Smallholding centre of the world (probably)

When we moved to this part of Wales, we didn’t realise that we were following in the footsteps of so many other downsizers, diggers and dreamers, and back-to-the-landers in search of a more self-sufficient life.

John Seymour: the complete book of Self-Sufficiency

John Seymour: the complete book of Self-Sufficiency

If we had done even a smidgen of research we would have known that none other than John Seymour himself was based not far from here. It was only when rereading the barley section of the complete book of Self-Sufficiency that we properly noticed Barley Saturday an annual festival in Cardigan – John Seymour’s nearby town!– about 30 minutes drive.

One couple that have been smallholders in our village for the last 8 years are Andy and Quae. Very kindly they offered us a tour of their 8 acres, a week or so ago we went round. Impressively Quae was in her bee-keeping outfit when we arrived; she’d been checking that the bees in her hives had enough food.

After a quick cuppa underneath the strings of onions in the kitchen and a conversation that included so many good tips about where to go for what around the area we had difficulty keeping up, we headed out for the tour. First off the veggie garden which I didn’t take a photo of as winter is never the best time to capture the abundance of vegetable plots, but it was obviously well kept, productive (as the kitchen had shown) and sported a grapevine too (so hope for a châteaux Forest Garden yet).

Kune Kune pigs, Morpheus and Eunice

Kune Kune pigs, Morpheus and Eunice

Then to the kune kune pet pigs, Morpheus and Eunice. Now, I have never met any “teapot” pigs before and always imagined them sitting in tea cups, so meeting these two was a bit of a shock. They are over knee-high and would leave a fair dent in your welly should they step on your foot. But they are totally gorgeous and very friendly, Eunice even let me stroke her dense wire-haired back.

Herdwick sheep

Herdwick sheep

Andy and Quae keep a flock of Herdwick sheep for meat, wool and grass-mowing. Curious about people being on their field they showed some interest in us until, that is, they determined that we hadn’t brought food (a rare treat, as these girls are totally grass fed). Despite appearances none of them are pregnant, they are just very fluffy sheep. Also very hardy with few feet problems even though they are kept on the land all year round.

Water for the house and land is from a spring (treated appropriately for human consumption by various filters and technical kit in one of the outbuildings) very handy if you have one, especially if it, like this one, is high on your land. An ancient oak plug kept the water level of the pond in check (unfortunately covered in water so we couldn’t see it).

Chickens Bantams Ducks

Motley crew: Chickens, Bantams and Ducks

Back round towards the house we met the chickens, ducks and bantams. These ones are all kept for eggs. They are a beautiful motley crew that produce a wonderfully diverse range of eggs both in size and colour. Andy and Quae have a system for moving the hens about their fox-proof run which means that the grass is never over-grazed, and it was certainly looking lush.

Andy and a frozen turkey

Certainly not the last turkey in the shop

Turkeys, I haven’t mentioned them! Seasonal, errrm … visitors, they certainly grow to a good size here.

The evening was fast approaching, the hens had already put themselves to bed, it was pretty much time to go. Last stop the bees. A few bee hives are kept above visitor head height on a strip of garden within sight of the house so Quae can keep an eye on them.

The few hours we spent with Andy and Quae were an inspiration. They have certainly achieved a lot in their time here while also running a successful non-smallholding business. With the promise of raspberry canes and strawberry runners – you can bet we’ll be back!

Still exploring

We have about 32 acres here, divided up into lots of parcels the largest being around 11 acres. In the lush green summer some parts of the land seemed totally inaccessible, but as the leaves dropped and plants died back for winter those undiscovered places began to reveal their secret entrances.

We hadn’t explored much of the lower western edge of our land. It was a job that needed to be doing, not least because our neighbour keeps animals and we had no idea what state the fencing is in down there. A wall of brambles defend the bottom of Sunshine Meadow, that combined with the land becoming a lot steeper from then on down, makes access to the river on this side a prickly challenge.

Looking East

South-facing slope to the left, hazel coppice to the right. Lovely flat (if overgrown) grassland straight ahead

Armed as ever with loppers we cut our way through, watching the ground at every foot step to avoid the few rabbit holes along our new path. Stooping under the fallen branches and guarding trees at the bottom (possibly bird cherries) we found a wonderfully calm oasis shielded to the south by historically coppiced hazel and to the north by the slope we had just descended. A long, narrow, east-west strip of grass, probably the flattest bit of land we have found! Our imaginations ran wild, what a beautiful tranquil place, even the sound of the river is distant here, and what an amazing south-facing slope to work with. This, I think, is where I would like to spend my holidays! Looking closer at the slope, succession from grassland is in full pace, young ash whips are meters above the protecting brambles on the slope, what possibilities!

