How and why did you get into vegan permaculture?
I think it’s only fair we explain how we actually became vegan and then entered into the world of vegan permaculture at the ages of 49 and 55 years old!
In 2011 both Dave and I lost almost everything, Dave through a messy divorce and a spinal injury and myself through a very tough 14-year relationship split and personal breakdown, it’s amazing how we actually found each other, just at the right time, when we were both penniless and broken emotionally! we were really struggling financially at the time and all the emotional trauma had really knocked both our confidence and health. At this point Dave was struggling daily with really persistent headaches, dangerously high blood pressure and high cholesterol, not to mention his bad back and I was still battling with self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Dave’s doctor after 5 years of suffering said he would need his tablets for the rest of his life and wasn’t able to control the blood pressure or get rid of the headaches. And so we hit the internet for alternative medicines.
By pure accident, one evening, we stumbled across a youtube documentary about a plant-based diet, ‘Jason Vales Super Juice Me’, we were so shocked at what he was saying in the film and the results, that we immediately watched numerous other documentaries such as ‘Forks over Knives’, ‘Cowspiracy’ and many more. We couldn’t believe that a plant-based diet could make such a huge impact on your life and health, not to mention the absolute horror of the animals really open our hearts and mind to what happens in the meat and dairy industry. And literally that evening we committed ourselves to be VEGAN!
To cut a long story short, within 2 weeks of turning 100% plant-based, Dave was off ALL his tablets, his blood pressure returned to normal and amazingly, so did his cholesterol, his headaches also reduced to virtually nothing within 4 weeks and his back felt much better. I felt amazing, the fogginess that I experienced every morning lifted and I had more energy than ever, I remember my hair which lacked any shine suddenly looked beautiful again and I could see a visible difference in my skin. For us, it was amazing! However, we were still very much financially broke, and so trying to find fresh green veggies at a reasonable price was becoming extremely difficult, and organic was almost impossible!
So we looked for ways to get fresh veg, as it was becoming more and more important to us, the more we learned about veganism and where our food comes from. This was where we started to experiment growing Microgreens in our backyard, as we had no actual growing space in the tiny garden for traditional veg, so, we converted a small shed into a makeshift growing room, and within a week we had FRESH organically grown microgreens, which contained up to 40% more nutrition than their adult plants. We suddenly realized we LOVED growing our own food, the sheer joy of planting, caring and harvesting your own veggies was so exciting and above all tasty!
Before long, we were not only growing microgreens for ourselves, we were growing for friends and family, we just couldn’t believe how everyone loved our baby greens and how much we enjoyed feeding others, and so this led us to look into community projects, and that’s when we came across two CSA farms, (Community-supported agriculture) which is a system that connects the producer and consumers within the food system more closely. Unfortunately, due to our financial situation at that time, we were unable to join to get the organic produce, however, there was another way, so we volunteered to help on both CSA farms, and by doing this for a few hours every week, we were able to receive a small share of fresh organic produce every single week, it was perfect!
The work on the farms, was so inspiring, we learned so much about the real growing of veggies, whether in the wind, rain, sun and we enjoyed learning so much, we knew this was what we wanted to do, and so the mission to change our lives began.
Dave and myself read every book on growing possible, watched every youtube channel about market gardening we could find, without a clue at this point how we could even start with no land, no money and no background in farming! But we were determined, and so Dave at the age of 51 went back to college to retrain as an electrician, and I spent every day growing and selling on a small scale, our microgreens from our little grow shed to local shops, restaurants and friends, along with volunteering on the CSA farms. We also stopped watching TV and spent any free time practicing affirmations, listening to positive mind exercises and manifesting, writing down exactly what we were after when it comes to our future.
Soon we came across an organization who offers small plots of land for new entrant farmers for a reduced rate, and so we developed a clear business strategy and viable business plan based on our microgreens sales, but we needed even more experience to qualify and go through the 2-year vigorous application process. So luckily, we managed to acquire a small 1-acre plot of land, that an elderly local farmer had free, who in return for some DIY from Dave would allow us to grow and experiment.
After our year growing on the plot, we began the 2-year application process, which was brutal, but not deterred, we jumped through every hoop and gave it everything we had, and by this time Dave was now a qualified electrician and financially we were back on our feet! In the end, we were successfully chosen for a site in East Sussex, and our dream was about to become reality, however, our lives never being straight forward, at the last meeting, we decided for various reasons, it wasn’t right for us, and so we pulled out!! I think I cried all the way home, as it felt we had worked so hard and now we were back to square one.
Not to be beaten, and as we had learned so much from the whole experience over the 3 years, Dave and I simply put an advert out online on the organic organization’s websites and anywhere else we could find that was connected to growing food and farming. Just explaining who we were, our experience and what we were seeking, To our surprise within days we received 7 offers! yes, 7! many were free, in return for a little help, some were to produce for the families, in return for land and the others were clear rental opportunities.
All offers were amazing, and the choice was a difficult one, but we had our business plan and we knew exactly what we wanted and so the minute we drove through the gates of Applewood Acres, we knew it was the place for us. The journey has been so difficult and we have worked so hard, but against all odds, we did it! and so our vegan permaculture dream became a reality.
Can you tell us a bit more about your vegan permaculture project?
