The Off-grid Medicinal Herb Farm

Phil Moore
Friday, 28th April 2017

Elder Farm in Devon is an off-grid, permaculture, medicinal herb farm, and is part of the Ecological Land Co-operative's first site in the UK. Working with ELC makes smallholding and small-scale farming possible.

Elder Farm is an off-grid medicinal herb farm that works to close the loop of growing plants to giving medicine.

Alongside cultivation, Elder Farm also prepares, prescribes and promulgates the virtues of herbal medicine. The pill-popping ‘solutionism’ approach to medicine (and food) is at odds with a holistic approach to agriculture practised by Elder Farm at Greenham Reach - a cluster of three smallholdings made possible by The Ecological Land Co-operative (ELC).

"New entrants to farming have almost no possibility of buying a farm in England: the cost of land and rural housing is just too high,” says ELC Executive Director, Zoe Wangler. “Yet new farmers have the passion, vision and skills needed to reduce the negative environmental impacts of conventional farming and globalised food distribution. Small farms are also vital to rural communities, helping to support small rural businesses and services. The ELC buys land and seeks planning permission for new residential smallholdings. We then sell these starter farms, far below market rates, on a long and secure leasehold."

New entrants such as Helen and Stuart Kearney of Elder Farm would not have been able to work and live on the land had it not been for the support of ELC.

“Stuart and I weren’t commercial scale growers before moving on to the plot. The ELC has given us this opportunity as new entrants to agriculture and we’re extremely grateful”, says Helen.

“We looked for land-based opportunities since doing our permaculture design courses and nothing came up that was absolutely right. We have three children and we did a lot of WWOOFing when they were younger, visiting different communities across Europe, but we heard of the ELC and we ended up here.”

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And it was their passion for permaculture that lead them to Greenham. Having both studied PDC courses (Helen also completed a diploma in 2000) they saw an ELC advert looking for smallholders in their copy of Permaculture Works, the magazine of the Permaculture Association.

The ELC model is to create small clusters of smallholdings. The model helps keeps costs down by providing shared infrastructure and shared planning applications. Based on the success of their site at Greenham Reach the ELC raised further funds to purchase and begin the development of a second cluster of smallholdings in Arlington, East Sussex for which the planning application has recently been submitted. And now they are seeking investment through their community share offer to create two more clusters of farms so you can invest (and earn up to 3% interest!) in creating much needed small farms for the future. www.ethex.org.uk/ecologicalland

For Helen, a qualified medical herbalist with practices in two nearby towns, the opportunity to live on the land to grow herbs to make into medicines was an obvious choice. Moving on site in spring 2015 their plot at Greenham was essentially a blank canvas (or, in agricultural terms a waterlogged open field with a smidgen of hedgerow).

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Stuart and Helen Kearney at Elder Farm at Greenham Reach

They designed a broad-scale plan incorporating intensive no-dig beds close to home; planting hundreds of metres of hedgerows (“increasing (h)edge” as Helen would say) and more broadly an agroforestry-cum-alley cropping system: avenues of witch hazel with 20-25m growing glades in between the trees. Alongside this, one acre of their five and half acres - overwintered with green manures - will be dedicated to plantings of calendula, borage, comfrey, skullcap; half an acre has been sown with a ‘super pollinator mix’ of plants for bees; and, officially, Elder Farm is in their organic conversion year with the Soil Association planning to be certified organic by February 2018.

Making medicine is also an opportunity to teach and learn - not just prescribing for specific ailments. And it this energy that Helen has applied in helping create the Betonica Herbal Apprenticeship. Alongside friends and fellow medical herbalists, disparaging the state of herbal medicine education and ‘brown bottle herbalists’ (medical herbalists with no idea of the plants and how they are grown, harvested and processed) the Betonica apprenticeship seeks to bring the journey from soil (cultivation) to medicine (use) closer. Over the four year course participants learn the practicalities of plants and growing at Elder Farm.

And it’s not just education that inspired Helen - it’s reaching out to people. Involved in the Women’s Institute (she was recently voted president of Holcombe Rogus WI) and various gardening clubs and talks, Helen reflects: “I think that’s real permaculture because I don’t just mix with people who are organic, permaculture people living off-grid. I like to have a lot of interests and the ability to talk about what I’m doing to everybody because otherwise, all I’ll ever do is talk to off-grid permaculture people - and nobody would know what we’re doing.”

To support the work of the ELC and their conviction that new entrants to agriculture, like Helen and Stuart, deserve a chance to shape and change the way we farm, feed and medicate ourselves, please consider investing in the ELC’s community share offer. More here: www.ethex.org.uk/ecologicalland

To find our more about Elder Farm and upcoming courses: www.elderfarm.co.uk

Helen's Favourite Herbs

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Elder - the herbalist's medicine chest, flowers and berries can be used to make delicious and medicinal cordials

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Hawthorn - herbalist's use the flowers, leaves and berries to treat conditions affecting the heart and circulation

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Nettle - great to drink the tea to reduce hay fever symptoms and packed full of iron

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©Gavin McGregor - Cleaver tonic being made

Permaculture communicator, blogger and contributor to Permaculture magazine, Phil Moore is also one half of the communications team for the Ecological Land Co-operative. He tweets at @permapeople & @ecolandcoop

Useful links

Book: The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer

Medicinal uses for marestail

Medicinal herbs: an antidote to modern medicine

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