very large farm neighbours fitted themselves up with 13kw hydro 30 odd years ago and I remember them saying they had to put up with it! Now they have a windmill and a large biodeisel plant, so all in all maybe ive got it ok compared to you, but ours a vegan farm! yikes. toleration or what.
We are developing a forest garden plant nursery by the way, and supplied many people and organisations last year on a freeconomy basis, we are up high and sourcing local Welsh varieties of fruit, nut trees and bushes. Also Robert Hart used to be a member of our coop, and we have his redcurrents and blackcurrents if you ever want some youd be welcome.
Best of luck and many thanks for your article and for bringing out that film, farm for a future. I know many really appreciated it
Rebecca, i am thinking of you yourself as a glorious weed. A pioneer plant sending down a strong root to bring up readily available nutrients from deep below the surface of things ordinary.....gush, gush
To take an optimistic viewpoint, massive changes in perception can actually come about quite quickly in historical terms. Think early abstract artists of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, etc .....Or Wilhelm Reichs' views on sexuallity in the puritanical fifties.
Both these movements although now being vulgarised to a certain extent by commercial advertising are nevertheless percolating their way into general attitudes in a relatively positive way. Maybe it is a good time for massive changes in perception.
Recently quoted by Cameron Leckie but worth repeating is Ghandis' statement.....'First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win"
Or Victor Hugo...."There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come"
Here is a link to Joseph Cocannouers' classic 'voice in the wilderness' book on weeds explaining clearly and simply what they do and how they do it..... http://journeytoforever.org/farm_library/weeds/WeedsToC.html
visitors and low budget touring permies welcome! Y
Ah Rebecca I understand totally! I recently told Dartmoor National Parks Hill Farming project at their request what could be done re diversification....much too scary....! I keep a very small primitive breed of sheep after nearly 3 decades of 'normal' commercials....much better for the ground and amazing meat....but looked at with astonishment by my neighbours who call them my 'handbag sheep' however when i get better prices for breeding stock they scratch their heads with amazement! Keep being different, keep your weeds...we have lots and just get volunteers from Helpx to pull some when they appear too much....sheep love pulled nettles and they are good fodder! It takes courage to do things differently and I think the 'what will the neighbours think' is one of the biggest barriers to change in farming today....you go girl!!!!!
So many of your sentiments very much strike a cord with us.
Having only started farming 6 years ago and having followed the advice of all our neighbours for the first year, I fear we have disappointed them all - simply by registering to convert to organic. Since then we went for old native breeds, just as you suggest, oversown the whole farm with a rich mixture of old varieties of grass, legumes and herbs, all perennial, all with deep roots, maturing in different seasons and all good fodder. I simply don't know why anyone would want to grow rye grass and have to feed it four times a year to keep it growing ...
Amusingly, our fields look very much like the photo with your article, full of colour from various flowers of all those weeds, as well as the lovely clover. Leaving strips of our silage fields unharvested was a great success, allowing all the flowers and grasses to set seed and helpfully re-seed the whole field. I am now fencing off islands of land in our stock fields for the same reason.
I am keen to learn more. Is there a regular meeting of organic/ permaculture farmers in the South West/ Devon/ Cornwall area?
Paul & Celia
I suspect it was pretty difficult for Galileo too.
Not much comfort now I suspect, but one day when we're all running low on oil, the current nay-sayers will look back at your wisdom.
I greatly enjoyed "A Farm for the Future" (I watched it for the first time today), and congratulate you on your work.
We need to spread the concept of permaculture and a low-energy lifestyle (not just for social acceptance!). Working with Nature instead of against it just HAS to be right!
A big thank you for this article and for the video Farm for the future. I confess that I've watched it so many times I almost know by heart each sentence. I watch it every time I feel isolated and discouraged and it really helps.
I can only imagine how hard it must be when you also have to answer to an older generation on your farm. We luckily do not have this problem since this is not a family farm, just a place that we bought.
All in all we have not been criticized that much during the five years we've lived here. I think it's mainly because our neighbours just think we are amateurs who don't know anything. They laugh at us and we laugh with them, that's how we survive. We never boast about anything we do, we don't ever utter the words "green" or "ecological" to them, we just admire what the neighbours do and how fine their wheat fields are. The position we have taken is that we are poor amateurs who can't afford machinery or fertilizers or herbicides and wouldn't know how to use them anyway.
However, it's just a survival strategy. It does not alleviate the loneliness and lack of like minded people. I wholeheartedly agree with Rebecca that if you have a choice then absolutely choose a place where there are like-minded neighbours. Far more important than topography or quality of land.
I too experienced something similar in an allotment scheme: came in one morning to find the perimeter of our allotment had been sprayed with herbicide and had turned brown, presumably to show us how it ought to be done. Then was told by an old timer that the modest 'weed' cover I left in place as a green mulch between crops was stealing moisture out of the soil! (I'm a soil scientist..). I showed him how fresh and moist my sandy soil was underneath my harmless canopy of green but all discussion was fertile.. Finally I was accused of being the main cause of weed seed in the whole allotment scheme (even though I never let any weeds go to seed). When I asked them how it could be that no matter how frantically they hoed their rows on a daily basis, weeds kept emerging, they had no answer, but kept on being angry of course.. And I had a garden in linear rows and nothing that unusual growing!! I think exasperation is the only word that describes the feeling of standing up to such idiocy. And I think the same goes for the way bigotted, uninformed and close-minded people in genral react to anything outside the box, so sad really..
BUT I'm happy to say that I now garden in a newly established social-ecological allotment scheme which has organic practices and the inclusion of patches of wildlife and diversity in general as its foundign principles :-)) and people of all ages, backgrounds and walks of life are taking part in it. Here I am part of a group who have started a permaculture garden, and we can leave/plant/grow as many plants in any (dis)order as we please :-) http://www.boersepoort.org/
It goes to show, never give up, positive change is always around the corner! If not, make it so!