Our vision was to have 3 acres of fairly flat growing land, in a rural area, but close to all local amenities, with a strong local community connection. And unbelievably, this what we now have situated within a beautiful 80-acre fruit farm in Suffolk. And as an added bonus, the 3-acre plot was just registered as organic a month after we took over, it was originally an apple Orchard, but years later, just a very poor sand and stone bare field, a few years ago it was cover cropped with ryegrass and clover whilst waiting on the organic status. So we really had a perfect opportunity to start with a blank canvas. Applewood Acres is 3 acres in total, this year which is our first as ‘new entrant farmers’, we have divided it by rabbit fencing into two manageable 1.5-acre plots, this year we are just focusing on creating the main crop areas using permaculture principles whilst developing a NO-DIG, wildlife-sensitive farm, we use only hand tools, no big machinery, although we have a small ride on mower which we use to pull a tiny trailer for the totes, etc around the farm. We have also created a 40 foot by 8 ft wildlife pond and bog area, using permaculture principles and positioning it right within the centre of the crop field in order to attract the beneficial insects and birds to our site. We have planted various species of native trees around the first 1.5 acres including over 400 flower bulbs which will help feed the early insects. Our site consists of a main rotational green bed area, of around 21 x 50 ft NO-DIG beds, with a further 12 x 50-foot NO-DIG beds for cut flower production, along with various random beds around the farm with edible flowers for our salad production. We also have a keen interest in taking cuttings and propagation, and already have over 200 mixed native hedging cuttings growing in our nursery sand bed. In the last month, we created a lovely compost loo on site which is extremely plush with its wallpapered interior and comfortable surroundings much to visitors delight! And we have managed to find enough fair days to build and erect the first of two polytunnels on site, the first one is a 48ft by 18ft, and will be specifically used to produce Microgreens. And the second polytunnel measures 60ft by 18ft which will be put up when we can rely on some calm dry weather. Both tunnels will have water capture tanks to collect rainwater for the additional help of irrigation. All our infrastructure has been very much deliberately thought out and positioned, with the main areas close to the packing and main gate. We have crops and flowers in the correct sites too, making sure the crops that will need the most care are positioned near the main area and those that like a little time being left alone, are further back. Working with nature and not against it, building a good soil structure from the top down and allowing our worms and microorganisms to do all the hard work is key. Our produce will end up at local farmers’ markets and a number of local businesses, including feeding many local families.
What have been some of your main learning points so far?
We have learned that no matter how much you think you know or have learned over the years when you are faced with the reality of a bare field, even though you have a clear plan, you can never know enough. Each day is a brand new experience, nature supports you in all you do and so it’s only fair you work with her, and not against her, if something doesn’t feel right, even though on paper it’s the most financially viable way, we simply do not put it into practice, we will always work with natures own guidance. Another thing we have learned is you are never too old to start, we didn’t start with a huge financial backup, but had the determination and the drive to push forward. Asking people for help, whether it’s for a couple of hours a week or just a hand building something, is a positive thing to do and that most people are intrigued and very supportive of what we are trying to achieve. I think we have also learned that you must enjoy what you are doing, we still delight every morning seeing the small farm development and grow into what our vision had been. We are so grateful for the opportunity to work with nature and provide food for local families.
Why do you think vegan permaculture is important?
We very much feel that Vegan permaculture is so important with the changing climate, we can show people that you can have a viable super productive Market Garden, without the need for meat animals, dairy or chickens, etc, purely growing vegetables and flowers can not only potentially support the growers and their immediate family but also local communities. We feel strongly about creating a wildlife-friendly farm where we encourage the natural cycles of life by planting a whole range of plants, flowers, shrubs, and trees, which help the ecology of the site. We are at the very beginning of our journey here at applewood Acres, but already we have seen a huge interest from local businesses, families, and others wanting to learn more, something we are extremely happy to share and document.
How can people support you and how can you support others who want to get more involved in vegan permaculture?
People can support us in various ways, whether it’s coming and volunteering their time via WWOOF UK, or watching and sharing our journey on youtube (Applewood Acres UK) or attending one of our forthcoming events here at the farm, we even have a weekly ‘YOGA ON THE FIELD’ class, which starts in May 2020, so people can connect spiritually & physically, whilst being surrounded by beautiful plants and nature. We would love people to share our passion for creating this wonderful micro-farm and to expand the knowledge to others. We strongly feel that knowledge and active communication within the vegan permaculture community is so important, because, during our journey of setting up our farm, we asked various UK based Market Gardens if we could visit, even for 30 minutes just to get some answers to particular questions and see their set up, so we would have a little practical knowledge and support from someone who is already in the field of veg production, as the realization you are about to ‘go for it’ is extremely scary for a new entrant farmer. However, everyone we approached said no, as they were either too busy, or it wasn’t something they wanted to do or share. So we went it alone, apart from some great advice from the CSA farm managers and American Youtubers who all came to our rescue when we required just simple information about setting up. And so, we have made it our priority here at Applewood Acres, that if anyone wishes to ask us anything or visit, our farm will always be open for learning and supporting others with the same interest. We just feel Vegan Permaculture is a positive move for the future of regenerative farming.
What would your advice be to others who want to learn more or start a vegan permaculture project?
Just go for it!! starting is the scariest thing, but you simply won’t regret doing it. ‘Simply Starting’ is the key. No matter how small, whether you start in your back garden as we did, or allotment, or on a rented piece of land, every little bit of vegan permaculture will help nature and the planet. Age or money is not a barrier, you can grow in raised beds, plant tree’s, flowers and a host of other wonderful plants as small or large scale as you can manage, everyone can learn vegan permaculture, and know that your input no matter how small, is not only ethical, it’s of great benefit to our animals and the planet. Also, don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as you can to those who are willing to help, try and get some volunteering practice in on a similar project, and most of all, enjoy yourself!