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Scaling up the Apricot Centre provides unique research opportunities

posted 12 Aug 2014, 13:19 by Marina - Mark O'Connell   [ updated 15 Aug 2014, 23:45 ]

An invitation to invest in securing 36 acres of farmland at Week in South Devon.

Satellite picture of the apricot centre
In recent years “permaculture” has steadily gained in popularity and the reasons for people from all walks of life to be drawn to it are manifold: climate change, food security, the economic situation, social unrest, our children's 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, as Mark Shepard, who runs a 106 acres perennial agricultural forest farm, recently highlighted in Scott Mann's The Permaculture Podcast, 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 is also depending on fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, for machinery, heating greenhouses, etc. Permaculture teacher Geoff Lawton: "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 (30 ac), Ragman’s Farm (60 ac) and Dyfed Permaculture Farm (20 ac). This is a very small percentage and we still lack experience of and the research 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?

A collaboration of the Apricot Centre and the Biodynamic Land Trust

15 years ago Marina O'Connell, a horticulturalist, permaculture practitioner and teacher, together with her husband Mark transformed a bare piece of land into a flourishing and successful farm using permaculture design methods. Upon their arrival on the 4 acres near Manningtree in Essex they first planted a variety of 3,000 trees and shrubs to create a mini woodland, hedgerows and fruit and nut trees to establish an orchard. A satellite picture of the Apricot Centre and their neighbour's unchanged land shows the stark difference between what the site looked like in the past and what it looks like today. Biodiversity and wildlife have enormously increased and grass snakes, stag beetles and the very rare turtle dove have recently been spotted on site. Besides growing a variety of fruits and flowers commercially the centre runs a range of courses on permaculture, biodynamics, organic horticulture, transition skills, cooking and preserving. Mark is a trained process-oriented psychotherapist and child psychotherapist and as a care farm they offer therapy sessions on site and welcome families, schools, individuals with learning difficulties and disabilities to experience the benefits of spending time outdoors and connecting with nature. 

Through the Biodynamic Land Trust (BDLT) the Apricot Centre has been given the opportunity to expand their existing project to a larger-scale system. The 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 time they are seeking to secure 36 acres near Week in Devon for the Apricot Centre. 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. Uniquely, Marina O‘Connell will draw on a rich tool box of biodynamic, organic, permaculture and other agro-ecological methods to once again transform bare land into a place of abundance. 

The land lies between Martin Crawford’s forest garden, Dartington Hall, Schumacher College and Totnes from where the Transition Town movement originated. 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

The challenges are great because up to now wheat and maize have been grown on the land using nitrates for many years. This means that the soil on this plot of land is not only tired but the living and life-supporting soil food web has been destroyed. To rebuild this complex network will take time and even more 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 lie the three principles of earth care, people care and fair share 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 would be sown in with green manure while detailed, protracted site surveys will be carried out. Two PDCs will be 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 to 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: "I was very excited when I found out that Marina was going to take the plunge and scale up her wonderful work. 36 acres of permaculture designed biodynamic farm led by Marina will be truly awesome. I'll be supporting it, I hope you can too. 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 become part in realising this vision please donate or buy shares. To secure the land at Week £326,000 need to be raised by the 22nd of September. All contributions, small and large, are very welcome! To find out more go to Share Offer Prospectus  or