Underwood Discovery Centre

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Underwood Discovery Centre is an educational centre on a windswept hillside above Beeson in South Devon, home to various educational projects including Trees For Health and Discover Forest Foods. They recently held an agroforestry skillshare, and Liz Turner and Mike Rogers took us on a complete tour to show us the various projects they have underway.

The trees are still very young, maybe only a season or so old, but they have planted a huge range eventually to become a forest garden. Many of the trees are indigenous but some of them are more experimental, including a small olive grove. All the plants have a use, either as a food, as a material or as a medicine. Liz can identify each and every one, and tell us its uses, for example that holly leaves can be dry roasted in the oven and ground as a coffee substitute. Hedging trees are planted in an ‘A’ shape, with the tallest at the centre, to prevent shading of adjacent crops. A line of trees planted along the top of the hill will form a shelter belt from the northerly winds. Mike hopes the trees will raise the temperature on site by 2 degrees.
They also grow crops in an ‘alley cropping’ system again for shelter, and with the emphasis on experimentation and ‘discovery’. They grew hemp last year, to make rope with school children on educational visits, and also soya beans and edible lupins. If they can grow soyabeans on those windswept hiss I could definitely grow them in the garden. Mike talked about the differences between growing crops as a farmer rather than a gardener; how he just sows loads of seed, expecting to get both a sufficient yield and a certain amount of losses.

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Back at the barn, while the vegetable broth was being served by a neighbour paid in Bridges (the Kingsbridge LETS currency), Mike demonstrated their oil press. It was different from the one that the Bell and Loxton rapeseed oil people used at the Devon County Show. This one looked more rustic and had to be heated to help the oil pass through it – presumably this is the process when it isn’t ‘cold pressed’. You can see the yellow flame above the little jar – Piteba have got a video on YouTube (but I recommend muting the sound unless you like piped music). The machine had to be cleaned immediately, or the plug of pressed husk would set hard like concrete. I tried to work out how much oil could be produced by how many acres of rape, but Mike’s farm scale calculations weren’t easily translated into my preferred ‘how much seed per plant, for how much oil’ to work out how many square feet I’d need to grow enough to keep myself in oil. Not that I like rapeseed oil very much, so it’s academic really.

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The grain milling wasn’t exactly what I expected. I had visions of large machinery filling a huge barn, like in a TV programme I watched recently about oats and porridge production.  This was basically a little kitchen gadget, which unfortunately can only crush the grain. It does not remove the husks. This is the same problem I had with cracking hazel nuts. It’s just not practical to make more than a crushed-nut garnish, let alone commercially viable to sell them. This brought us back to the perennial problem of the middle-sized farm and  the economies of scale. Mike told us it costs the same to get a crop cut with scythes as it does to get a contractor in with a combine. This is a recurring theme. A garden can be managed by hand; a big farm can be worked mechanically, but small farms fall in between. Similarly with the milling of grain etc. Community owned equipment is one solution, or at least an accessible community specialist.  In Spain you take your olives to local empresas to get them turned into olive oil, like Chris Stewart did in Driving Over Lemons.

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The Underwood Discovery Centre hosts groups of school children who learn to make and do things as they would have been done in ancient times. Activities have included ‘cave’ painting with earth paints, making rope from hemp grown and harvested at the centre

After lunch we cleaned out tree guards and mulched a load of trees with reclaimed cardboard and municipal compost, which we dug from a big pile and transported by buggy. I like buggies.

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Like any good site visit, the tour wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to the long-drops. This one was particularly freaky – you can imagine little devils down there, forking  over the poo with their tridents. It was actually built on a split level with, I presume, some sort of red plastic at the back through which the sun was shining. Anyway, not seen one like that before, and it certainly gave the impression that it would get well compost.

Overall it was an good place for me to visit because it’s not a million miles from the sort of project I’d like to start. It provides a lot of food for thought. The barn was encouraging: it looks like a pretty standard portal frame barn, and Mike got planning permission to turn it into the education centre including sleeping accommodation – something I am likely to want to do at some point. Much as I envy the size of the land, it does have its drawbacks.  Liz had to go miles to collect a wheelbarrow when we needed one. Everything is so disbursed, and although it’s great to be able to space trees properly and grow real crops, there is so much to do that I can’t imagine ever getting on top of it. I know I need somewhere much more compact, and the principle of ‘start at the back door’ resonates more strongly than ever. One of Liz’s objectives is to feed the community, or at least to see if it is possible to feed the community. I want to grow for myself, and just flog any surplus. To try and grow for other people is too ambitious for me. I’d rather divide up the land into allotments and let people grow their own. But then you need to be near a settlement and be a bit of a people person. Without a lot of volunteers or employees a system has to be designed to maintain itself.
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