Joanne Mudhar’s story is one of overwhelming commitment. Five years ago she used her life savings to buy 12 acres of agriculturally depleted land and started turning it into Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm.
The farm is just outside Ipswich adjacent to the village of Rushmere St Andrew where Joanne grew up. The story of the land is sadly not too unfamiliar. Used for decades as a base for industrial farming, the soil was just exhausted. Joanne’s vision was of a land, farmed sustainably – in particular with low carbon emissions – and home to a financially viable, market garden which was at the heart of local community.
In the first year Joanne grew vegetables on three-quarters of an acre of heavily manured soil and sowed clover and grass on the rest. Through her enthusiasm and application she inspired Tom Wilmot, a teacher, and Eric Nelson, who worked for BT, to join her as the founding directors of a community interest company and help her in developing the plans…and of course working the land!!
The plan to grow vegetables was soon supplemented by one of also having pigs, cows and hens! Joanne had to quickly, cheaply and efficiently restore real life into the soil – and it was soon apparent that the best way would be by bringing in livestock. Thus the farm became proud owner of half a dozen pigs, a clutch of egg laying hems and two Jersey bullocks. The land on which the animals are kept is rotated regularly and frequently. Its not a text book case of holistic mob grazing, but fits with a farm that it is setting out from virtually nowhere and with any financial resource locked up in the purchase of the land.
The lack of financial reserves means a constant eye on the bank balance and the need to apply for (grant or loan) funding for virtually everything that is done until the farm at least financially neutral. If that were not enough, there are also hurdles placed in her way in gaining planning permission for any development. I met this problem many times on my tour. It is absolutely astonishing that when somebody is setting out to create a sustainable and financially viable food source, there are (some) loud voices in the community who complain and contest planning applications. One common basis of opposition is that the land is being turned from grassland to agricultural use. The peace of the countryside is under threat! How short sighted and obtusely belligerent can you get!
Having said all that of course, we are talking about a minority. In the five years of running Oak Tree Joanne has built up an amazing pool of volunteer workers. I was there on the first volunteer Saturday of the season. As a bitterly cold wind whipped across the open land from the North Sea, there must have been 50 odd people of all ages working on that site. Feeding pigs, moving the cattle, moving the hens, planting potatoes, planting seedlings, preparing the poly tunnels for summer….it was a hive of friendly, enthusiastic working. Just over 50 families buy into Joanne’s veg box scheme which distributes weekly ‘share’ from the farm – with part of the payment being in kind in the form of undertaking two hours a week voluntary work on the farm during summer.
One fascinating practice on the farm was the collection of ‘left over’ bread from a nearby bakery, and then, whilst rigorously ensuring there was no meat products such as sausage rolls mixed in and which are forbidden to be used as pig food, this becomes a regular treat for an already hyperactive pig cohort! Those familiar with organic certification requirements from the Soil Association will be quick to point out that such practice does not meet organic standards. Spot on, but take a look at the name of the farm, Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm. Joanne’s core aim is negative carbon emission – sequestering more carbon in the soil than is emitted through the farming activities. In addition to any mechanisation used being limited in scale, Oak Tree is using the pigs, hens and woodchip to improve the fertility of the veg beds between crops, ‘mob grazing’ the cattle as noted above, employing the soil improvement methods of Dr Elaine Ingham and using nitrogen fixing plants in a big way. Perhaps we need to be a bit careful as regards organic certification, particularly as regard animal specifications, that we don’t create a monosyllabic approach which can tip into being a constraint to innovation and diversity in practice. Joanne has a wonderfully idealistic and ethically driven ambition, long may it reign. I retuned home somewhat emotional but with a strong feeling of hope.
For more on Oak Tree Farm see the farm’s website
For more on the radical approach to soil from Dr Elaine Ingham see the Soil Foodweb Inc website
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