In recent years permaculture has steadily gained in popularity and the reasons people from all walks of life have been drawn to it are manifold: climate change, food security, the economic situation, social unrest, our children and grandchildren's conditions of living, the loss of biodiversity and soil fertility. However, underneath these different reasons lies one reoccurring pattern that is connected to all of the above - the anxiety of an uncertain future. Permaculture not only yields hope that a brighter future is still possible but it also provides a rich toolbox of practical solutions.
Through many of these 'do it yourself' suggestions people start to feel (re)empowered: yes, step-by-step they can contribute to the change they want to see. It is a great way of translating the principle 'small and slow solutions' into action. On a broad scale this movement can lead to more individual independence, self-reliance, autonomy, resilience and sustainability.
However, recently highlighted in Scott Mann's The Permaculture Podcast, by Mark Shepard, who runs a 106 acre perennial agricultural forest farm, by implementing these small changes we shall not get stuck in our culture's habit to focus on details rather than patterns and systems. I think these small changes are one great way to start, to get as many people involved as possible but at the same time there need to be projects that explore permaculture's capability to be applied to larger-scale systems in order to tackle the above mentioned problems.
At the moment only about 1/3 of our food is produced in the UK. The rest gets trucked, trained, flown or shipped in, sometimes from the other side of the world by using huge amounts of fossil fuels. The food production in the UK also depends on fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, for machinery, heating greenhouses, etc. Permaculture teacher Geoff Lawton said: "The world gets more and more complicated all the time but the solution to fix the major problems of the world’s ecosystems remains reasonably simple. We have to go ahead on a major scale now. Everybody can do their backyard but we have to change the major eroded landscapes into the functional ecosystems they should be."
In order to feed the growing population while working organically with a low carbon footprint we need to look at larger systems and explore how they can be designed to work long-term. According to the Permaculture Association’s 2012 Permaculture Farm survey, only 31% of all respondents manage 25 acres and more, among them are for example Westfield Farm (30ac), Ragmans Farm (60ac) and Dyfed Permaculture Farm (20ac). This is a very small percentage and experience and research is still lacking into setting large scale farm systems up, what makes them work and what doesn’t.
Of course, the idea of permaculture is that no system is exactly alike and regional differences will require unique approaches but hopefully, by looking at a wide range of different examples, some key ingredients can be distilled in order to make it easier for the next farmer to start. Therefore, a lot more needs to be done in order to cover questions such as: How applicable are permaculture design principles for larger scale, commercial food growing? What challenges are large scale farmers facing in particular? What design skills are particularly necessary to convert conventionally farmed land into a sustainable, organic or biodynamic farm?
Biodynamic Land Trust: securing sustainable farms
The Biodynamic Land Trust (BDLT) was founded in 2011 with the aim to secure land into trust for healthy and sustainable farming and to revive a working and living countryside. They made a start with buying Brambletye Fields in Sussex and Rush Farm in Worcestershire to be stewarded by biodynamic growers. This summer, BDLT are seeking to secure 36 acres of previously monocultured farmland, in Week, Devon. This large site, if secured, will be run by Marina and Mark O'Connell, a couple who founded and run the Apricot Centre in Essex.
The aim is to develop a viable, community connected care farm, orchard and educational market garden that also offers a research, learning and demonstration platform. Marina O‘Connell will draw on a rich tool box of biodynamic, organic, permaculture and other agro-ecological methods to transform bare land into a place of abundance. Marina and Mark created the Apricot Centre in Essex in the same manner. Their once bare 4 acre site is now flourishing with over 3,000 trees, shrubs, fruits, vegetables and flowers. They have dramatically increased the biodiversity and wildlife, with grass snakes, stag beetles and the very rare turtle dove spotted on site. Mark's traing in psychotherapy has lead to therapy sessions, and it is these skills, along with Marina's horticultural knowledge that will be brought to Week Farm in Devon.
The land lies between Martin Crawford’s forest garden, Dartington Hall, Schumacher College and Totnes from where the Transition Town movement originated. This extension of the Apricot Centre would thus be set within a very supporting community, which is already very experienced in radically working towards resilience and sustainability. This is not only a fantastic opportunity to scale up the sustainability of a whole region but this aggregation of projects would provide fertile grounds for further research into their combined effects on the wider community.
A vision for the future
Transforming the site will be a challenge due to the build up of nitrates used for growing maize and wheat previously. To rebuild the complex network in the soil will take time and effort. However, by seeing the problem as the solution the project provides the opportunity to research and monitor the transition from conventionally farmed land to organic and biodynamic farming. How long does it take for the soil to recover? When do the first earthworms come back to inhabit the soil? How much humus can be built in 3, 5, 10 years?
Looking at the project as a whole the following questions can be explored:
How can viable, sustainable livelihoods be made from such a multifunctional farm?
What is the balance between paid and volunteer work?
These are just a few of the questions that need to be urgently answered if we want to find out how large-scale farms can be managed in sustainable and environmentally friendly ways. Here the permaculture design approach is a fantastic tool to guide the process of conversion. Matt Dunwell of Ragman’s Farm points out: “Home garden permaculture accommodates the principles of permaculture design more readily, broadscale permaculture in commercial situations tends to be less intricate. It is more compromised by the practicalities of the market but this does not mean to say that you cannot build in permaculture design on a big scale.”
At the heart lies the three principles of earthcare, peoplecare and fair shares which will find expression in restoring soil fertility, growing nutritious food, increasing biodiversity, enhancing the landscape, care farming, welcoming children, providing volunteering opportunities, training apprentices and serving the local community. However, the transformation of these 36 acres of bare, exploited land needs to happen in manageable steps. During the first year the fields will be sown with green manure while detailed, protracted site surveys will be carried out. Two PDCs will run to gather ideas for the design of the site, to receive feedback from the local community and to finish a detailed plan for the conversion process. With the start of the second year fruit trees and shrubs as well as agroforestry rows will be planted while the training centre will be built. The following spring, the market garden will be established and the chickens shall arrive. By the third year the box scheme shall deliver the first produce.
Once fully established, after around 3-5 years, the project aims to support a variety of functions in four main areas:
– Economically through creating a local, resilient food system supporting 100-150 families via a CSA model, to provide rural jobs; offering training and courses.
– Ecologically by having a low impact carbon footprint through investing in renewables such as biomass, rainwater harvesting and solar panels.
– Psychologically by improving health and wellbeing through therapy and by reconnecting people, especially children, with nature.
– Social benefits include offering courses and practical skills workshops for the local community, schools and groups. Access to the land will be given via public footpaths and bridleways. The local community is encouraged to participate all along the way and events such as Easter egg hunts, apple pressing and harvest festivals will be organised to celebrate together.
Andy Goldring, CEO of the Permaculture Association: "The Permaculture Association is very keen to see how we can get all the baseline data in place before the project starts so we can monitor progress and to get an excellent case study of what can be achieved with these systems."
If you would like to be a part of the project please donate or buy shares. To secure the land at Week Farm, £326,000 needs to be raised by the 22nd of September. All contributions, small and large, are very welcome! To find out more go to www.biodynamiclandtrust.org.uk/sites/g/files/g340271/f/201407/Share%20Offer%20Prospectus.pdf or www.apricotcentre.co.uk
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