When Michael Smith set out to feed the cows at Incredible Farm in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, on Boxing Day 2015, it was raining hard, but not enough to bother a seasoned grower with a stout pair of wellies. When he started home at lunchtime, water was cascading down the main road and the town centre was impassable. The only way to get back to his wife and children was by scrambling up a 60º slope with no footpath.
Persistent heavy rain in the preceding two months had left the steep sides of the Calder Valley saturated. The additional water could only pour down onto the towns below, pushing the River Calder to a record high of 5.6m (18.3ft). It was the fourth time the valley had been flooded since 2000, and more than 2,000 homes and 200 businesses were affected.
Most locals agree they were the worst floods in living memory. Incredible Farm escaped the brunt of them this time but the farm’s director, Nick Green, says they now urgently need to start researching new ways of managing the Pennine landscape.
Incredible Edible Movement
Incredible Farm developed out of the Incredible Edible movement, a grassroots project born in Todmorden that has spread across the world and has at its heart the aim of strengthening communities by bringing people together to grow and share food. A co-founder of Incredible Edible Todmorden, Nick had built dozens of raised beds and planted hundreds of fruit trees around the town when a local businessman offered him 1.6 hectares (4 acres) of land for growing. The site was not promising. Situated beside the Rochdale Canal, it had a tendency to become swampy. It was cluttered with silt, broken lock gates and old bicycles pulled out of the canal during renovation works several decades earlier.
Fast forward five years and Incredible Farm is a thriving social enterprise which has been a permaculture LAND centre (demonstration project) since 2013. On just 0.4 hectares (1 acre) there are three polytunnels, five ponds, numerous raised beds and several beehives, along with free-range geese, hens and ducks, and the latest addition: two Jersey cows called Rhubarb and Custard, who represent the beginning of a nano-dairy project.
The farm is off grid, having turned down an offer of mains electricity – ‘it’d make us too lazy’ – and for most of the year runs office equipment, water pumps and a fridge from 10 solar panels.
Incredible Farm has always aimed to be experimental, researching how best to produce food in a valley with sheer gradients, limited sunlight and a tendency to heavy rainfall. One of the first things Nick and his team of volunteers did was to dig six ponds across the centre of the site. These concentrate the water, directing it slowly onto the adjacent railway cutting, which is the lowest point. They then built raised wooden walkways to make it possible for people to move around those parts of the site that are permanently wet.
Growing takes place in raised beds, half a metre high, situated both inside and outside the polytunnels. There is an emphasis on plants that do well in damp areas, such as celery, strawberries and watercress. Ducks also thrive.
Last year the farm produced half a ton of salad for sale to local businesses, along with numerous fruit trees grafted onto tough, locally sourced rootstock.
As well as employing a grower, a part-time manager and two apprentices, it runs residential courses for young people from nearby cities, and works with local schools and youth clubs to provide activities such as wild camping, vegetable growing and outdoor cooking. So far so successful, but for Nick this is far too little in the face of the current crisis. "Floods, food and farming go together," he said. "If people were doing the farming right we wouldn’t be getting such extreme floods and we could have much more local good food."
Sepp Holzer’s Solutions
Nick describes the local landscape as having three sections: the moorland at the top; the hillsides, which are mostly given over to livestock farming; and the valley bottom, where the majority of homes and businesses are. Most flood alleviation work consists of expensive engineering work targeted at the valley bottom, with some additional land management work on the moorland tops.
“What we really need to work out is how to manage the bit in the middle – the farming land,” said Nick. “But it involves such a radical rethink of normal practice that most people don’t want to know.”
Nick believes the solution may lie with Krameterhof, Sepp Holzer’s permaculture farm in Austria. Set on a steep slope at altitudes of up to 1,500m (4,921ft), it has obvious parallels with the Pennine environment.
Water management there is based on a cascade system that connects a series of ponds and water gardens. The primary aim is to raise fish, but Nick believes a similar system in the Calder Valley would additionally provide flood mitigation, alleviating the run-off that proved so catastrophic on Boxing Day.
He dreams of an experimental farm, a living research project that could begin the pressing work of discovering how not just the Calder Valley but also the rest of the nation can become more self-reliant in food production. The realisation of the dream is tantalisingly close. Just across the canal, a 13 hectare (32 acre) farm is for sale. It’s challenging by anyone’s standards: there are two flattish fields but the rest of the land is on an average 1 in 4 slope.
Where most people see problems, however, Nick sees potential. He has a vision for generating income from converting the farmhouse into residential accommodation and establishing a glamping site and a rock climbing centre. Meanwhile, Nick and his team would set about experimenting with ways of farming the slopes sustainably. As well as a water management system, he envisages a micro-dairy selling raw milk; free-range pigs, and a small range of arable crops.
In terms of flood management, a three-pronged attack is needed. The first issue is absorption: water needs to soak into the ground instead of running off as it does at the moment. Part of the solution to this is to plant more trees. Leaves and pruned branches from the trees will add organic matter to the soil, making it more absorbent, and the tree roots fissure the subsoil, increasing permeability.
Alley cropping – planting between the trees – will additionally help to increase absorption, as will mob grazing, a rotational system which allows for different sections of the land to be grazed for short periods of time. The livestock add manure to the soil and also help to trample in the top layer of organic matter.
Secondly, it is necessary to slow the flow of any water that does run down the slopes. Sepp Holzer’s cascade system offers an excellent solution here, as it would ensure that water reached the river on the valley bottom over an extended period of time, rather than all rushing into it at once and causing a flood. Separate ‘settling ponds’ would also capture organic matter washed down from higher up the slopes and this could be added to the soil.
Finally, there is a need for a way of storing water temporarily in the case of extremely high rainfall. Nick believes this can be achieved by ensuring that in normal circumstances, the ponds in the cascade system are only half full. This slight modification to Sepp Holzer’s model would mean that the excess water could be accommodated on the slopes instead of pouring straight into the valley.
The stumbling block is the initial funding. Despite climate change being arguably the biggest problem the world has ever faced, Nick has been unable to find any grants aimed specifically at people trying to address it through sustainable farming methods. “We’ve got a proven track record of energy and achievement; we’ve already built a productive experimental farm from scratch with negligible funding and no mains services; and we’re trying to save our culture – surely that should be enough to attract the funding we need,” he said.
Since the Boxing Day floods, land management has become a lively topic in Todmorden, and if anywhere can help make Nick’s experimental farm a reality it may well be the town that launched the Incredible Edible movement. Time is running out, though. Nobody knows how long it will be until the next floods – and nobody can guarantee that Incredible Farm will escape them, either.
Joanna Dobson is a writer and researcher living in Sheffield. She is the author of Incredible!, a book telling the story of Incredible Edible Todmorden, available from http://urbanpollinators.co.uk/
Desert or Paradise by Sepp Holzer