The first time I met Helen Browning I didn’t have any preconceptions despite her almost guru status amongst the Organic movement. I was quickly impressed, Helen whipped up an organic lunch for us both whilst getting across her reasons for bringing me on board. I’d call Helen an enlightened agriculturalist, as CEO of the Soil Association and Organic farmer for many years you might think that was why. And a tour of her farms showed me what practicing organic agriculture has achieved in her patch of the chalk downlands. Restored grassland habitats, more trees on farms, decreasing food miles as well as the improved soils, lack of pesticides and chemical fertilisers and very high animal welfare. This lady means business when it comes to good organic practice.
But it wasn’t just Helen’s achievements as an Organic farmer that impressed me. It was her attitude and thirst for constant improvement. Helen got me on board because she is not satisfied with practicing organic agriculture alone. She sees the land of which she is guardian with open eyes and could see that the ecology and productivity could be improved with some simple but maverick changes.
That’s where I step in. With a good track record of supporting enlightened landowners to transform their space and production I was pleased to work with Helen and her team at Lower Farm. Our aim was to begin to carefully restore and transform 200 acres of pasture to demonstrate what agriculture looks like when principles of polyculture, ecological restoration, carbon absorption and resilience take on as much importance as productivity. I proposed we introduce around 4000 specially selected trees and other perennials to around 60 acres to start this ambitious project.
After several visits, meetings with head chefs and conversations with potential end customers I was able to design specifically for Helen’s land and business whilst providing opportunities for diversification and evolution. The design included coppice for onsite compost production, planting nut and fruit trees for use in the business and for sale to processors, a kitchen forest garden and trees for livestock to graze and to lock in soil nutrients.
The market for Organic, British fruit and nuts is a good one and a very attractive, though brave move on this scale. It also importantly demonstrates the possibilities to other farmers to improve their operations and opportunities, making the systems more resilient. Putting the need to continue grazing the land at the centre of the design puts livestock at the heart. Trees can be used to improve the growth of grass, create healthier animals with less need of medication and increase productivity in the long run. The land at Lower Farm now not only supports the herd of sheep but also locks in carbon and organic matter, helps prevent flooding and erosion, creates microclimates, improves biodiversity, landscape resilience. In a relatively small period of time it will also produce several other saleable crops in large quantities.
Meanwhile Helen’s business will be enjoying the unusual fruits, herbs, nuts and leaves produced in the kitchen forest garden. At 10 acres this is also a pretty ambitious project. But at this scale commercial production of fruit and other in-demand products is viable. Designed to create its own microclimate the kitchen forest garden also hosts some more experimental crops such as almonds and apricots which when in production will fetch a good price and be of high value in local restaurants. The kitchen forest garden uses principles from commercial fruit production alongside forest garden principles to create a space which cycles nutrients and has environmental benefits whilst being managed and cropped commercially.
Once the designs were finalised next came the thrilling task of sourcing the trees and fruit bushes organically. This project is unique amongst my portfolio in that it is fully and certified organic. This is exciting, it is pushing boundaries within the organic movement, enabling it to grow and evolve. It reflects the ambitions of both Helen Browning and myself, food production which tirelessly strives for harmony with the planet we live on.