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How farms are using permaculture design to survive and prosper

Louise Cartwright |
Monday, 16th January 2012

Louise Cartwright visits three farms in England and discovers how they have used permaculture principles to diversify yields and manage their businesses

Haye Farm education centre

Haye Farm education centre

The rise in fuel prices has seen greater awareness and a wider concern for what life will be like when the oil runs out. This has seen interest in less chemical dependant farming methods bringing permaculture to the forefront of discussion and debate.

A handful of farms in the UK have been using permaculture for many years as a systematic way of designing, developing and maintaining their various enterprises. These early adopters, with the help of the UK's permaculture charity, the Permaculture Association, began designing and experimenting long before peak oil and climate change were widely recognised.

As these farms evolved, their original designs developed and morphed. Their evolution has created systems that have helped to inspire others creating a catalyst for change. Farmers and smallholders are beginning to recognise that applying the ethics and principles of permaculture can create resilient multi-yielding systems that in turn build livelihoods and strengthen local communities.

As coordinator for the LAND project1 I have visited several established farms using the ethics and principles of permaculture. Below are three examples that have been practising permaculture and experimenting with different ways of growing food for many years.

Keveral Farm, Cornwall

Keveral Farm has had a community of people living and working there since 1973, with a permaculture group set up in 1997 when the resident community managed to buy the farm from its landlords. Today Keveral is made up of seven small farm-based enterprises and is home to one of the oldest local vegetable box schemes in Cornwall. TV chef Jamie Oliver's prestigious '15' restaurant is one of their regular customers together with a number of local food outlets.

Polytunnel at Keveral FarmPolytunnel at Keveral Farm

To maximise space and increase yield, specific niches have been exploited around the farm from growing mushrooms in derelict barns and 'micro salads' in spare sections of polytunnels to managing hedgerows to provide fruit yields and essential wildlife habitats. 'Weeds' get composted and wild foods including edible flowers are successfully marketed.

Keveral also uses permaculture principles to make business decisions. When their famous veg box's workload proved too much for the farm, they applied self regulation and accepted feedback. As a result the community decided to join forces with some of the local organic farmers in the area and run it as an informal partnership. With this specific principle in mind, the design for the farm is constantly evolving to meet the needs of the residents and the local community and so mimics a natural system.

Farmeco Community Care Farm, Nottinghamshire

Farmeco Community Care Farm is an example of a farm striving to demonstrate that permaculture can be used for large-scale farming. At 267 hectares (660 acres) strong, it's a third generation farm enterprise near Nottingham run by David Rose. It is one of four farms that work together as a conglomerate. Together, they are making farming more environmentally sustainable and better suited to the needs of local food markets.

David has developed his farm to make it more wildlife-friendly by being less dependent on chemicals and is keen to involve the wider community through the creation of a community supported agriculture scheme (CSA). Local people are encouraged to get involved at the farm by growing on their own allotment on the farm's land and by getting involved in the business directly.

Very free range chickensVery free range chickens

The main projects for the farm at present include building a classroom facility and putting up polytunnels next to it. These growing spaces will help young learners gain hands-on food production experience, although education is already part of Farmeco's ethos. A recent week-long festival at the farm for 400 school children taught them about the connection of land, rivers and oceans.

Farmeco methods are radically different to conventional farming practices because they believe that employers have a responsibility to help educate the workforce of the future. They are also keen to involve the wider community in an extensive reform within agriculture.

Haye Farm, Worcestershire

Haye Farm in Worcestershire is a second-generation family farm with 20 hectares (50 acres) of land made up of traditional pastureland, fruit orchards and meadows grazed by Wiltshire horn sheep and Dexter cattle. A winter grazing system dramatically reduces the farm's dependence on hay, which otherwise needs a lot of fuel to produce. The land is currently in a Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) agreement, which means that it is extensively grazed and they fund educational access visits to the farm and have helped finance a classroom.

In the interests of 'using and valuing diversity', another permaculture principle, Haye Farm's additional business interests include two coarse fishing pools, a small caravan site and a recent barn conversion providing self-catering accommodation for up to 15 people suitable for residential courses.

With the help of our permaculture design support in the LAND learning network, Stewart and David are redesigning their farms so they use minimal outside inputs of chemicals, fertilisers and feeds.

Dexters at Haye FarmDexters at Haye Farm

An Emerging Trend

Pioneering projects demonstrate the value of using a permaculture design approach. Designing to ensure each element has multiple functions, soil management that is wedded to minimal tillage, working to engage the local community and expansion of woodland for biodiversity is dormant and even nonsensical in today's world of profit driven commercial agricultural systems. Tomorrow's world, which will see the increasing rise in oil and ultimately food prices, will bring about fierce changes and make our current fossil fuel based practises uneconomic.

The Permaculture Association is working to develop a network of farms wishing to use permaculture methods, share research and develop wider collaboration to support low carbon farming. Please email network@permaculture.org.uk if you are interested in participating. Or to support the Association's work, join or donate online at www.permaculture.org.uk

1 LAND learning centres are places where people can visit or volunteer to learn how the ethics and principles of permaculture are applied. To discover more about the LAND Project and to locate your nearest centre, see www.permaculture.org.uk/LAND

Louise Cartwright works as one of the head growers of Kippax CSA (www.kippaxcsa.co.uk) and is Network Coordinator of the LAND project, creating a publicly accessible England-wide permaculture learning and demonstration network.

To learn more about permaculture ethics and principles please see www.permaculture.co.uk/what-is-permaculture or see two articles by Maddy Harland 'Ethics in Permaculture' in PM60 and 'Permaculture Principles' in PM61.

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