Ever feel you are swimming against the tide? Rebecca Hosking describes the sometimes lonely and uncomfortable position of being a farmer willing to experiment with new techniques and practices used in Holistic Management, Permaculture Design and Renegenative Agriculture and therefore face a sea of criticism from local (conventional) farmers.
A permaculture garden or weedy mess?
Over the past few of weeks I've been reflecting on those common cultural barriers and mental blockers that we feel have hindered our progress toward a sustainable, resilient future on our farm.
Not so long along ago I had phone call from a very exasperated friend of mine. Having carefully planted her newly acquired allotment using permaculture principles, a couple of months into the growing season she received a stiff letter from her allotment association requesting her to tidy up her 'messy planting', informing her there were standards she was required to meet if she wished to continue utilising that allotment space.
Being a considerate soul she pulled up a few 'weeds' she would rather have kept and scaled back her nettle and comfrey patch. My friend was sure that gardening with permaculture principles was the right way to go but not only was she finding it increasingly difficult to accommodate the arbitrary rules of her allotment committee, she was also feeling rather uncomfortable with the noticeable disapproval of the more conventional gardeners around her.
After some more tutting at her unruly green manure cover crop and on hearing the 'absolutely no trees' ruling she ended up letting the allotment go and concentrating her efforts on her considerably smaller back garden. My friend is not a weak person but, on this occasion, she was not in the mood for a fight. The point is that even if we are absolutely sure everyone else around us is on the wrong path, there is a relentless human pressure to conform. As a social animal, it is normal to crave acceptance and inclusion.
Now, apart from the obvious issue of scale, forging a new direction for a farm is like changing the way you grow vegetables on an allotment. Whatever you do to the land, it never goes without being noticed by someone and commented on.
Most of the farming families that surround us I've known since being a little girl. For the most part they are good, kind people so we don't really mind them thinking we're a bit wacky and a bit 'eco' or 'greenies' or whatever else they call us – that's fine, it goes with the territory. However, for us personally, this is a bit by the by because we have to answer to an older generation on this farm and they are very much concerned about upholding their local public image and not standing out from the farming crowd.
Not bucking the trend
We, like my friend with the allotment, have found ourselves curtailing what we've wished to do to avoid arguments. For instance, we would like to move to smaller native hardy breeds of livestock for a number of sound ecological and economical reasons but we're blocked from doing so because 'proper farmers have big animals, small ones are for hobby farmers and smallholders'.
Conventional farming shares with conventional gardening a love affair with order and neatness. Straight lines, clipped hedges, uniform crops and pasture that looks like the fairway at Gleneagles is a strange shorthand for 'good farming'. No matter how gruff and self-assured farmers may appear, none of them want to be thought of as bad farmers and there is nothing that says 'bad farming' in pasture more than weeds. There is a big storm brewing on the horizon here regarding what we call 'The Weeds of Shame'.
It is our desire to turn this farm into a shining example of regenerative agriculture. As such, there are management practices we wish to introduce that actively and deliberately encourage the proliferation of 'weeds'. We even want to go as far as broadcast sowing 'weeds' into our pastures because as an animal fodder they are highly nutritious, being high in trace minerals and proteins.
Additionally by introducing them it will increase stabilisation of the pasture root structure drastically improving the water cycle, build topsoil, sequester carbon, accumulate minerals, hugely benefit insect life and pollinators which will benefit our fruit trees and the wild bird population... so the list goes on. However, 'weeds' in your fields are something to be ashamed of!
Conventionally, docks, dandelions, thistles, nettles etc. means poor pasture management and the worry will be your neighbours will be judging you for mismanaging the land. No one wants to be ridiculed or judged and I do understand my family's concerns; however, the reason we are trying hard to shed the worry of what others think is that we have seen what those who have freed themselves from those shackles have managed to achieve.
Pioneers Joel Salatin & Neil Dennis
For some it's come more naturally, and some positively thrive off standing out from the crowd and being different. Fast becoming the poster boy of holistic farming, Joel Salatin revels in it. I've heard him described as a punchbag whose smile gets bigger the more he gets hit. But I doubt anyone could argue with what he has achieved at Polyface Farm in terms of land and business health.
Similarly, in Canada, on the holistically managed ranch of Neil Dennis the land speaks for itself. Every year there is more biodiversity and more resilience as his business goes from strength to strength. And his main tool for achieving this is a massive steaming, stomping mob of over 1000 cattle. Neil says that becoming a Holistic practitioner means you simultaneously provide your local community with a free service. He goes on to describe how his farming neighbours are now all so busy criticising and bitching about his farming methods that they forget to fight amongst themselves anymore.
We view ourselves very much as second or even third wave following these pioneering farmers. But even so these farming methods are still very much viewed as 'fringe' by conventional agriculture, much as permaculture is viewed as 'fringe'. As such one of the toughest things to cope with on a regular basis is that feeling of isolation from those around you.
Find like minds
Isolation can induce horrible negativity. We've found it saps our energy, stifles us and slows down making actual physical progress on the farm. It's a struggle to keep up enthusiasm and as a result we have in the past ground to a complete halt. For us, the easiest way to cope is to occasionally change our neighbours for the day. By that I mean go out and find like minds.
Luckily on the rare occasions we attend courses and events there are now the same sustainable-minded farmers turning up and it's a real joy to see their faces. You know you're in good company for the day where everyone has an interest in what's being debated and nobody is there to belittle or put it down. On those days you know you can openly talk 'shop' in great detail and get valued advice from on hand experts. There is a huge relief in knowing you're not alone.
The importance of finding like minds (image courtesy of 'RegenAg UK http://www.regenerativeagriculture.co.uk)
We've had friends ask in the past, "I want to buy a plot of land what should I be looking for?". Now we know how relatively straightforward it is to heal land using regenerative/ecological/permaculture principles our recommendations have changed from just looking at the topography and quality of the land.
I would still say ideally look for south facing land with its own water supply but, after that, really the most important thing of all is to have like-minded folks around you. The land in a way is the easy part, you can practically transform that relatively quickly. What takes far more work and can be a lot harder to build are personal connections, rapport and affiliations with the community around you. As you're starting up it helps so much if at least one other person close by understands what you are trying to achieve.
I guess we all desire a level of social acceptance, and not to feel too fringe from society or be judged. For anyone practising permaculture there is a keenness for the ecological concepts we're working with to have greater understanding from a wider part of society. It would certainly help with a vast number of ecological problems we're facing. Until that time we all have to contend with what the neighbours think. Be aware of it and be neighbourly but don't let it hold you back.
Rebecca Hosking and Tim Green made the BBC2 film 'A Farm for the Future' and write a regular blog about their experiments and experiences putting permaculture, holistic management and other regenerative agriculture techniques into practise on the farm and in their garden. To find out more click HERE.
For more information about Renegnerative Agriculture & Holistic Management courses worldwide see http://regenag.com
For upcoming courses in the UK see http://www.regenerativeagriculture.co.uk/