Steepholding, Greenham Reach

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Alex Wilson and Ruth O’Brien and their young family successfully bid for one of three plots of virgin land on the border of Somerset and Devon to be converted into homes and sustainable farming plots within five years, following acquisition of the land by the Ecological Land Co-Operative. Real pioneers of a new wild west!

When I met Alex and Ruth last year they had been on site for just 18 months. The progress they had made was truly breath taking. In that time from those grass covered fields, they have set up home, put up a paddock and stocked it with goats, introduced a flock of hens, put up two poly tunnels and opened up a market garden and fruit garden. This is serious commitment – and from a couple who also have two young children!

[Double clicking on any of the images will open up the images up in a slideshow format which you can then run using ‘left’ and ‘right’ buttons.  Full screen view can be opened with F11 – at least on my PC it is, actual key needed may vary. To get out of full screen its the same button, not ESC!]

The Greenham Reach land acquired by the Ecological Land Co-Operative (ELC) covers almost 30 acres and ELC have divided into three roughly equal sized and adjacent plots. Following purchase, a 5 year planning permission was granted to ELC in April 2013. The permission allows use of the site for 3 farm businesses, including constructing a barn, track, and three agricultural workers’ dwellings. The permission, being temporary, means that everything that is constructed must, in design, be removable – which means that no building foundations can be laid! The site is also totally off grid power, water and sanitation wise – and again even if they wanted, planning permission does not permit this to be changed.

The Steepholding plot awarded to Alex and Ruth at Greenham Reach covers nine acres, including a steep sided valley side going down to the River Tone. Their development of the site has been sufficient for them to already be supplying local people through a new 20 veg box a week scheme and through various local framer’s markets. The chickens also provide eggs whilst the goat herd of fabulous Golden Guernseys is in the process of being developed into a viable milking herd. Everything is farmed to organic principles, and they are registered as WWOOF hosts – and have indeed already hosted a number of young WWOOFers – along with providing for a stream of educational visits from children and adults of all ages to learn about small scale sustainable farming.

Take a close look, Steepholding is no hippie pipe dream. It is very much real life and very much hard work. Satisfaction and a well being that can only be obtained through proximity to the land is what it is about, along with doing a meaningful bit for the survival of human civilisation. It has to be beholden upon the rest of us to follow the lead and be inspired to make worthwhile changes in our own lives – some of which can be as simple as buying seasonal food of sound provenance. We have the easy bit, we just need to do it!

The Ecological Land Co-operative was set up specifically to address the lack of affordable sites for ecological land based livelihoods in England.There is an enormous disconnect between the combined cost of land and rural housing, and the income that is usually derived from sustainable rural livelihoods, with land prices right across the country being highly inflated. Following a host of informal discussions between a number of like-minded organisations, there was a successful application to the Co-operative Fund in spring 2007 which when put alongside grants from Polden Puckham Charitable Foundation and Business Link SW funded the development of a business plan, the first fundraising drive and finally the launch of the project as a registered as a company in November 2007, to be converted to an Industrial and Provident Society – a co-operative – in September 2009.

ELC believe that sustainable rural livelihoods – such as small, local ecological food production – protect the environment and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing fossil fuel use as well as help build a vibrant, living countryside in which people flourish within our much loved landscape and alongside its rich natural history. The ELC offered the Greenham Reach  smallholdings on long-term tenure after competitive application, which included a rigorously examined business plan. Each small holding was to operate as a separate business, with ELC having overall responsibility for compliance with planning permission and overall management plan. The two other holdings will be covered in my next two posts.

For more on the Ecological Land Co-operative see the organisations website

For more on Steepholding, see the blog from Alex and Ruth.

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