A small West Yorkshire co-operative aims to inspire people to grow their own food and live a more sustainable life. Marie-Claire Kidd does a little digging behind the scenes.
“A REVOLUTION disguised as gardening.” That is how one small West Yorkshire co-operative describes its work to put food and sustainable living at the heart of community.
It is even developing a GCSE-level course at its local high school, aimed at encouraging students to gather skills through practical experience.
Edibles is a co-operative enterprise working to inspire people to be more self sufficient and in tune with the natural world.
From its base at Paddock Farm, just a few miles outside Huddersfield, it draws on permaculture principles and techniques to run the business and guide its growing and training activities.
The co-op has three members, partners Steve Smith and Rosie Lonnon and their neighbour Pip Lane. Steve says: “Our work is underpinned by the values, principles and practical tools of permaculture.
“It’s a design process that draws inspiration from natural systems and applies these to not only how we grow food and manage land to but to every part of our lives.”
An important strand of Edibles’ work is its relationship with Colne Valley Specialist Arts College, its local 11-16 secondary school.
The team has been working with students and teachers at the school for over a year to develop a GCSE-level qualification in Growing and Sustainable Living.
The first class of students has now started the course and is learning through doing as the students work to create a more sustainable school.
Steve says: “Already we’ve transformed an overgrown patch into a productive vegetable garden, planted a forest garden and set up a salad bag enterprise selling produce to teachers and parents.
“This year projects include soil labs, renewable energy installations, visiting local co- operative businesses, providing produce to the school canteen and lots more fruit and veg.”
The students will work towards qualifications accredited by the Open College Network and The Permaculture Association.
At Paddock Farm the co-op has developed a large fruit and vegetable garden which provides examples of growing methods such as mulching, no dig techniques, polycultures, hugel beds, designing for sun, shade, wind and rain, chicken tractoring, succession planting, water management and use of native and local species.
There is also a maturing forest garden, funded in part by a research grant by the Permaculture Association; part of a national project to monitor the productivity of forest gardens.
Early findings show they are very productive, Steve says.
The forest garden is designed to show visitors how an edible woodland can provide perennial fruit, herbs and vegetables with little external input, once established.
The team is also experimenting with field scale growing and developing productive solutions for very small spaces.
Inspired by and feeding into Martin Crawford and Patrick Wakefield’s work on temperate zone permaculture, it is establishing an edible perennial nursery, specialising in fruit trees and bushes that grow well in the north of England.
The aim is to nurture and promote local and heritage varieties.
Steve says: “Over the last three years we have been collecting varieties of apple, pear and plum trees that thrive in cold, wet and windy conditions, default conditions in Yorkshire.
“Each year we’ve grafted and planted out hundreds of these varieties and we are now in a position to advise customers on appropriate varieties and sell young trees.”
Also this year, Edibles unveiled its new training and function room; a refurbished, solar-powered cow shed.
As well as using the space for its own education programmes, Edibles offers the cow shed for meetings, away days, events and courses.
In 2012 they have welcomed yoga classes, training, business meetings, public consultations, rehearsals and music events.
Ever since they arrived at Paddock Farm in 2007, Steve, Rosie and family have been using permaculture to develop their eight acres. Steve explains: “We’re trying to create an edible landscape that requires minimal intervention; a self-regulating system with an efficient yield.”
It took the family three years to convert the barn at Paddock Farm into a home, during which time it was able to exercise the first of the 12 permaculture principles, “observe and interact”.
Steve says: “Permaculture is about trying to gain a benefit for human beings and at the same time using a system that replicates natural ecological systems.”
Permaculture designer Mark Fisher, of Baildon, West Yorkshire, supported the overall planning of the site. “Mark really helped us to see the big picture and plan the broad scale before getting into the detail,” says Steve.
“We looked at valleys landscape, guilds of plants, what fitted and would grow well here, the slope of the land, the way the sun shines on it at different times of the year, the way water travels across site, and the effects of wind.
“To make progress the impact of Pennine wind needs to be understood.”
The farm has a south facing aspect in the valley bottom of the Pennine foothills, not too steep and with good, slightly acidic, soil.
The slope provides opportunities to put another principle, “capture and store energy,” into practice, by catching water at the top of the site and using it for irrigation at every level.
The team has planted fast-growing willow and common alder for fuel for their biomass boiler, and chickens and edible plants capture and store energy as food.
Principle three is “obtain a yield,” and the family has been experimenting with different polyculture recipes, which they say will build resilience and maximise yield in their edible garden.
A successful recipe has been a bed of early crops, like radish and salads, planted with spaces for beans and brassicas to grow through later in the season. After mid-summer they plant oriental greens such as pak choi and mustards.
Rosie says: “We’ve found polyculture crops are better protected from slugs, snails and other pests. The variety confuses them.
“The soil doesn’t dry out and tender crops like lettuce can be sheltered from the sun.”
This year Edibles has worked with groups at Paddock Farm to build skills in fruit tree grafting, coppicing, scything, composting, sowing and growing, willow weaving, cob oven building, bread making and more.
“A particular highlight was our two-week residential Permaculture Design Course in August,” says Rosie. “It provided the opportunity for doers and thinkers from across the UK to converge on Paddock farm to think big, develop practical tools and create positive ways forward for themselves and the projects they are working on.
“On the course we looked closely at creating efficient systems to produce food, generate and use energy, house ourselves, create community, work productively, travel efficiently and live well.
“We also convened master classes in systems thinking, ecological building, behaviour change, community supported business, renewable energy, local food systems and dialogue and deliberation.
“Participants left the course buzzing with new ideas and possible projects.
“One course member on returning home fed back that it felt like the first day of the rest of his life.
“We like to think of the work the co-operative does as a revolution disguised as gardening.”
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