Small and beautiful
A group of friends realise their dream of creating a community farm near Halesworth
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. www.greengrow.org.uk
‘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.