There are some experiences which completely change your perspective on life. For me, one of those experiences was spending two weeks as a volunteer on a vegan permaculture farm in the heart of North Wales.
Despite having grown up in the Welsh countryside, this was different to anything I had done before. For one thing, the farm is completely off-grid – no mains water, electricity, sewage or gas, no phone and no Internet connection. For another, permaculture was a relatively new concept to me and I had no idea what kind of work I would be doing.
Although the farm is off-grid, all needs are provided for. Water comes from a nearby spring, fed through to a tap. Bottled gas is used for cooking. Each building has a solar panel to power lights, phone chargers and other small appliances. Wind turbines provide backup when there isn’t enough sunlight. It’s a pretty good feeling to switch on a light with the knowledge that it’s being powered by the sun.
All waste (food and human!) is composted, and greywater from the washing up is also saved and used. This means all soaps must be biodegradable. I came to love the simplicity of the compost toilet – just do your business and add sawdust. When you think about it, it’s bizarre that conventional toilets contaminate our clean water. Rather than expending resources on treating sewage, we could be composting our waste and using it to grow delicious food.
So what exactly is permaculture? Wikipedia defines it as ‘a system of agricultural and social design principles centred on simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems’. In other words, it means growing things in a way which works with nature, not against it – for example, not disturbing the soil more than is necessary, and encouraging biodiversity. I recommend reading the full Wikipedia article to get a more complete understanding of this complex subject.
Most of the vegetables on the farm are grown in a large polytunnel. Courgettes, grapes, kale, rocket, sage, beans, chives and several varieties of tomato all thrive here. There’s also a forest garden, a way of mimicking a woodland habitat with layers of trees, herbs, shrubs and other perennial plants. Here, the trees and bushes grow nuts, apples, pears, plums, raspberries, redcurrants and blackcurrants. All of this in supposedly poor soil where other farmers only rear sheep.
On my first full day at the farm, we trampled down the weeds which were growing up around the trees in the forest garden. Conventionally, these would be pulled up, but when trampled down they will rot to form a mulch which will put valuable nutrients back into the soil.
For similar reasons, we placed the leaves of a plant called comfrey around the vegetables growing in the polytunnel. I learned that comfrey makes excellent green manure (natural plant-based fertiliser) as its deep roots take in so many nutrients from the soil. For this reason, it is much used in organic growing.
Since the farm is vegan, no animals are kept. Manure is not used, and neither is bone or any other animal product. This is known as stock-free farming, and gives an insight into how farming could look in a future when animals are no longer exploited. Everything is grown organically, without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilisers. Despite this, the plants in the polytunnel were almost untouched by pests – aside from the kale, which was very popular with the slugs!
The experience really shifted my perspective on what is and isn’t necessary. One of the best examples of this is the manual washing machine on the farm. Turning the handle 120 times cleans your clothes, saving massive quantities of electricity and water compared to an ordinary washing machine. Why, then, do we use such large, power-hungry appliances? I also realised that most of us change our clothes far more often than we need to, creating mountains of laundry. I began to realise that we only ‘need’ certain things because of the way we choose to live.
So could a model like this be the future of farming? Well, maybe. It’s important to note that the project I visited is not yet finished. Food is still being bought in, and they are searching for another farmer to live there permanently and grow more vegetables. Additionally, gas is still being used for the stove. But it’s pretty obvious that this way of life is much more sustainable than the way most of us currently live in the West.
According to WWF, the average Briton would need 3.5 Earths to support their lifestyle. The global average is 1.5. This means we are currently living in a way that the Earth simply cannot sustain. The farm I visited operates in a way that could be supported by less than one Earth, a target we will all need to achieve if we want to save our planet.
I plan to write another post on the spiritual side of my experience. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think this is a sustainable model? Would you be content to live this way? Let me know, and be sure to visit the farm’s Facebook page if you like the sound of it.