Bracken down by the river

Entrance into the bracken covered field down by the river, looking south towards our neighbours wood

Pressing on, as we had one other field to visit along this edge of our land, we continued our path south towards the river. Once on half-welly walk we found a gap in the trees that we hadn’t seen before, the bracken jungle in the field below had hidden it from view in the Summer. Now the rust red fronds beckoned us in. What a treat! Another flat meadow! This one edged to the south by the river, then beyond that a steep north-facing wooded slope and to the east, along the river, one can just about see the Ent. The air is so magically clean and fresh down here. We were speachless, we are so lucky to have so many different micro-climates on the land.

What to do with this piece? Well, currently Craig is thinking that a couple of pigs would do a brilliant job of clearing the bracken. We know that the previous farmer used to keep pigs down here, indeed, we occasionally find some of the electric fencing he used to keep them contained so I guess it could be possible.

I have to admit, I am a little stuck for names for these two fields – well they are not really fields. If you have any suggestions, please do let me know.

By the way, the fencing in this field is fine. It will need some attention further up, on the other parcel as it was evident that sheep had been under one of the larger gaps of the fence, but as there are no animals on either field at the moment, no rush.

Just one more section of our land still to explore properly, our woods next to the far-away field – so far we haven’t been any deeper in than the spring.

The Biochar Solution Book Review

The Biochar Solution

Carbon Farming and Climate Change

by Albert Bates
Book Review

The Biochar Solution by Albert Bates
During our recent RegenAG course with Darren Doherty I had the opportunity to browse through a selection of permaculture-related books set up as a temporary library by the course attendees. One of the books there was ‘The Biochar Solution’ by Albert Bates. After reading a few randomly selected pages that mentioned topics that have interested me for years, such as ‘The Sahara Forest’, ‘Biochar Stoves’, and ‘The Groasis’ I put the book on ‘to read’ list and ordered it when I returned home.

Although the main topic of this book is biochar, Bates presents an excellent overview of the severe problems caused by our ‘conventional’ agriculture industry and the proven alternatives that can and do move large quantities of carbon from the atmosphere and into the soil. Indeed the subtitle of this book is ‘Carbon Farming and Climate Change’.

Bates discusses the history of biochar with tales of Spanish conquistadors in south America, huge cities along the Amazon river and fertile settlements within the rainforest thanks to terra preta (black earth) soils created by the native Americans. These carbon-rich soils could be farmed continuously, unlike the poor thin naturally-occurring soils found under tropical rainforests. It is now thought that the population of south America could have numbered not just in the tens of millions, but in the hundreds of millions before the Spanish conquest. European diseases such as Smallpox destroyed these societies following the arrival of the Europeans, killing perhaps ninety per cent of the people. The wood built cities vanished as the rainforest returned. The growth of this secondary forest was so vigorous that the transfer of carbon from the atmosphere to the new vegetation that it is now theorised that this could have caused the Medieval ‘Little Ice Age’.

The environmental community has seriously criticised, and rightly so, the inappropriate use of biochar as a tool for tackling climate change. Ideas such as charring virgin rainforest on a grand scale with the involvement of mega-corporations making big money out of the emerging carbon markets would be an environmental disaster. Bates tackles this and a whole range of other potential problems in his chapter “The Biochar Critique”.

The book focusses not on huge mega-projects by the mega-rich but on the application of biochar by the very poor to improve their lives while sequestering carbon. My favourite chapter in the book is ‘Stove Wars’ in which Bates describes the various biochar producing stoves that can be used by people in the Global south to cook with using waste biomass material. This is material such as crop residue which they would often just burn in the field. Using biomass stoves this residue is pyrolised. The gases given off in this process are burned to cook with and perhaps fifty per cent of the carbon that was contained in the crop waste is transformed into biochar. Thus the use of a biochar stove not only creates a product out of a waste stream, but also protects the trees that would have otherwise been cut down to use as cooking fuel. This biochar can be added to ground straight away where it will add nutrients, particularly nitrogen (which is often lost to the atmosphere in open fires in the form of the potent greenhouse gas nitrogen dioxide). However using one of the tenant principles of permaculture biochar offers many yields. Just like charcoal, it can be used to filter and purify drinking water. Without the biochar this water would either be drank dirty with serious health risks, or boiled – using still more wood. But even after being used to purify water the biochar has another use – it can be used as a base material and a cover material in a compost toilet. The resulting humanure/biochar mix can then be used to fertilise tree crops.

Bates describes a fantastic biochar producing stove called the Lucia WorldStove created by Nathaniel Mulcahy. WorldStove have created a business model whereby they do not sell their stoves in Africa, but rather help local people produce their own stoves. This vastly reduces costs and means the end users are far less reliant on outside aid.

Bates ends his book with a chapter called ‘Carbon Negative Communities’ in which he describes how we can go way beyond ‘sustainability’ and aiming for ‘carbon neutrality. It is within our power to sequester far more carbon than we produce, and this we MUST do.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in finding solutions to climate change. It is an upbeat book full of good news and solutions. We can turn this situation around. We are not beaten yet.