Small and beau­ti­ful

A group of friends re­alise their dream of creat­ing a com­mu­nity farm near Halesworth

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

BECKY Tay­lor is plant­ing leeks when I ar­rive at the or­ganic small­hold­ing she and a group of friends set up 12 years ago. Back then, the 20 acres was made up of two fields which grew ce­re­als pro­duced with the help of ar­ti­fi­cial fer­til­iz­ers and chem­i­cal pes­ti­cides. To­day, the land is farmed or­gan­i­cally, di­vided into small fields, bor­dered by thick hedgerows, and it in­cludes a four-acre wood­land and an or­chard of 500 trees. Live­stock graze the mead­ow­land.

Becky, slim and sun­tanned from work­ing out­doors, is not plant­ing leeks in num­bers we as­so­ciate with back gar­dens or al­lot­ments. There are 1,600 plants, she has been hard at it since early morn­ing, and she still has sev­eral hours of back-break­ing labour ahead of her. Oth­ers will ar­rive each day to carry out sim­i­lar tasks, in­clud­ing care of the toma­toes, squashes and pep­pers in a se­ries of poly­tun­nels. In a large green­house – built by a mem­ber of the group who is a car­pen­ter – apri­cots, peaches, lemons and aubergines, as well as more toma­toes, are be­ing grown.

It was in 2005 that the en­vi­ron­men­tally con­scious friends raised enough loans to pay the £90,000 be­ing asked for the land at Berry Farm, Ilket­shall St An­drew, near Bec­cles.

“We wanted to do some­thing long-term which would help make things bet­ter in the world, a project which would be run and owned co-op­er­a­tively and would di­ver­sify the land in an eco­log­i­cal and so­cial way,” says Becky. “It is in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to live in the coun­try­side be­cause of prop­erty prices and also to find work in the coun­try­side. When a farm is bro­ken up these days most of it goes to big agri-busi­ness com­pa­nies, so we were lucky to be able to buy just 20 acres. It was a blank can­vas in terms of what we wanted to do with it.

“One of our core prin­ci­ples is to be as in­clu­sive as pos­si­ble. Shar­ing the beauty of this land with schools and other ed­u­ca­tional groups is as im­por­tant to us as grow­ing high qual­ity sea­sonal food.”

The loans taken out to start the co­op­er­a­tive, called Green­grow, are still be­ing re­paid as the land sus­tains the pro­duc­tion of or­ganic meat, fruit and veg­eta­bles. Red Poll cat­tle, a tra­di­tional East Anglian breed, as well as sheep and chick­ens graze pas­tures which, in ro­ta­tion, are ploughed up to sup­port a range of veg­eta­bles.

There are cur­rently nine di­rec­tors of the co-op­er­a­tive, four of whom are orig­i­nals from the start of the project. They have a mix of skills in­clud­ing car­pen­try, plumb­ing and book­keep­ing. One mem­ber has a mas­ter’s de­gree in bee man­age­ment. Monthly meet­ings are held to make de­ci­sions and update every­one on progress. Only two of the di­rec­tors live on site and most have full or part-time jobs else­where. Becky, who has two chil­dren, Jack, 15, and Rosa, 10, is a reader in mod­ern history at the Univer­sity of East Anglia.

Each year the small­hold­ing is vis­ited by vol­un­teers from through­out Europe and other parts of the world, of­ten young peo­ple want­ing to learn the skills of hor­ti­cul­ture and stock-keep­ing. They mainly ar­rive via an or­gan­i­sa­tion called World Wide Op­por­tu­ni­ties on Or­ganic Farm­ing.

‘Shar­ing the beauty of this land with schools and other ed­u­ca­tional groups is as im­por­tant to us as grow­ing high qual­ity sea­sonal food’

Pro­duce is sold via a box scheme, cus­tomers within a five-mile ra­dius be­ing supplied with fresh fruit and veg­eta­bles in sea­son. Un­like the big su­per­mar­ket chains, noth­ing is frozen and put on sale later in the year. A sim­i­lar scheme in­volves meat. There is a barn which houses equip­ment and where veg­eta­bles are sorted.

