Eco Farming - The New Way Forward

Michael Littlewood
Tuesday, 1st May 2001

As the crisis in the British countryside deepens, Michael Littlewood makes the case for an economically viable, ecologically and socially sound way of farming, citing some successful examples.

Foot and mouth disease is but the latest in a series of livestock catastrophes which reflect the unhealthy state of farming today. Just 1% of the population manages the land that covers 90% of the country. This is made possible only by heavy dependence on expensive outside energy, heavy machinery, monoculture planting, chemical interference and large-scale units. This situation has taken its toll on declining rural communities, wildlife, animal husbandry, farm food, and of course the landscape.

Trees and hedges have been uprooted to create larger fields to allow bigger and heavier machinery to work the land. The once abundant wildlife has lost its leafy habitat and food supply, and has been poisoned by the chemical sprays which are necessary to keep monoculture crops free from pests and diseases. The soil, compacted by heavy machinery, and dosed with nitrates to produce increasing crop yields, has been starved of the humus and nutrients essential for its long-term fertility.

The produce has become contaminated by chemical and herbicidal sprays. Animals bred for maximum short-term production, are often dependent on antibiotics which then enter the food chain. Air and water have also been polluted by extensive use of chemicals and fuel emissions.

Yet as Dr. Kiley-Worthington from Little Ash Eco-Farm in Devon says, it is possible for an ecological farm to be 'self-sustaining, diversified, economically viable, high net yielding, with socially, ethically and aesthetically acceptable agriculture causing no long-term or irreversible environmental changes'.

Importance of Sustainability in Eco-Farms

Modern farming consumes more energy than it produces, but an eco-farm will produce its own: Little Ash Eco-Farm supplies its own energy from wind, solar power and wood. On the eco-farm, hedges and woodland can be managed to produce biomass. Plants such as sunflowers can supply biofuel, and animals provide biogas. Water can be recycled and rain water harvested from farm buildings. Horses can also be used for ploughing.

Manure and composts from the farm feed the land with nutrients, trace elements and minerals which will build long-term fertility. Nitrogen levels can be raised organically through green manuring using legumes (such as clover) which have a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria.

Established pastures may be enriched and sustained by the inclusion of deep rooting plants such as docks which help bring up minerals which might otherwise leach away. The herbal ley seed mixtures will produce good grazing turf which is sustainable without the chemical management required for the rye seed monoculture of the chemical farm.

Diversification is a key element for the eco-farm so that if disaster strikes, risks will be spread and some produce or animals should survive. A range of ecosystems will support different species and should include woodland, orchards containing local varieties of fruit trees and grazing, fishponds, water courses, land for a wide range of arable and vegetable crops, and pasture for hardy stock suited to local conditions – like the Sussex beef herd on Tablehurst Farm near East Grinstead, and the South Devon cattle at Little Ash Eco-Farm in Devon – as they will also be less susceptible to disease.

Although labour costs may be higher on the eco-farm (it takes one hour to spray an acre and one day to hand weed an acre) the exorbitant prices of energy, fertilizers, pesticides, and high protein animal foods are avoided and eco-farms are able to provide a liveli-hood for the farmer and his workers. As Dr. Kiley-Worthington from Little Ash Eco-Farm says, "These farms are not 'hobby' farms".

The lure of the eco-farm is so strong that unpaid labour may appear as neighbours, friends and burnt-out executives often jump at the chance of being involved in the work. During the potato harvest at Tablehurst Farm, the field became full of helpers working together, making new friends and feeling enormous satisfaction with their back breaking work!

Sustainable Rural Communities

Social isolation has become a real problem in this country. Many villages have become gentrified commuter dormi-tories lacking shops or local amenities. Wealthy residents more at home behind the wheel of their expensive cars than on their feet, may rush in and out dropping their children off at private schools beyond the village, while the less well off who may have grown up there, may not be able to find either local employment or low cost housing.

But an eco-farm can restore the heart to our rural areas by generating local work both on the land and in associated small businesses around the farm. With community support it is possible to build cheaper attractive housing, making use of local materials such as timber from the farms.

Tablehurst Farm is owned and run by the local community and a band of other interested people. It now forms a thriving part of the village. The farm buildings house fifteen people including three adults with learning difficulties who, whilst performing valuable jobs on the farm, have also developed their confi-dence and skills. There is no doubt that working with others in close contact with nature is both healing and inspiring. With this number of workers, ideas and problems can be shared and the outside 'partners' are able to add their own expertise to help the success of the farm.

Little Ash Eco-Farm has facilities for a leather worker, woodsman and rough furniture maker, basket and reed worker, spinners, weavers and knitters to run their own small businesses. Working alongside others becomes more fun than working alone in a garden shed. Clusters of workshops will generate more trade as visitors see a wide range of beautiful products in an attractive setting. The farm shop can include a café where customers can linger, tempted by organic soups or scones from the farm produce. The longer they stay, the more they will buy.

By selling direct to the public the eco-community will be able to sell at more competitive prices. Country markets are already making a comeback. Maybe the wonderful, bustling French country markets can be a reality here. Gradually our rural communities may come alive with a consequent reduction in long distance transportation of animals and farm produce, road congestion, pollution and, of course, the containment of infectious diseases such as foot and mouth.

The Importance of Trees on the Eco-Farm

As trees and hedges have been uprooted to create bigger fields for ever-larger farm machinery, the levels of carbon dioxide have increased. Trees are essential to reduce pollution, stabilise the ground and cast welcome shade over it. They form the backbone of the eco-farm. Woodland can form a shelter belt for the farm or protect the banks of a stream. It will support a myriad different species of insects, birds and small mammals which form an important part of an ecosystem. Delicious nuts, fruit and edible mushrooms contribute to the abundance of the harvest; and the timber is important for biomass, building and furniture. While the best soil will be earmarked for crops for grazing, woodland may thrive on poorer land and be a wonderful attraction for visitors – children and adults alike can delight in listening to the birdsong, admiring squirrels scurrying along branches, discovering pockets of primroses, or swathes of bluebells in the spring, and in the summer enjoy the cool leafy canopy.

This way forward for farming aims to create and sustain a beautiful landscape and reawaken the symbiotic relationship between man and his environment, conserving the land's precious resources while respecting the rights of animals. The eco-farm can provide a livelihood for the farmer, and generate other small businesses. It has the potential to sustain a thriving rural community and to give children live education in the wonders of organic food production.

Michael Littlewood is a landscape architect specialising in sustainable design for urban and rural projects. 

Clive Terry |
Sat, 14/07/2012 - 07:59
if only this type of thinking could spread and eco type farms become the norm
Nicola Didsbury |
Fri, 05/10/2012 - 22:25
If anyone knows how to kick of a project like this to create a co-owned, co-op, eco, permaculture farm, please could they let me know - nicola at northernfells dot co dot uk - with hope Nicola x