The organisation LEAF (www.leafuk.org) brings together farmers, consumers and food businesses with initiatives to build understanding about nature, farming and food and how this can help promote a sustainable future. James Taylor from LEAF and Jen Bartlett from the Sensory Trust (www.sensorytrust.org.uk) made time to come and talk to the group about LEAF and the particular project they are leading called ‘Let nature feed your senses’ (www.letnaturefeedyoursenses.org).
James outlined the main areas that LEAF is involved in. As well as demonstration farms across the UK where ideas of environmental best practice can be seen, they also organise the popular Open Farm Sunday in June each year – this year 418 farms took part. For farmers they offer training courses and interpretative signs to help communicate with visitors and also manage the LEAF Marque, which denotes food produced with environmental care. Waitrose are the major retailer of Leaf Marque produce, which includes some organic foods.
‘Let nature feed your senses’ is a project to engage all five senses of visitors to the countryside, starting with nature and working back through farming to food production. The project funds visits by schools, disabled and older people and other groups to farms where the visitors can have sensory experiences to connect them with the environment and their food. Jen described several examples ranging from inner London schoolchildren experiencing for first time the space of an open field and the tactile experience of feeding animals and how for older residents from a care home the experience of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell in a farm setting was able to evoke positive memories and promote a sense of wellbeing. She also described the reaction of children taken for a walk along the tractor wheel marks in a field of green barley and how they noticed the movement, softness and stickiness of the hairs on the plants.
The project is also developing tools to help visitors get the most out of the sensory possibilities. These include a sound mat – a piece of card on which you can record the sounds you hear while standing still and the direction from which they come. Also present in the audience was Amjid Hasan who is a volunteer worker for the project. He passed round a simple ‘scratch and sniff’ card he had made using a piece of double-sided sticky tape onto which he stuck leaves from herbs which when ‘scratched’ give off the scent of the plants many days and even weeks later.
James generously suggested that instead of a speakers fee we made a donation to the Disasters Emergency Committee Pakistan Floods Appeal. When added to donations from HEOG members on the night we were pleased to be able to donate £55 for this cause.
Napton-on-the-Hill is perhaps best known for the windmill which stands on the top of the hill from which the village gets its name, but the steep slopes below it are home to a hidden gem of free-thinking alternative agriculture. Bob Crick and his brother and sister moved here with their parents in 1964, building a house on what was then a bare-field site and growing vegetables on the adjoining land.
Bob took us into his machinery barn to introduce himself and the farm, and we quickly learned that he is a true polymath: a qualified nurse, teacher and forester who also runs first aid courses as well as the 40-acre farm at Church Leyes. He also finds time to indulge his enthusiasms as a biker, local historian and industrial archaeologist – which we discovered as we progressed on our tour of the farm.
With the help of his sister Pat and her husband Colin (who both worked at the Horticultural Research Station at Wellesbourne before they retired) Bob keeps cattle, sheep and poultry. The sheep include the Hebridean and Welsh Mountain breeds and the cattle are Highland, Welsh Black and Aberdeen Angus, with some Dexter cross-breeds - all hardy native strains which can live out all year round. When veterinary attention is required the long horns of the Highland cattle require a specially designed holding ‘crush’ which is wider than normal, and Bob explained some of the handling problems which can result from the animals living all year in a semi-wild environment.
We were taken into the 20-year-old mixed woodland plantation they have created, which is at the heart of the farm’s philosophy. The local native trees give many ecological benefits, and as well as providing browsing for the cattle along the margins also provide fruit and nuts for both human and animal consumption. Leaving the wood, the panorama from the hillside is truly magnificent, with seven counties visible from Northamptonshire in the east to Staffordshire in the north-west. Bob explained something of the history of the village, the Oxford Canal and the former brickworks quarry (now an SSSI) which were all laid out below us. We noticed the extensive ridge and furrow fields in the valley bottom, which are relics of the medieval open-field cultivation system.
Returning to the farm buildings, now totally engulfed in the mature trees planted by the family over the last 45 years, we had another surprise. Bob has rescued a length of 16” gauge quarry railway along with the remains of several elm and oak-bodied tub-wagons, which were propelled by the quarrymen themselves. From there we continued to their vegetable garden, which is chiefly the domain of Colin. He now uses a raised bed system exclusively, under netting suspended on polytunnel hoops to give the crops some protection from the abundant birds and rabbits who also inhabit this place.
We ended our visit with cups of tea and a picnic, sitting in the forest garden below their house. Here we could see the wood circle, made by children from the local special school as part of the Forest Schools scheme. The family actively encourage visitors to come and enjoy the place and to learn more about their ideas of organic sustainability, though the holding is not registered organic. Bob has a free-thinker’s mistrust of officialdom and bureaucracy, and prefers to keep his hands unfettered, even though he might otherwise have benefited financially.
