Sow Far Sow Good
Permaculture is a term that's often heard but rarely seen. There are many hidden projects we don't hear much about because people are just getting on with it. Georgia Wisbey visited Brickhurst Farm in Kent.
Squall 16, Summer 1998, p. 22.
Permaculture literally means 'permanent culture, permanent agriculture'. It is based on a system of land use which attempts to emulate nature and natural ecosystems working with nature instead of against it.
Monoculture does not exist in nature, nor does waste: whatever is waste to one species is food or habitat to another. Permaculture casts human beings as part of such a system, rather than as external managers. It is about people becoming aware and responsible for themselves, connecting them with their environment, regardless of where they live. The principles can be applied to urban areas as well as rural. They can be used by communities, farms, businesses, schools, in gardens, even incorporated into architecture: enabling people to work out solutions to local and global problems and put them into practice, taking control of areas of life which are frustrated by negative agricultural and governmental controls and policies.
Bill Mollison, an active Australian environmental protestor of the 1970's, was concerned with modern farming practices, particularly their damaging effects; encouraging large-scale soil depletion. He felt that although there was a massive need to protest, and to challenge, there were no effective solutions to some of the problems that the planet was suffering from; increasingly burdened by negative and intrusive agricultural techniques and philosophies. He decided he needed to actually live in a way that didn't compromise his environmental beliefs so he designed a system based on sustainability, and coined the term 'permaculture'.
Just outside Pembury, in the Tory Borough of Kent, is Brickhurst Farm with 23 and a half acres of beautiful undulating mixed woodland and wild grasses. Danny O'Sullivan has been living at the farm for the last three and a half years in his bender, gradually turning the land into a sustainable project based on Bill Mollison's permaculture principles. Danny found the inspiration to start the project by "networking in the loft" at the Claremont Road M11 Protest in East London, 1994.
At Brickhurst Farm an ancient track leads down to the land, past a beautiful old beech tree. The banks of the track are abundant with bluebells and ferns nestled among exposed tree roots. Danny took us on a tour explaining the planning and planting that has taken place over the last couple of years. He pointed out the raised beds: low fenced, hand-built deep growing beds, built up with layers of compost and cardboard. They prevent back injuries because of the lack of digging required, and once watered remain moist. Last summer, when much of England was suffering from drought Danny didn't need to water his veg.
The project relies on volunteers who contribute their knowledge and muscle-power to the project's overall aims. Volunteers come from a diverse background, from direct-action protestors to conventional gardeners, from experts in the field of permaculture, to interested locals.
Danny thinks of himself as a caretaker rather than a manager: "Volunteers give a good human effort... lots of people working and sharing knowledge, and collectively discussing what to do with the land to protect it." Danny has learned it all through "being here and getting on with it", learning from people coming to the farm, and visiting other sites. Danny did his Permaculture Introductory Course at The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales.
"Everyone has been open and sharing, it's really refreshing," says Danny, although he is the first to admit that it hasn't been a bed of roses by any means, and there have been plenty of internal conflicts and personality clashes. "Often it has seemed that it's been everybody else versus me," he says. He feels that people have sometimes perceived him as something other than the role he sees for himself. "Lots of lessons have been learnt here, not only in permaculture principles, but in people management as well."
At present the project is funded by permaculture introductory courses, donations of £2 for every visitor to the farm, fees for camping and whatever the visitor wants to contribute to the site.
Permaculture introductory courses last a minimum 72 hours, and explore philosophy, urban ecology, forest gardening, green economics, green buildings, recreation, community-building, growing, picking and eating food locally, waste and water management and design principles (from designing your land or back garden, or applying the design principles to your business). The course runs for about two weeks (with a sliding-scale of fees). Site-visits are also part of the course, with practical applications. On the last Introductory Course students built a mud-oven in one of the benders, a compost toilet (which is far better then the latrines at Glastonbury!), planted trees, built 'raised-beds' and helped dig the dams. There was even a cinema set up in one of the benders. Brickhurst is also applying to Radical Routes to become a co-operative.