Five hun­dred fruit tress have been planted, mainly as a re­sult of suc­cess­ful graft­ing, and these are sprayed each year with an or­ganic sea­weed mix. They in­clude 30 dif­fer­ent

va­ri­eties of ap­ple, in­clud­ing lo­cal va­ri­eties such as St Edmund’s Pip­pin and the su­perb cooker, Golden No­ble. Mod­ern va­ri­eties are also grown – Sun­tan, Red Pip­pin, Red Fal­staff – which have been devel­oped for both flavour and dis­ease re­sis­tance, mak­ing them a good choice for or­ganic or­chards. There are around 100 pear trees, mainly Con­fer­ence and Con­corde, but in­clud­ing a few older va­ri­eties, such as Robin and Black Worcester.

“We planted our first trees in 2007, hav­ing sourced them from the East of Eng­land Or­chards Project, but since then have grafted all our trees our­selves,” ex­plains Becky. “This has meant that we have been able to choose the root­stock and va­ri­eties to suit our needs. We have a strong col­lec­tion of dessert ap­ples and ones which store well, mak­ing them a good ad­di­tion to our veg boxes through the late au­tumn and win­ter.

“We use dam­aged and wind­fall ap­ples to make dried ap­ple rings, and are de­vel­op­ing an on-farm press so we will be able to make juice and cider.” The veg­etable grow­ing area is part of a wider soil im­prove­ment and fer­til­ity plan. Crop pro­duc­tion com­bines with live­stock graz­ing and ar­eas of tem­po­rary grass­land to form a sus­tain­able five-year ro­ta­tion sys­tem.

“At any one time we have one plot in use for veg­etable grow­ing. The other four are sown as tem­po­rary grass­land and used for a com­bi­na­tion of graz­ing and hay pro­duc­tion. The aim is to make our soil fer­tile enough for the veg­eta­bles with­out im­port­ing any ad­di­tional nu­tri­ents and pro­vide enough fod­der for the an­i­mals through­out the win­ter,” says Becky. The sheep flock is made up of a mix of Soay, He­bridean, Manx Loaghton and Suf­folk crosses. “The ewes lamb in spring when there is plenty of lush grass on our five acres of wild­flower mead­ows.” These mead­ows are ex­tremely valu­able for wildlife. Across the UK about 95% of flower rich mead­ow­land has been lost in the past 60 years, mainly as a re­sult of in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion and a switch from live­stock farm­ing to arable.

A wheel­chair and push-chair ac­ces­si­ble vis­i­tor gar­den has been cre­ated with raised beds, flow­ers, fruit and veg­eta­bles com­bin­ing to make an at­trac­tive and pro­duc­tive space, but one of the most sat­is­fy­ing achieve­ments has been the cre­ation of a reser­voir which col­lects enough rain­wa­ter each win­ter to ir­ri­gate the crops dur­ing the grow­ing sea­son. The wa­ter is dis­trib­uted around the small­hold­ing via a pump and a net­work of pipes and drip­per hoses. The amount of wa­ter used on crops is re­stricted in com­bi­na­tion with ap­ply­ing plenty of or­ganic com­post and sea­weed meal. Bee hives are also kept, pri­mar­ily for pol­li­na­tion rather than honey. The only liv­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion on site is a small self-build en­ergy ef­fi­cient house. Elec­tric­ity is supplied via so­lar pan­els, all sewage is com­posted, waste wa­ter is cleaned by a reedbed sys­tem and win­ter heat­ing comes from a wood-burn­ing stove.

“Our aim is to sup­ply the lo­cal area with fresh, sea­sonal and stored veg­eta­bles, and grass-reared tra­di­tional-breed meat, while en­rich­ing our soil and our farm’s bio­di­ver­sity, and shar­ing it with vis­i­tors,” says Becky.­

‘We use dam­aged and wind­fall ap­ples to make dried ap­ple rings, and are de­vel­op­ing an on-farm press so we will be able to make juice and cider’

Above, Adrian Gar­cia, Rita Aparici, It­saslore Yarza, Becky Tay­lor and Hayley Chitty.

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