Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm

Joanne Mudhar tells how it all began — and what’s happening now on the farm’s 12 acres

It was one of those moments when nothing external happened, but I knew that my life would never be the same again. I was designing a screen layout for an early “smartphone” in my work as an engineer when I thought to myself, “Why am I doing this? What am I doing here?” It just all seemed so pointless! I had asked myself such questions many times before, as have most people in any steady job. But this time it was different.

I knew perfectly well how serious climate change was. And I also knew that food production, as it is widely practised, was utterly unsustainable. And I loved working outside; though I had done enough of it on my allotments to know that the cold, rain and wind can rapidly rob the experience of any romance.

And so began my long journey from engineer on a good salary to managing director of The Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm http://www.the-oak-tree.co.uk/ a not for profit social enterprise and home to Suffolk’s first Community Supported Agriculture Scheme. I now earn a pittance, but I wake each morning with a sense of purpose, something I rarely did as an engineer.

The journey from engineering to farming was long: exhilarating at times, exhausting and terrifying at others. I didn’t know where I was heading to half the time, but it was quite clear that something had to be done, and I was in as good a situation as anyone to do it.

When I bought the 12 acres of land that became The Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm I was appalled at the state of the soil. A soil test revealed 2% organic matter, and it looked like sand that a child would play in. It was devoid of any life.  But this is “normal” for our agricultural soils. As Prof Tim Lang of City University puts it is we use our soils as a blotting paper medium for agricultural chemicals. This is a truly shocking state of affairs, and my first priority was to improve my soil.

I paid a contractor to plough and harrow the majority of the field, and I then used a push-along broadcast seeder to sow soil-improving green manure mixes from the wonderful people at Cotswold Grass Seed https://www.cotswoldseeds.com/ . I finished sowing the seed in the rain, retired home for a hot bath and red wine, then spent the next few weeks watching the ground sideways hoping it would grow. To my great relief, it did.

Meanwhile I rotovated just ¾ of an acre with my little walk along tractor from the ever helpful and friendly BSG Tractors and Machinery http://ww.bsgtractorsandmachinery.co.uk/ in Marks Tey, and I set up a small market garden in the spring of 2010.

As the name of the farm, The Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm, suggests, the aim of the farm is “to produce good food all year round, with the lowest possible carbon emissions, as a viable business – and having a good time while doing so”. To lower our carbon emissions we use a mix of techniques to grow our vegetables. Rather than buy a large tractor for seeding, hoeing etc. we use hand tools, including a wheel hoe and a line-seeder. These tools were commonplace on market gardens a century ago, and used to be manufactured in the UK. These days they have to be imported, the Glaser wheel hoe from Switzerland, and the Earthway seeders from the USA.

I also focused on very local vegetable sales to eliminate carbon emissions, a stall by the entrance to the farm, and bicycle delivery to local shops and a food co-op.  I sought very local sources of fertility for the land, including the next-door stable yard’s strawy muck, homegrown green manures and comfrey.

The Oak Tree Farm is 4.96 hectares in size. The planning system has a threshold of 5 hectares above which is it far easier to obtain permission to erect an agricultural building. As we were below the threshold I had to submit a full planning application for all buildings on the farm, including a 6’ x 4’ shed.  The approval took four months to come through, which delayed my first growing season as I had nowhere to store my tools.  Even the land agent who helped me buy the land was unaware of this anomaly for smaller plots of land.  This was my first experience of inappropriate regulations making my life far more complicated and frustrating than it should be for small-scale food producers.

In the first year of growing vegetables alone two important facts came to light.  Firstly, there was no way I could work hard enough to make a low carbon market garden pay without outside help.  I lost a stone in weight, and was exhausted at the end of each day.  I took no holidays for the first 18 months, and few weekends. Secondly, people like working on the farm. A steady stream of friendly volunteers came and worked alongside me, many of them from the newly formed Transition Ipswich Food Group.  It took a lightbulb moment from now farm director Eric Nelson to put these two facts together, “why don’t you set up a community supported agriculture scheme?” And so we did.