We walked down to the stream where volunteers helped build a dam. What was originally only a trickle of water now supplies most of the water needed for the farm. The smell of wild garlic wafted up as we walked along the banks. We munched on it while we wandered up to Danny's bender, a tarp-covered structure built from intertwined hazel. The bender blends into the landscape with an ease which a Wimpy home could never achieve:
"They need a certain amount of maintenance over the course of a year, mainly when winter is about to set in, but they are warm and dry and cosy, and practical to live in," says Danny.
The local Museum of Kent Country Life in Maidstone told Danny they would be interested in displaying a bender in the museum in 16 and a half years' time, because after 20 years of someone living in a structure it becomes a 'recognised way of life'.
Another bender is used for cooking when there are large amounts of people on site - it is warm and cosy, with a massive kitchen area full of organic spices and vegetables.
Walking further around the land Danny showed us the 'chicken tractor' at work: a central nesting shed and large area of land houses organic chickens, and after a year of their waste (which is very fertile) accumulating, he moves the chickens to another area, and vegetables are planted in the ready-dug manured garden.
"The Permaculture Movement shouldn't be seen as some sort of retirement club for ex-hunt sabs and past-it digger-divers, rather it is an integral component of the struggle for our planet, complimentary to the Diret Action movement and the myriad other strands that give us strength in our diversity. After all, what is the point of 'fighting the power' - merely creating a permanent culture of opposition - if we don't at same time offer practical working alternatives, in the here and now and not only after some ever distant 'revolution'?"
- (Extracts from a letter to 'Do or Die' no. 7, Voices from Earth First, Spring 1998.)
Another permaculture principle is the use of comfrey on the land. "Comfrey is an amazing green manure - every time I pull something out of the ground I replace it with a couple of comfrey leaves," says Danny, "this repairs the ground cover and replaces most of the goodness that is needed to grow more veg. Comfrey used to be used as the plaster on broken bones, for torn muscles and severe bruising. Comfrey ointment is available at health shops and I recommend a small jar to everybody if they have no access to fresh leaves."
Brickhurst has two compost toilets on site: Danny's personal 'bucket' design and a more aesthetic version built by volunteers, using interwoven hazel with a tarp on top. Solid waste goes into a pit, with sawdust covering every new addition keeping odours to a minimum. Liquid waste is collected in a bucket and later added to grass cuttings to encourage insects. A tree can be planted where the solid waste accumulates, and the compost toilet is moved on to another location.
Over 3,500 trees have been planted. 95 per cent of these produce either nuts or fruit as Danny is also basing the project on Robert Heart's 'Forest Garden' design.
Robert Heart pioneered 'Forest Gardening' when farming conventionally in Shrewsbury. He questioned the negative way animals are treated and negative land-usage. Over 15 years he gradually stopped intensive farming, leaving most of the land fallow, and started a Forest Garden which imitates the multi-layered and self-regulating systems of a natural forest. The third of an acre Robert now farms is totally productive and, now that it is established, takes very little 'hard work' to maintain; low maintenance being one of the many common-sense principles of permaculture. Robert has had to contact his local LETS in abundant summers to take away surplus food.
Back at Brickhurst, Danny picked some 'bio-dynamic' potatoes which we had with organic squash (pumpkin) for dinner. The squash had been in storage for six months and was delicious.
"Most modern-day varieties of seeds aren't the same quality as old fashioned varieties, either in flavour, or the ability to store well, even in the ability to reproduce easily. The problem... of availability of seeds is an important lesson in corporate manipulation as most seed banks are in the hands of multinationals. Plenty of new and hybrid seeds are readily available at garden centres, but people are having problems getting the older varieties, many of which are even outlawed! The same law is used with these heritage seeds as is used with hemp seeds. If the authorities wanted to apply the law as it is, they could be ripping-up plants at 'Plants for the Future', a positive project in Cornwall which stocks many rare seeds, and heritage varieties!"