A breath-taking and inspiring Sunday afternoon passed all too quickly, and we hope that it will not be too long before we can visit again – a huge thank you to Bob, Pat and Colin! Steve Hammett
Organising a summer evening walk always carries an anxiety about the weather, but this midsummer’s eve not only banished any such fears but surpassed our highest hopes by providing almost 20 members with a clear and balmy evening on which to enjoy an exceptional two-hour tour of Feldon Forest Organic Farm, genially hosted by George Browning.
The 32ha (80 acre) mixed farm was created from some arable fields in 1994, becoming certified organic in 1997. George and Gillian started by erecting some necessary farm buildings while living in a mobile home, and set about creating an enterprise with a wide variety of different organic produce, reflecting both their interests and the need for diversity to try to insulate themselves economically in uncertain times for agriculture.
They grow a full range of vegetables in two polytunnels with a sheltered outside plot between, worked on a 4-year rotation. Among the crops grown for sale at Rugby Farmers Market and a few local retail businesses they are also growing out broad and runner beans for the Heritage Seed Library at Ryton Gardens, to help keep the seed fresh and viable. This is set in a new orchard, created over the last ten years, arranged round a newly created lake to store water for irrigation. The orchard features plums and pears and over 30 traditional apple varieties with evocative names such as ‘Annie Elizabeth’, ‘Wyken Pippin’ and ‘Ribston Pippin’.
Two rare breeds of animals feature on the farm, both of which have been on the endangered list of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. The Castlemilk Moorit sheep were originally bred on the Castlemilk Estate in the Scottish borders and were rescued from extinction by Joe Henson of Cotswold Farm Park. As well as their excellent eating qualities, their wool is prized for its distinctive brown upper coat (moorit refers to this colour) with a lighter underside.
The still-endangered Shetland cattle are well suited to an organic system and will thrive on a grass diet with hay in the winter. These are managed as a suckler herd numbering 27 cattle including this year’s calves born during the summer so the cows can give birth outside, which better suits the breed. George pointed out that contrary to the negative publicity presently given to red meat production, grassland in fact sequesters more carbon dioxide than woodland, and grass-fed cattle produce much less methane than those raised in grain-fed systems.
The farm has taken advantage of grants under the Environmental Stewardship scheme to further enhance its wildlife potential. This has included much tree and hedge planting and the conversion of former arable fields to new wildflower meadows by spreading on them the last cut of organic hay to be taken from Elmhurst Farm’s wildflower meadows before it was sold last year.
Having created the working structure of the farm, six years ago the Brownings turned their attention to building an innovative earth-sheltered house, sited with probably the most fantastic views in the county. The large area of south-facing glass, as well as providing the view, also generates passive solar heating in winter, while the earth ‘blanket’ and dense concrete internal construction help to equalize the internal temperature throughout the year, requiring only a small woodstove for additional winter heating, with fuel provided by the hedge maintenance of the farm. Sewerage is treated using a reed bed system below the house, which attracts large flocks of buntings and other birds throughout the year.
At the end of a fascinating tour on a perfect evening Gillian opened the shop from where, amongst the other sumptious organic goodies, many punnets of their freshly-picked strawberries were carried away. Our grateful thanks go to George and Gillian for giving up their evening to allow us into their beautiful and inspiring world. Their website has more information at www.feldon-forest-farm.co.uk.
Canalside Community Food visit - 15th May 2010
Pete and Gareth walked us round the gardens starting at the polytunnels which have drip irrigation and were full of peas, radishes, rocket, spring greens, aubergines and peppers as we visited. The seed bed for 12,000 leeks was a sight to see! They also rent space in a heated glass house at Ryton Gardens to start off some plants early to extend the season. Looking at pest control they make wide use of fleece to keep off pigeons and butterflies and to protect against the spring frost. They use some biological methods against infestations and for slugs they use Sluggo and are also putting a 3m strip of bare soil around the fields to create a natural barrier.
We walked the full length around the farm seeing all the fields, the parent Leasowe Farm’s nut plantation and also the new orchard (apples, pears, cherries) which Canalside have just planted. Thank you Pete and Gareth for a relaxing, informative and ultimately very inspiring afternoon!
Anyone interested in a vegetable share will find contact details at www.canalsidecommunityfood.org.uk.
