New Internationalist

Barns to beacons

Issue 402

Out into the countryside – where food should flourish but often doesn’t. So a co-operative of smallholders has started to live off the land. And, as close as you can get to wilderness in Wales, a remarkable woman sets an example.

Even if citizens were to produce more food, and cities like London – which alone, in terms of the resources it consumes, has a ‘footprint’ larger than the entire country – were to use a lot less, they’d still need supplies from the countryside, at least for the foreseeable future. How might this ever be done more sustainably?

One can find some clues in Fivepenny Farm, set on a hillside overlooking the ‘Jurassic Coast’ of west Dorset. This has become one of the most ‘desirable’ parts of Britain. On another brilliant spring day like this, bluebells carpeting the woods beside meandering lanes, the sea shimmering in the distance, it’s not hard to see why. Farmhouses regularly sell for two million dollars and more, suitably detached from the muck, stench and bother of farming land that is increasingly subsidized to produce nothing at all.

Joyti Fernandez shows me around Fivepenny Farm, together with two sympathetic officials. They helped to find funding for a new timber-framed barn that has just been raised by a band of volunteers, and is now being thatched. It is a beautiful timber structure. Inside there will be storage areas, a dairy, processing rooms for meat, juice, jams, chutneys and herbal products from more than 20 smallholders in the vicinity. Together they make up the jauntily named Peasant Evolution Producers Co-operative (PEP-SI).

Promising start

Joyti is also involved in publishing The Land magazine.ˆ1ˆ Her knowledge of the feudal law of the land in Britain has come in handy. When her family and some friends bought these 16 hectares of agricultural land and moved onto it to live, some three years ago, the local authority promptly tried to evict them. Joyti won on appeal – the whole point, she argued, is that only by living on the land can one bring it back into more productive use. She knows of many people who, given half a chance, would do just the same.

Productive it most certainly is. Already there’s a market garden of about two hectares that last year brought in some $25,000 from sales to local markets, stores, cafés and restaurants. Not, as Joyti points out, ‘pure profit’, but a promising start.

Over parts of this soil, in rotation, chickens scratch, Tamworth pigs and piglets root, improving fertility – and incidentally removing all trace of the dreaded slugs – as they go. In large polytunnels, this year’s plants are being propagated. We sample crisp, sweet, raw peas. There are windbreaks of willow, hedges of hazelnut. Between newly planted old varieties of apple tree there are sheep and lambs, one seeing the light of its very first day.

Then there are the cows – four very pretty beige ones. The fencing of a new field for them has just been completed. ‘Real gates!’ cries Joyti. Most of the other fields don’t have them – and improvised obstacles bring daily aggravation. You have to know this to appreciate the wonders of a proper gate.

Joyti, the two officials and I set about herding the cows to their new field. Joyti calls and they gambol towards her, like the cows of dreams. But they have to cross a small stream, and Daisy – I think it is – won’t go. The two officials are left behind, vainly trying to persuade her. Daisy doesn’t like being parted from her daughter, who’s gone on ahead, but she likes the stream even less. There is much plaintive mooing. She has to be coaxed to take the long way round. Joyti tethers her to a post, where Daisy pointedly relieves herself and we say our farewells.

Nearest thing to wilderness

The gentle slopes of Dorset are one thing. The snow-covered Brecon Beacons in south Wales on a bright, windswept March morning are quite another – the nearest thing to wilderness there is in Britain. Surely, nothing much can grow here.

Perhaps not. Military training vehicles clutter the roads; low-flying fighter aircraft tear the air. Beside the main road is a little encampment flying banners that say: ‘Social Change Not Climate Change’ and ‘People Not Pipelines’. Into the blood-red sandstone of this National Park there now runs a gaping wound akin to that made by a motorway – a pipeline that will carry imported gas under extreme pressure inland from the port of Milford Haven.

The little lane has to cross this on its way to Kathleen’s plot. She’s the mother of Dan, a colleague of mine, and she’s responded generously to my curiosity about permaculture. On a south-facing slope beside a truly babbling brook she has a hectare of land, sliced off the end of a farmer’s field and, on this day, skirted with snow. She’s lived here for eight years.

At first there was a tumbledown house that tumbled down after six years. So she lived through an entire year in a hut with just a stove, a compost toilet, a bed and a tiny kitchen – and loved it. Now she basks in a small, light-filled wooden house she designed herself, much of the indoor furniture built from the remnants of the old one. Insulated with wool, roofed with recycled tyres shaped as slates, it is heated to perfection by a single wood-burning stove. A supply of pure water comes straight from the stream. She has mains electricity – Kathleen feels a wind turbine would be too large and expensive.

The house is set amid a small wood and what, at first glance, looks like a decorative garden, the Beacons a distant backdrop. In fact, it’s the source of a lot of her food. The more you look, the more you see the careful thought that went into it. She’s planted more than 150 food-producing trees, constructed ponds, ditches and raised beds, often using materials found in waste skips. She has planted the beginnings of a forest garden and an edible windbreak hedge.

Missing moles

On the farmer’s side of the boundary fence is the familiar, bare, green field. On Kathleen’s side is a long ditch to catch the chemical run-off from it. Her land must be immensely more healthy, and becoming more rather than less so with time.

She asks me if I notice anything else. ‘Moles?’ she hints. There are no molehills in the farmer’s field. This means there are no worms in the soil, which means it is sterile – killed by chemicals, yet also entirely dependent upon them for its fertility. On her plot the soil from plentiful molehills has filled her raised beds.

Self-reliance rather than self-sufficiency is what she’s after – she has not, by any means, withdrawn from the world. The local permaculture network has provided a practical and social link with like-minded people all around her.

She says: ‘This way of life is my offering. It is not predatory. It is respectful, rewarding, joyful. It can be a pattern for others.

‘I live on little more than $10,000 a year, and yet I have in abundance what a human being truly needs; a warm shelter, real food, clean water, family, friends, silence and wildlife. I have found my tribe.’ •

  1. www.thelandisours.org

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