Our vegetable Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme http://www.the-oak-tree.co.uk/csaintro/ in now at the beginning of its third growing season.  We provide a weekly supply of vegetables to 35 local households (which comprise approximately 100 volunteer members). These veg boxes are distributed with a cooperative arrangement between fellow grower and farm director, Tom Wilmot, and I, and a number of neighbourhood distribution groups of members. These neighbourhood groups take it in turns to collect veg boxes from the farm or my home. This innovative arrangement minimises transport usage, as well as building a sense of community between neighbours who, in most cases, didn’t know each other before joining the farm.

CSA members commit to working an average of 1.5 hours per week on the farm per share (more in the summer, less in the winter) which helps us to keep the price of the veg boxes relatively low at £7.50 per week, and which also builds a very real sense of community. Many friendships have been forged, and even a couple of farm romances!

We hold regular free social events, including three annual farm parties to which CSA members, our farm neighbours and friends of the farm are invited. CSA members report eating better, feeling physically fitter, and some have even experienced improvement in mental health problems, thanks to their involvement in the farm. We have a popular “cycling incentive scheme” (which involved modest prizes for the members who cycle to the farm the most in any six month period) and our homemade bike racks made from scrap wood are heavily used!

We are also home to Ipswich Pig Club, Acorn Antics, in a friendly relationship between the pig club and CSA members (most are members of both now!) and we offer sides of pork to our CSA members from time to time.  We move pigs around the vegetable beds to both manure and dig the soil. It is incredibly effective as this short time lapse film of the pigs in action http://www.the-oak-tree.co.uk/oak-tree-pork/ by Tom shows.

We keep dual-purpose pasture fed chickens (for meat and eggs), and we have just launched our new chicken’s egg CSA http://www.the-oak-tree.co.uk/chickens-egg-community-supported-agriculture-scheme-csa/ as well as keeping breeding geese for a Christmas pasture fed goose CSA. We are working with Steve Merritt of the Welsh Poultry Centre http://www.welshpoultrycentre.co.uk/ in a programme to improve dual purpose chicken breeds as for many decades these birds have been bred for showing rather than utility.

We plan to further expand our range of food available… we have a small wood fired bread oven and bike powered grain mill which we use to mill locally grown wheat – just as a demonstration at the moment, but there is lots of interest and we would love to help set up a community bakery.

Alongside all these community benefits, the farm demonstrates many innovative environmental farming techniques, the most important effect of which is soil carbon sequestration.  Our use of pasture-fed livestock moved regularly (regenerative agriculture), nitrogen fixing trees for fertility building, our permaculture “forest garden” (edible ecosystem designed to mimic a highly productive “young woodland”), and green manure crops to improve the organic (carbon) content of the soil demonstrates a remarkable potential to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in a stable form in agricultural soils.

Indeed it is the very combination of sustainable, labour-intensive agriculture and CSA that makes it possible for us to run a successful ecological farm even in the current climate of perverse subsidies and food regulations that penalise the small-scale farmer.  We receive no farming subsidies, not even environmental stewardship payments.  Our business plan shows that, with some temporary financial support that we are currently seeking from outside funding organisations, we can become financially stable in the next couple of years by expanding our range and scale of activities.  We would still be very much on a small scale compared to our industrial agriculture competitors however, even after this expansion!

At the moment Tom and I earn very little (Tom £500 per month, myself £200 per month) so we supplement our income with other work.

The increase in the organic content of our soil gives us the following, quite remarkable, benefits:

  • Near elimination of the need for fossil fuel based inputs, which can be very energy intensive (we do use some fuel for farm equipment, but only a very little).
  • Improved quality of the food produced.
  • Reduction in the requirement for irrigation.
  • A more resilient local food production system in the face of climate change and rising food prices.
  • Significant wildlife benefits. On our small field we now have birds of prey, owls and many other birds in noticeably increased numbers.  Even the worms have returned.

Our soil has literally changed colour thanks to its increased carbon content in just three years, and continues to do so.

We are proud to have been awarded the Suffolk County Council, “Creating the Greenest County” Local Food: Community Award in 2012, as well as holding the Suffolk Country Council accreditation for high environmental performance the “Suffolk Carbon Charter” Gold Standard.  We are also a demonstration farm in the Permaculture Association’s LAND network.

Oak Tree Farm

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