Designing a Permaculture/Biodynamic Farm From Scratch

Marina O'Connell
Monday, 21st March 2016

Marina O'Connell from The Apricot Centre in Essex explains the design and implementation process of their latest project, the biodynamic and permaculture, Huxhams Cross Farm in Dartington Devon.

It’s a sunny afternoon in October and 50 people are in a field discussing the layout of agroforestry rows across a field. Later on in the local village hall with 100 people present, the new farm was launched along with a share issue. For £250 anyone could buy a share in the new farm and become its co-owners alongside the existing 150 share holders. 

The farm is Huxhams Cross Farm in Dartington in Devon, and it is at the moment, in reality, a collection of six fields that have been bought by the Biodynamic Land Trust (BDLT), to be held in perpetuity in sustainable food production, and leased on a long term tenancy to the Apricot Centre. The BDLT is a Community Benefit company and the Apricot Centre is a Community Interest Company. 

The Apricot Centre team have been busy designing the farm using permaculture methodology, agroforestry techniques woven together with biodynamic farming methods. 

So how do you make six fields into a farm? What is a farm in this context? Martin Large of the BLDT wanted to create a ‘meme’, a replicable, viable farm model designed from bare land into a thriving farm that is economically viable, that is connected to its community, environmentally rich, producing good quality food and supporting wildlife at the same time.

Buying a farm

The BDLT success formula for a community buy out of farm land is ideally a supportive community, an active local group, good farmers with a viable business plan and land for sale that is well located, and keen vendors. The Dartington Hall Trust sold the Huxhams Cross site to the BDLT as it fitted in well with their plan for a ‘learning campus’ of farming techniques in and around the estate. 

As a joint team, the BDLT and the Apricot Centre needed to hold a positive vision, build relationships and community with lots of farm walks, and engage with a very diverse, active, creative Totnes community and beyond. 

The BDLT successfully raised enough gifts, loans and shares to buy the 34 acres of farmland, Huxhams Cross, from the Dartington Hall Trust for £220,000 on 11th September 2015 from about 150 investors.

Land survey process 

Whilst this process was going on we ‘made friends’ with the site; we walked it, poked around the corners, took soil samples and tested them for potassium, phorous, pH, and organic matter. We sat in the wind, watched the sun movements, followed water down the slopes and as it popped out on the Key lines.

We measured altitudes and slopes and did contour mapping. We looked at old maps, gazed at hedges, admired views and stood in howling gales in the rain to see where the wind came from.

We followed deer tracks, and talked to the dog walkers and neighbours to find out what was and what had been possible on the site. We spoke to the previous contractors and farmers who had worked the soil. We also sat down for quiet observation time, to get a sense of the dreaming of the place using the Apricot Centre process work methods and some Goethean observation techniques.

We spoke to the stakeholders; the local neighbours, the biodynamic community, the people interested in local good quality food, Dartington Hall Trust, and to other local food producers to find out how we could collaborate. We spoke to many people who didn’t like what we were doing. We spoke to the national stakeholders and asked what they would like to see happen on the farm; the Permaculture Association and the BDLT. As a team we focused our vision and skills and how far we were going to stretch them, how much money we needed to earn to support ourselves and how much money and time could we invest in the development phase.

Analysis and design process

The BDLT suggested that we do the core of the design work in a workshop format so that other people could see how it was done. A bit of cross fertilisation, so the biodynamic practitioners could see how permaculture design is done in real time and permaculture practitioners could see how biodynamic farmers worked with the land and finance. These worked very well.

Function and element analysis

We created a list of the functions that this particular farm should fulfil from the survey work. This turned out to be:

- Produce BD food - vegetables / fruit / eggs/ have at least two cows

- Support biodiversity

- Offer training 

- Offer access to children

- Offer a wellbeing service

- Be a demonstration farm

- Carry out research on the farm development

- Be economically viable

- Be beautiful.

Zone and sector analysis

On the large scale maps of the site, we mapped out on overlays the direction of the wind, the flow of the water, the sunny and shady spots. On another overlay we mapped out the people flow on the farm, where we would have a cup of tea, what areas we would go to most often, and why, where the paths would be. We tweaked the zones for the larger scale and mapped these on overlays.

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Designing

We made a huge scale map on the floor of the farm and then got out the toys, the plasticine and twigs. The whole group then spent a few hours modelling what the new farm might look like.

Key to this scale of design was the preparation. In our aim for a closed loop system, we needed to know what the site could support realistically. For instance, one hectare of land will grow approximately four tonnes of wheat, and this will feed approximately 100 chickens for a year with some extra protein input. Four tonnes of wheat require four cubic meters of barn storage space. This helped us to decide on how much land to give to each ‘element’ in the farm. The model was shuffled around until it worked and flowed. 

We ran the workshop twice, once for the pattern of the whole site, and then repeated to work on the detail. Working as a group brought unexpected and wonderful creativity, pushing the boundaries of us as a team, and making the design more rich and playful.

Implementation 

Once we, as the Apricot Centre, had signed the lease in September 2015, the implementation of the design began. 

Fertility building started as early as April 2014, and we took a risk and paid a contractor to plough the whole farm – apart from the permanent pasture – and had it sown with a mixture of five types of clover and two types of grass specially mixed for our purpose and soil. These will evolve into the base of our perennial and vegetable and arable systems. We will plant the agroforestry rows and the orchards through the green manure, and graze with chickens without the need to disturb it. In the interim, the green manures have been topped off a number of times, injecting the soil with much needed organic matter and naturally sourced fertility. In 2016, the fields will be grazed with sheep, and sub-soiled to aid drainage and ease compaction. In 2017, we will start cropping and about a third of the green manures will be in cultivation at any one time. 

To increase the soil biodiversity we applied the Biodynamic Horn Manure Preparation in October 2015. This has been proven in long term ‘randomised plot’ trials by The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Switzerland to increase the biodiversity of the soil, increasing the micro flora and fauna populations. This increases long term fertility and soil structure. We will start making compost once we start actively growing and that will be applied to the intensively grown beds in the ‘zone one’ areas and the tunnels. A flock of 100 chickens will be introduced in spring 2016 to the orchards to increase the potassium levels that are currently a bit low, and to graze the green manures so we don’t have to cut them. We will put an electric fence around the whole orchard to keep out foxes and deer.

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Applying biodynamic preparations

Agroforestry rows will fuel a biomass boiler, the wood ash will also increase the pottassium levels in the soil and the trees themselves ‘mine’ deep minerals in the soil. 

Measuring the increase in fertility and the changes in the soil are one of the research aims of the project. We will do this with annual soil testing but also through worm counts that act as an indicator of the biodiversity of the soil. 

This winter we are ‘sculpting’ our work on paper to the actual landscape, and tweaking it as we go on, planting the first 50 fruit trees, an acre of soft fruit, and the 1000m of agroforestry rows.

Huxhams Cross Farm will be offering volunteer opportunities, so keep an eye out if you wish to be involved: www.apricotcentre.co.uk/huxhamscrossfarm/volunteering

To find out more about this porject, visit www.apricotcentre.co.uk/huxhamscrossfarm

Further resources

The need for large-scale permaculture farms

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