‘How to Set Up a Low-Impact Smallholding’: the course

This 3 day course is run twice a year at Monkton Wyld Court, a community based in an old manor house and its estate on the Devon/Dorset border. I’ve just been on the autumn course, and come back with loads of new enthusiasm and ideas for my own project. The tutors are Simon Fairlie and Jyoti Fernandes, both of whom used to live at Tinker’s Bubble, the impact community in Somerset, where they were instrumental in obtaining permanent planning permission for the community. So they are both low-impact planning experts and work with Chapter 7 (the planning office of The Land Is Ours).  Simon is also co-editor of The Land  magazine and author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance and Low Impact Development and now lives at Monkton Wyld where he also keeps dairy cows and sells scythes. Jyoti now co-owns Fivepenny Farm where she too runs a livestock and dairy business and presides over the Peasants Evolution Producers’ Co-operative. She is a mine of information about business plans and  financial and  funding matters.

The first half of the course was theory. Teaching was a fairly traditional teacher-led format, without touchy-feely novelty teaching methods but quite informal and with ample opportunity to ask questions and explore topics. These included assessing and buying land, social and economic structures, planning and development and agricultural issues such as crops, livestock and grass management. There was a 16 page handout to accompany the course. Simon also treated us to two slideshows of smallholdings and low-impact buildings, shown on a retro projector so prone to malfunction that on the second night it unfortunately drove him to drink.

The second half of the course was site visits. Our knowledgeable tutors and hosts demonstrated actual examples and provided loads of valuable experience-based information, closing the gaps between theory and practice. I just went round probing and gleaning every bit of useful information I could. I’ll have to save the detail for future posts , but in the meantime please do follow the links or search the web to find out more about these inspirational projects. I also recommend you keep an eye out for the practical smallholding skills course to be run at Monkton Wyld.

Monkton Wyld

At Monkton Wyld we looked around the traditional walled vegetable garden that feeds the community, and were shown the bed system which is easily hoed by hand, without bending. The pigs clear the land ready for fresh cultivation and are fed on whey and food production waste (regulations prevent them being fed on kitchen waste). A reed bed disposes of human waste, albeit not as efficiently as Simon would like because the nutrients are concentrated in patches rather than dispersed more generally.
We toured Simon’s domain: the milking parlour and scythe store, housed in barns forming part of a traditional farmyard where everything is conveniently adjacent, and his pasture, which is technical and complicated to manage correctly in order to optimise nutrient levels.
Several elements such as the pond, an embryonic forest garden and a misplaced belt of trees raised questions about efficiency and site planning in a community when priorities and interests may vary. Simon has autonomy over his own enterprise, and presumably has a say in community affairs, but anyone who has read his books or articles will understand that his preferences for livestock and pasture will not always dovetail perfectly with tree planting and scavenging of tat, for example.

Flintbatch Working Woods

At Flintbatch Working Woods we looked at Guy Furner’s wonderful woodland barns, built from his own timber under the permitted development rules – which fortunately say nothing about style or materials, because they look as unlike the usual portal frame barn as anything I have seen. He showed us where the heavy rain had cause a landslide this summer, and we helped him load his charcoal burner, which he fired up to make the charcoal he sells to local campsites. He also keeps woodland pigs – at a very low density for minimum impact on the woodland, and raises ducks on the natural pond system he has created.

Fivepenny Farm

In the dwindling evening light Jyoti showed us around Fivepenny Farm, most notably the  Peasants Evolution Producers’ Co-operative processing barn, bought and equipped with grant funding and used by numerous local businesses. It is an excellent example of community ownership working. Jyoti doesn’t have allow others to use anything of her own (other than access and parking) as it is all owned by the co-op. She gets to use equipment she might not have been able to afford to buy for herself, and so do all the other businesses, without the cost and energy of duplicate infrastructure. The co-op charges £50 a day, so it’s probably not viable for someone’s home produce (like my jams, juices and chutneys for example) but for small producers it is the difference between meeting environmental health standards and not.
The facilities include a big apple press with pasteurising and bottling set-up, and a dairy with cheese and yoghurt making facilities. They also have a ‘shop’ that they use for open days, and WWOOFer accommodation upstairs. The barn was built using local timber and labour.

Ourganics

Ourganics Evolving Systems is a project run by Pat Bowcock on 5 acres of water meadow reclaimed using traditional drainage channels with sluice gates that direct the water where and when needed. When the sluice gate is opened, the water runs in and floods the gravel areas which normally serve as paths. The water soaks down gradually and is retained in the soil of the raised beds. If there is too much water, it is let out, to drain into the pond.
Pat also has lots of interesting and do-able elements like a compost toilet and urinal system, tyre worm bins in which she made all the soil for the beds, a hugelkutur bed, a solar shower in the polytunnel, a solar irrigation pump, as well as several self-contained low-impact dwellings for herself and her thousands of volunteers. The site is also home to Bridport Renewable Energy Group’s experimental biodigester, and is a Permaculture Association LAND Centre.

The Trading Post

The Trading Post is trading at its most vibrant. I want one. Steve Friend and Sue Hassell have converted a redundant petrol station on the old A303 to an outlet for the vegetables grown on the adjoining 2 acres of land, and supplemented by other interesting local, wholefood and delicatessen produce. Their objective was to provide local employment, hence the broader range of bought-in stock, and they also have a cafe in a converted railway carriage

Tinker’s Bubble

Tinker’s Bubble aim to be fossil fuel free, and community members all put so many hours work into the work of the community. They cook and eat communally, and have a shared kitchen, library and wood-fuelled bathroom as well as their own individual dwellings which are many and varied. They produce a lot of apple juice and cider from the existing orchards, although crops have been poor this year.
The community’s pièce de résistance is the wood fuelled steam engine used for making tree trunks into planks – it is fired up about once a week to saw the wood, which is extracted by horse and human power and sold to local people for sustainable building.

And talking of steam, I’ve run out of it…

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