When asked whether he had any problems with his neighbours, Danny laughed and stated that most had read about him in the local papers first, which created initial negative reactions: "There was lots of stereotyping until people actually visited the farm, lots of screaming first, then talking." Leaves now come from the local Parish Council, Pembury, grass cuttings and wood chippings (without weed killers) come from the Borough Council.
The owner of the land, Peter, had lots of problems with the local council when applying for Planning Permission. Danny has encountered far fewer problems, living in a temporary structure, and applying permaculture to the land and his planning applications. He is using sustainable farming as a way forward and is lucky that his Local Council has a good idea of Agenda 21 principles, which all local councils now have a duty to implement.
The 1992 Rio Earth Summit produced the Agenda 21 Sustainable Development Principles, recognising 'the global need to meet the needs of the present without burning up resources which would jeopardise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'. Great principle, but something that government and many local councils seem sadly negligent in applying.
South Somerset District Council recently adopted a new draft structure plan which states that 'favourable consideration will be given to the development of derelict or unused sites in the countryside' to provide 'short-term transit sites.... long-term residential sites' and 'sites for low-impact dwellings in conjunction with agriculture/permaculture proposals'. However, because in 1981 Thatcher conveniently wound up the Royal Commission on Income and Wealth, the body that was investigating land holdings in Britain, finding suitable land has proved problematic.
The UK Government's consultation document 'Sustainable Economic Welfare in the UK' (written by Tim Jackson and colleagues at the University of Surrey's Centre for Environmental Strategy) suggests that four broad policy objectives need to be addressed simultaneously, one of which is sustainable development. The new Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) confirms this view, and illustrates the true cost to the economy and society if these objectives are not met as a matter of urgency.
Danny's philosophy is simple: "Put up a temporary structure and let the planning department know what you are doing, and quote 'PPG7, Appendix E, Revised Planning Application', and you should have no problems. Just get on with it!"
Future plans for Brickhurst include planting and selling wild garlic, mushrooms and strawberries, holding sweat lodges, food swapping, rare plants, old fashioned varieties, as well as the current permaculture introductory courses, egg selling, and composting. However, permaculture raises more issues than those of environment/food production: the principles of permaculture can be applied to sociological problems, transport, land rights and housing.
"Permaculture is like a modern coat hanger to hang good ideas on - not dictating, but being willing to share ideas and information, respecting people and land, keeping open minded. There are no sacred cows in permaculture," says Danny enthusiastically: "But don't just read this, go and visit a working project. There are urban examples like 'Green Adventure' in South London, or in Crouch Hill, London, or the many projects set up all around the countryŠ I can see great big mature fruit trees, good cheap local food, employment, cheap housing, conservation, community, and being involved in something which doesn't compromise your beliefs, that gets round the negative beaurocracy that is inherent in current UK planning laws and politics "IT'S GONNA BE BRILLIANT!"
Hastings Road, Pembury, Tumbridge Wells, Kent. Tel: 01892 825697
PO Box 1, Buckfastleigh, Devon, TQ11 OLH
Machynlleth, POWYS, SY20 9AZ. Tel 01654 702782 Fax 01654 702782
C/O The Radical Routes Ethical Investment Scheme, Loanstock Office, 24 South Road, Hockley, Birmingham, B18 5NB. Tel 0121 551 1132.
(Radical Routes lend money and give advice to people wishing to set-up co-operatives, considering applications from groups and people involved in positive social change).
The GEN or Global Eco-Village Network
(a forum for all who are interested in sustainable, community-based settlements, otherwise known as eco-villages).
GEN International, Skyumvej 101, Snedsted, 7752, Denmark.
ONE WORLD ONLINE
(the biggest sustainable development site in the world) - http://www.oneworld.org
c/o Crouch Hill Recreation Centre, 83 Crouch Hill, London N8 9EG. Tel 0171 281 3765
(SAE) 54 Camberwell Business Centre, Lomond Grove, London, SE5 7HN. Tel 0171 277 2529.