Dartington Agroforestry Project: PFAF visit 3 August 2017

In 2017 two PFAF trustees, Wendy Stayte and Chris Marsh, began a research project involving making cooperative links with people in the South West growing unusual plants in innovative ways. They began with a visit to Incredible Vegetables near Ashburton, where they made notes and took photographs, publishing the resulting photo essay on the website at http://www.pfaf.org/user/Research.aspx?id=307. Our next visit was on 26 July 2017 to the site of East Devon Forest Garden, photo essay at http://www.pfaf.org/user/Research.aspx?id=310 .

Our third visit was on 3 August to the Dartington Hall Trust Agroforestry project, where Harriet Bell, Community Resilience (Food and Farming) Manager, explained how the project came about, after which we walked around the site.

Wendy’s Report

If anyone could keep alive a spirit of excited pioneering while keeping a hard-nosed grip on the commercial realities of making a living from growing food crops in these hard times for farmers, it is Harriet Bell.

She shared something of the evolution of this experimental growing site on a 48 acre field on the Dartington estate, where three different food-cultivation businesses, including the nearby Huxhams Cross Farm, have come together to plant a field with three types of trees, apple trees, elders and Sichuan pepper trees, with wide alley-ways between the trees, where rotating crops are grown for cattle, currently clover at the time we visited.

So what we see now is a pink carpet of flowers with rows of small saplings, planted during the last winter, of these three types of trees, standing bravely in this wide and windswept field, rolling in the shallow curving way of Devon land.

What is it about the society we now have that makes the legal ground-work of shared licensing of a field of crops as tortuous a business as it clearly is, the rigid demarcation of responsibilities to be shouldered and profits to be made, in a way that almost banishes the possibility of neighbourliness of farmers helping each other out and trusting that the good of one is the good of all?

Perhaps it will not.

Certainly the planting sounds as if it has harnessed much community involvement including children of the nearby school.

Anyway, it is unusual, if not unique, in this day and age, and all the more credit to Dartington Hall Trust, and Harriet, for giving this enterprise a shot, specially involving the Sichuan pepper trees, hardly grown at all in this country, and no experience in Devon of what the harvesting and processing of the pepper seeds will require.

Immense thought and careful planning has gone into creating the best possible conditions for cultivation and harvesting as it needs to be done on this kind of scale, thousands of elders, hundreds of apples and a couple of hundred pepper trees in due course.

Perhaps the trees, though planted in single-type patches rather than interweaving lines, will help each other out, enhance each other’s growth, in the way of forest and woodland trees.

Behind this scheme is the awareness of the short-term profit and long-term destructiveness of the annual mono-cropping way of growing food on large scale farms, and Dartington Hall is taking an active part in campaigning for recognition by DEFRA of the value of using land in this way, enhancing diversity, bringing more trees into food production with all their carbon-capturing and water regulating skills, not to mention their beauty and life-enhancing powers.

I shall watch this field now with some of the hope that Harriet has inspired.

Chris’s Notes and Comments

The site of Dartington Agroforestry Project (DAP) could hardly be more different from the two plots we visited earlier this year: the diverse combination of perennial edibles and soft fruits at Incredible Vegetables (IV), and the meandering layered outdoor rooms of East Devon Forest Garden (EDFG). The areas are markedly different: 48 acres at DAP contrasted with IV’s 5 ½ acres and EDFG’s 3 acres. In terms of diversity, the contrast goes the other way, with 3 or 4 key species at DAP and dozens of species at the other two sites. Clearly, that is a simplification where DAP is concerned, where there are areas of grasses and wild flowers, and the soil ecology will be recovering from the conventional farming methods employed by the previous tenant, who left in 2014. But the main focus of the project is just three species: elders, apples and Sichuan peppers, plus a rotation of fodder crops so we can say the fourth key species is cattle, which will enjoy the protein-rich clover. This is again a simplification, since Jon and Lynne Perkin, tenants of Old Parsonage Farm which includes the 48 acres of DAP, keep goats and sheep as well as cows on their 489 acres.

As Wendy pointed out, the DAP planting scheme is a compromise between pioneering land use and commercial realities. What is new is how four businesses share this land between them: Jon and Lynne Perkin, dairy farmers, who need the fodder crop; Luscombe Drinks who need more elderflowers; Marion O’Connell of biodynamic Huxhams Cross Farm, who wants an apple orchard, and Salthouse & Peppermongers, gourmet salt and pepper specialists, who are interested in Sichuan peppers.

With so few key crops, obviously the numbers of new plants is high. Luscombe needed more elderflowers for its popular bubbly drink, currently made from wild elderflowers, so the next best thing was to have an organically grown supply. They originally asked for 4,000 trees, but that would have resembled a monoculture, so 1,500 trees was agreed upon, and Luscombe were glad of the publicity from involving school children with their own staff in the planting of whips in January 2017.( http://luscombe.co.uk/agroforestryproject/ )

Huxhams Cross Farm also planted many trees: 700 whips of 5 varieties, one variety per row because they are harvested at different time. They organised ‘Volunteer Tree Plantings’ in January to March 2017.