Nearly 40 people joined George Martin and David Searle to hear about their personal journeys towards zero carbon homes. David started with a quote from 1931 when Thomas Edison told his friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
He explained the difficulty in defining what “zero carbon” means and then described his project to build a new house with the greatest energy efficiency he could afford. In fact David proudly pointed out his Energy Certificate B rating, awarded because the little energy he inputs is from a wood burner! The house has very high levels of insulation with solar electricity and water heating and rainwater harvesting. Heat is extracted from ventilated air which then ensures that the fresh air is warm. David
George, by contrast, described his project to improve a much older cottage in Kenilworth. The levels of efficiency cannot be compared with a new-build venture, although the house has had the same principles applied – interior wall cladding, utilizing solar energy and rainwater but needing slightly more heat input from a biomass boiler. The challenges of working on a Grade II listed property shaped the solutions, for instance George has not used double glazing. George is a property professional with a lot of experience working with industry and government on sustainable building solutions. Luckily he took the opportunity to share with us the latest developments, specifically surrounding the April introduction of feed-in tarrifs.
The audience asked many questions about the suppliers and materials used. Many thanks to David and George for an enjoyable and informative evening.
Further information: see the text of David Searle's presentation and some more detailed notes about the project. You can also see George Martin's presentation about the background to zero carbon homes and also view the slide-show of his cottage upgrade project (note this file is over 4.8Mb and may take some time to download on a slow internet connection).
To mark the end of HEOG’s 25th anniversary year, we revisited a meeting from the early days of the group by watching a DVD of a film previously shown, using borrowed 16mm cine equipment, at a meeting back in 1985. Filmed only two months before his death in 1977, in ‘On the Edge of the Forest’ Schumacher focussed on the jarrah forests of Western Australia, and the destruction by clear-felling of these ancient forests in the interests of short term financial gain. Schumacher, one time economic adviser to the National Coal Board, derides the results of following economic policies which do not value the ecosystem on which we all rely for our survival. ‘This religion of economics, far from being economically rational, is in the longer term very uneconomic’, he points out. ‘Civilisation has left footsteps behind, and these footsteps are deserts.’
The film is full of deep philosophy, exploring ideas very much at the heart of the thinking of the present-day environmental movement, but presented then in an almost throw-away style. ‘When Newton had an apple fall on his head, he wondered why the apple fell down. If he had wondered how the apple got to the top in the first place, we might have a different physics.’
Famous for his book ‘Small is Beautiful’, Fritz Schumacher left behind an enormous number of tangible assets of the environmental and organic movement. As well as being one-time President of the Soil Association, he was instrumental in founding (among others) the Intermediate Technology Development Group (now Practical Action), the Centre for Alternative Technology, Dartington College and Resurgence Magazine.
There was a short discussion after the film by the 20 members present and it was noted how much of the content of the film was still painfully relevant today, with the continued destruction of virgin forest for short-term gain from cattle ranching and palm oil plantations.
By way of contrast, Barry King brought along a short DVD promoting support for organic cotton production and contrasting this with the terrible health problems suffered by cotton farmers and their workers who are exposed to the pesticides used in conventional cotton growing. Produced by the Pesticides Action Network and called ‘Organic Cotton – Moral Fibre’ the film can be watched in two parts on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHZR5SyA-CQ is part one.
Colin McDougal was greeted by a strong turnout of over twenty people on a freezing February evening. He proved to be a rich and engaging speaker and it is fair to say that all our expectations were exceeded.
Practical Action is a national charity (formerly the Intermediate Technology Development Group) which campaigns to fight poverty by promoting appropriate solutions for developing countries. Colin became a supporter more than twenty years ago when he picked up Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” to read whilst travelling. The organization is based near Rugby and Colin described the group’s de-central organization and gave plenty of practical examples before taking questions and open discussion. The examples he shared included very low technology ideas such as the simple donkey plough and the cooling zeer pots in the Sudan. Water is an important
On a grander scale were the gravity ropeways for transporting goods in Nepal. Finally he showed examples of hazards being overcome with smoke hoods to improve health in homes with open fires and through floating market-gardens in Bangladesh. Each example demonstrated the idea of intervention with appropriate technology which provides sustainable development of the local markets. Thanks Colin for a thought-provoking and enjoyable evening.
If you want to make a donation to Practical Action then please visit https://practicalaction.org/support/
A healthy crowd of twenty arrived at our new venue for winter meetings in Kenilworth carrying all sorts of dishes including soups, salads, breads, hot spicy dishes, savoury dishes, cheeses and sweets. The defining skill of the HEOGer seems to be the ability to cook and eat well! The formal business of the AGM was conducted quickly with the committee re-elected and after discussion the subscriptions maintained at the same level this year. The minutes will be circulated to all members.
After the formal business we ate the wonderful buffet and discussed how to extend the group’s membership and ideas for further events. Among handy tips Gillian named “Pretty in Purple” chillis as her 2009 success and Sue shared her solution for keeping slugs off prized plants (a plastic ring with a slug-proof lip)! Thanks to everyone for a successful start to another organic year!
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