James Dexter

Grower

Farm Facts

Farm Size: 
6.5 acres
Farm Type: 
Mixed
Other Tenure Information: 
Land leased from the Ecological Land Cooperative
Region: 
South West England
Approach: 
Organic
Other Approach Information: 
Permaculture
Key Farming Practices: 
Mulching
Minimum Tillage
Trap crops
Mixed farming
Agroforestry
Companion crops
Direct selling
Habitat creation
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The Farm: 

We are a small off-grid, organic farm in mid Devon that is part of a cluster of 3 small holdings at Greenham Reach, a pioneering project supported by the Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC).

I established Wild Geese Acres in 2014. My partner Sukamala arrived a year later to help establish the business which, 5 years on, is now a thriving small-scale farm. Our aim is to practice a sustainable rural business with minimal impact on the environment and the land. 

We grow a variety of fresh and seasonal salad leaves and edible flowers and seasonal vegetables. We have pigs, sheep, hens and of course, geese. Our animals and birds are free to roam in open pasture. We sell our produce through local independent shops and to local cafes. We sell free-range chicken and goose eggs and free-range pork products including pork chops, joints and sausages. Grass-fed lamb is also available in season.

Our salad leaves are picked in our market garden and delivered on the same day. Our small farm is based on the principles of agroecology. We grow what is in season, so a bag of ‘Luscious Leaves’ changes with every season and usually contains different varieties of lettuce, tender leaves, herbs and edible flowers. We also have fresh produce like cucumbers, tomatoes and strawberries in season.

Wild Geese Acres is an off-grid farm; most or all of our energy needs are met by renewable sources including solar and wind. We harvest rainwater and rely on sustainable use and management of water on site. We also have a compost loo (a dry, water free toilet that when properly managed is hygienic, smell free and recycles organic waste into nutrient-rich compost for our hedges).

Regular volunteers have been essential in supporting our workload during the growing season - we use Wwoofers regularly. It’s not just that volunteers help us make our business viable, there’s a whole social aspect to it too which is very valuable. As well as seasonal volunteer support (usually one or two Wwoofers in 2 or 3 monthly blocks during the main growing season) we also have a number of day volunteers.

Sustainability in practice: 

Encouraging biodiversity

As a small-scale agroecological grower, biodiversity is woven in the fabric of the farm. The name of the farm takes direct inspiration from the well known poem ‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver after all!

Trees and forests have always been a big part of my life and work and this has informed the design of ‘Wild Geese Acres.’ The orchard has heritage varieties of apples, pears, and cherry. Alongside the planting of hedgerows for wildlife habitat and a number of species for fuel, such as blackthorn and hawthorn (whose early flowering attracts pollinators), these native trees encourage birds and with that a cascade of biodiversity.

As a member of the ELC we are committed to the management plan that precludes myself - and other member stewards - from using artificial inputs in the form of synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers.

By deploying agroforestry, maximising biodiversity, minimum tillage and the use of permanent beds, special attention is paid to the matrix of plants, flowers and trees planted to support, and encourage, birds and insects.

Our aim is to support the development of healthy networks and systems of interdependent flora and fauna. This 'ecological' mind-set comes naturally to a system, which from the outset, is principally concerned with providing good, fresh local food whilst working with the grain of nature.

No-dig

A huge part of this approach is ‘no-dig’ farming. This method leaves the soil undisturbed to develop its own aerated structure so that vegetables and flowers grow more easily and stronger.

‘No-dig’ mimics the natural process of the forest floor, building fertility from the top down. It encourages worms, soil fauna and a plethora of beneficial fungi. Other benefits to not digging and turning the soil include a reduction in soil erosion and compaction, minimal disturbance to earthworms, and lessening the chances of weed seeds germinating.

No-dig has also been of huge importance in our context as an off-grid farm where we have experienced dry summers. Retaining moisture by having no-dig, top dressed, heavily mulched beds has been vital to keeping our plants alive.

Working smarter not harder is central to running a mixed small-holding. A key motivation in employing the ‘no-dig’ approach for our farm is to use our labour - our chief renewable resource - efficiently and well.

‘No-dig’ is an ideal method for organic and low-impact farming as it saves on time and effort while conserving moisture, keeping carbon in the soil and reducing weeds.

Motivations: 

I grew up in Chingford, near Epping Forest, within walking distance of where the co-operative organic food growing project OrganicLea is now. My childhood was all about roaming in the forest and building dens. I got tuned into trees and what the forest can offer.

My grandfather, a vegetable grower, was an important early influence - what I learned from him I tried to do in my parents’ backyard. There were lots of failed experiments but that’s how you learn isn’t it?!

I had an allotment as soon as I could get one. I was pretty much an anomaly because it was the ‘80s and everyone else was using second world war banned chemicals and seemed to be over 75! I was 17 years old and interested in growing organically.

My first job was working on a tree survey in Epping Forest. At the age of 20 I went to the US to study organic farming in California, apprenticing for a year on the fledgling Agroecology programme at UCSC (University of California, Santa Cruz), now a prestigious international course. I returned to the UK to study Environmental Science, graduating in 1990, and Wwoofed in the US and UK for a number of years, including working at the Paddington Farm Trust, a 43 acre organic farm situated at the foot of the famous Glastonbury Tor in Somerset, and Freightliners Farm, a city farm based just off Holloway Road in the heart of Islington.

It was during this time that I developed my passion for therapeutic gardening. I saw the power of people understanding where their food comes from and the pleasure and the direct therapeutic value it has for them being outside - the delight of pulling up a beetroot, cooking and eating it. This interested me more than the growing; sharing the wonder of it with others, particularly people who needed a bit of help.

I always wanted a piece of land of my own. I’d been looking at buying some land and setting up a business or smallholding, but I was aware that it is a really complicated process under our current planning system. It didn’t seem friendly to sustainable farmers and it seemed to be difficult and expensive. The ELC were doing a round of recruitment at that time, so I applied.

I could see that the ELC model, in which they act as an intermediary between the tenant and the council, would help the council see that there’s an overarching body that would be monitoring the tenants and that would make them feel less nervous. I thought this model would be more of a success than if I tried to buy land and go it alone.

FARMER TIPS

If you are considering applying for an ELC holding, or wanting to set up a farm business:

  • Check out your market. Make sure there aren’t 2 or 3 other people in the area doing a similar thing.
  • Make sure you have outlets within a short distance of where you are and that there’s some kind of feel for properly produced food.
  • Don’t isolate yourselves. Get to know your neighbours. In a small rural setting there’s not much else really. If you don’t get out there and meet people and get to know people you’ll end up being pretty isolated.

All images courtesy of the ELC

The information contained within this profile reflects the views and practices of the profiled farmer and does not necessarily reflect that of Agricology and its partners.

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