The third key crop is the most intriguing. Harriet explained that DAP needed a high value crop which no one else is growing, like Tregothnan tea ( https://tregothnan.co.uk/ ) In 2015 she had a tour of Martin Crawford’s forest garden and was blown away by the taste of Sichuan pepper. She noted that in the 2015 Observer Food Monthly list of ‘the 50 hottest places, people and trends in food’ (OFM 50), goat was top, and Sichuan pepper was in the list at no. 15.

Image from The Spice Lab, http://shop.thespicelab.com/index.php/wild-szechuan-peppercorns-japanese-sansho.html

The UK has an import ban on Sichuan pepper because of the high risk of tampering – which happens with spices and is hard to detect. The peppers are also air dried so they can be contaminated by atmospheric pollution. The UK has a reputation for high food standards, imposed here to safeguard the health of workers, farmers and consumers. If Sichuan peppers were grown here they could even be sold in China. So it was decided to plant an area of the DAP plot with Sichuan pepper 2 year old whips. The plan was for 222 trees but Martin Crawford had only 96 in his nursery at Littlehempston. These were planted in January and not all have survived because they were hit by dry spells and it had not been practicable to water them regularly. This was disappointing since it had been thought that, since Sichuan pepper grows naturally on mountainsides, the trees would be tough enough for them to become wind buffer to shield the other trees.

The most important consideration for DAP was that the scheme should be profitable once the trees reached maturity and were yielding a harvest. It looks likely that the Luscombe elderflowers part of this will work. Apple orchards are tried and tested, so although Harriet has experience of a cider apple scheme which did not make enough money, other orchard businesses have been profitable, and evidently Huxhams Cross Farm are confident that this one will be viable, because it has the advantage of being able to call on volunteer labour. The Sichuan peppers venture is new and uncertain, and so it is treated as an R&D project, funded jointly by Salthouse & Peppermongers and Dartington Hall Trust itself.

The wider picture of current plans and initiatives on Dartington Hall’s 1,200 acre estate is beyond the scope of this essay on DAP’s 48 acre site. But I am interested in the history of Dartington Hall, bought by Leonard Elmhirst in 1925 as the base for his experiment in rural reconstruction, particularly because Elmhirst had worked for Rabindranath Tagore in India to establish a Department for Rural Reconstruction at Tagore’s university Visva-Bharati. My own research has shown that Tagore and Elmhirst saw rural reconstruction differently. For Tagore, the aim was reviving India’s rural society, one or two villages at a time. Local self-reliance was the goal, rather than commercial viability. (http://tagoreanworld.co.uk/?page_id=68 ) Elmhirst understood this when he worked for Tagore, but when he embarked on his own project the aim was to establish rural industries and provide employment for local people at a time when the rural economy was depressed. (http://tagoreanworld.co.uk/?page_id=117 )

If we consider the three sites Wendy and I have visited this year for Plants For A Future, it is interesting to wonder what Tagore and Elmhirst might have thought of each of them. My feeling is that Tagore would have approved of Incredible Vegetables as an approach to achieving self-sufficiency in food. He would have enjoyed how, in Incredible Vegetables and in East Devon Forest Garden, the diverse combinations of food plants gave rise to seemingly natural and permanent abundance. Elmhirst would perhaps have been more drawn to the Dartington Agroforestry Project. We know that Elmhirst received agricultural training in America, and brought modern methods to the Dartington estate. He removed hedgerows to bring in farm machinery. He planted non-native conifers for timber. He introduced industrial chicken units and artificial insemination for cattle. These are methods regarded with disapproval by organic farmers and those interested in nature conservation and animal welfare. We know that Elmhirst’s priority was the rural economy, and this was prompted by his view that supplying cities exploits and exhausts the soil. He would have appreciated how agroforestry has the potential to conserve the soil and increase diversity whilst being commercially viable and providing useful local employment. (https://tagoreanworld.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/tagore-and-the-robbery-of-the-soil/ )

Harriet Bell blog:







Other Links

Old Parsonage Farm, 489 acres for ‘low carbon farming methods that are commercially viable’ https://www.dartington.org/new-farmer-at-dartington/

Agroforestry: Farming for the Future https://youtu.be/2ZhlP1rO0Yw

Luscombe on Dartington Agroforestry Project http://luscombe.co.uk/agroforestryproject/

Huxhams Cross farm https://biodynamiclandtrust.org.uk/securing-and-protecting-land/land-share-offers/huxhams-cross-farm/vision/

Salthouse & Peppermongers https://www.salthouseandpeppermongers.com/home

Food Awards http://qualityfoodawards.com/news/local-producers-involved-in-dartington-hall-trusts-agroforestry-project-28-04-2017/

Plants For A Future plants page for Sichuan pepper


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