How does permaculture address the big challenges of our times – from the climate and ecological crises, to the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities?
Hannah Thorogood – a permaculture designer and senior UK Permaculture teacher – farms 100 acres (without a tractor).
Her land and farming practices embody a mindset of abundance – one that many of us are aspiring to and wondering how to realise.
Farming the future
The Inkpot Farm near Sleaford is a model for post-fossil fuel farming.
It is designed for carbon sequestration and long term resilience, as well as producing nourishing food and sustaining livelihoods today.
It weaves together principles of permaculture, agroecology, pasture for life and regenerative farming.
Fundamental to these ideas, is the rebuilding of the health and fertility of soil, depleted over decades by intensive farming methods.
The Inkpot is on a North-facing slope of heavy clay soil – aspects that make it less attractive to most farmers.
The grazing of the cows and sheep are managed through mob grazing – a small area is grazed at a time, and the animals are moved on each day while the pasture recovers over several months; turkeys are moved on weekly under young trees.
It’s an efficient, low input system, that improves soil and animal health, and sequesters carbon.
The grazers are outdoors all year round, and their diets do not need supplementing with grain.
In the past decade, there has been a marked increase in clover and diversity of grasses – and life in the soil.
Lincoln Reds are already known to be docile cows, but the mob grazing makes them even more gentle and easy to handle: they are used to being moved from one area to the next each day, which sometimes involves a trailer-ride to take them to pastures new – it makes them willing to hurry into the trailer!
The daily moving makes it easy to keep an eye on them and notice if any are lame, for example.
The turkeys graze under the strip of young trees that edge the field. They love the berries! Hannah trims and maintains the trees in the area after the turkeys have cleared it of the summer’s growth: it doesn’t all have to be done on one go; it is like farming only a few square metres each day.
The trees not only provide forage for turkeys, but also a shelter belt, protecting the organic certified farm from strong winds and spray drift – pesticides and artificial fertilisers blowing across from neighbouring farms.
And it is a wildlife corridor, connecting existing, more mature copses at either end of the field.
Most of the sheep graze in a field of solar panels.
Hannah’s 14 year old daughter tells me about how she sheared a sheep last week, a task done by hand.
“Electric shears are like a cross between a razor and a chainsaw! Hand shearing is slower, but much calmer – more peaceful for the sheep and the shearer!”Hannah Thorogood, permaculture farmer
The Impact of Covid
The Inkpot became much quieter during the pandemic. Normally it’s very open-door, but Hannah has had to close it to visitors and has not been able to host courses on the site.
Normally there is an intern and other volunteers: the internship arrangements have only recently resumed, but they are not currently able to take on new volunteers.
Instead, Hannah has become much more active on Facebook and Instagram, which works very well. It enables people to follow the continual changes and cycles of events – for example the recent birthing of lambs and hatching of chicks, as well as learning about the multitude of ways that permaculture principles are applied across the system and over time. It’s a good way to build a picture, by adding information incrementally.
Where does our food come from?
The food scarcity shock at the start of lockdown has woken up a lot of people to the fragility of the current food system, and increased awareness around where food comes from, including meat choices.
Demand for local food has increased dramatically, which has increased farmers’ confidence to sell direct.
Direct selling can be more complex and uncertain, in the longer term it is more stable.
Where a supermarket has the power to drop a massive order, local customers are more loyal, and they’re more willing to accept adjustments in price.
Local solidarity & support
Local foodbanks have sprung up in local villages in response to increased need, and the school’s support – led by dinner ladies and teaching assistants – for children receiving free school meals during the pandemic has been immensely thoughtful and imaginative!
The Inkpot has a long standing arrangement with a foodbank, whereby customers can buy a turkey to donate as well as buying one for themselves at Christmas. Last year, this led to 30-odd organic turkeys being gifted to families in the local community.
The rise in empathy
The pandemic has also led to an increase in empathy. For example, people getting into growing their own has meant not only that they realise how enjoyable it is, but also they discover that it’s quite difficult, and that has led to a greater respect for the work of farmers and growers!
Also really noticeable over recent years is that farmers are more interested and less judgemental of different ways of doing things.
Especially at events like the Oxford Real Farming Conference and Groundswell, all kinds of farmers will be in a (sometimes virtual) room together – large scale farmers and smallholders, organic or “conventional” farmers, talking and listening to each other.
Connection and respect in the local community has been, and continues to be, very important to Hannah.
Farmers find different ways of doing things, and have to make hard and complex choices.
We can respect each other.
Making a living on a small farm
Those with an interest in farming will be well aware of the scale of problems faced by new entrants – especially gaining access to land and making a decent living from a small scale farm.
As a nation we have become very used to cheap food – we spend much less of our incomes on food compared to previous generations.
Most farms rely heavily on subsidies to remain profitable, and there is a government sponsored drive towards automation and AI.
“We need to value food more. One time I calculated that raising turkeys paid me 11p an hour!”Hannah Thorogood, Permaculture farmer
How is it possible to live, and why do you persist with it? – I ask.
For a start, the income from turkey meat is not the turkeys’ only use on the farm; they are integrated into a wider system of fertility building – for example, the turkey bedding contributes to highly effective compost-making for the veg garden, and during the day adult birds’ manure the soil during mob grazing.
Hannah is quick to acknowledge the privileges that make it possible for her to farm in this way – including being able-bodied, educated, white, and having been able to buy a plot of land without a mortgage. These advantages are easily taken for granted.
The long view
Hannah describes to me how she feels called to work on the land – perhaps like a spiritual vocation.
“We’re like the church of England: asset rich but cash poor!” she laughs! And regenerative agriculture is all about “cathedral thinking” – taking the long view, and knowing that the designers will never see their work complete.
But it’s designed as much for the 8th generation as it is for ourselves, anyway.
One of the first tasks when Hannah acquired the site was to plant trees – a work of hope for the future instead of instant rewards – although already the young trees are big enough already to provide pleasant shade for our lunch table.
It’s also possible because the life-style costs less: if you don’t exhaust yourself with stressful work, there is no need to escape the grind for holidays and leisure breaks.
If you get out into nature every day, there’s not much need for a National Trust pass.
If you lead an active life, there is no use for a gym membership.
If you spend very little time around shops and online, there is much less opportunity to be marketed to, and much fewer expensive, market-generated desires that need satisfying.
Living simply on the land is hard work and skilled, but also joyous and deeply satisfying, it is healthy on every level.
Living better on a smaller income is also the direction of travel that we need for a liveable future on this planet: the carbon savings we may be able to make through renewable energy are quickly swallowed up if we use them to increase consumption, and it’s vital that we learn to live better with less stuff!
Find out more
Hannah teaches permaculture through the internationally recognised Permaculture Design Course and Permaculture Diplomas.
Inkpot produce includes meat, eggs, wool, sheepskins and honey, but good luck with getting hold of any, most of it is already spoken for by regular customers!