Southwest England Coordinator Robyn Minogue takes us on a virtual tour of the most recent meet-up of the South West Seed and Grain Networks
Following on from the epic South West Seed Sovereignty Pizza Party held back in November 2022 the South West Network gathered again to share, celebrate and learn – this time with a two-day series of farm tours and a camp-over.
Enjoying the blessing of full sun over a May Bank Holiday weekend, farmers, growers, millers, bakers, chefs, film makers, academics and would-be farmers met at Erth Barton and Crocadon Farm. People travelled from Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Bristol, Liverpool and London to attend and what is especially heartening is that each time we gather as a network we meet new people on the journey towards food and seed sovereignty.
Our most sincere thanks to Tim Williams, Claire Hannington-Williams, Dan Cox and Zac Poulot for sharing so generously with us their passion and wisdom. Thank you also to Vicki and James at Rumbullion Farm for opening their fields and home to us.
We began our adventure with Tim Willaims art Erth Barton. Tim is growing both beef cattle and wheat for Wild Farmed/Farm Wilder on contract at Erth Barton. The project has been to take a conventional chemical farm which has a history of growing arable crops and turn it into a happy, healthy, biodiverse low input regenerative farm. Tim is a committed regenerative farmer and he was candid in showing us the challenges of working to restore degraded land. At Erth Barton his approach has been to plant diverse cover crops and strip till organic wheat directly into these, aiming for as minimal tillage as possible and zero chemical inputs. Modern wheat however, even organic varieties, has struggled to compete with the vigorous rye grass which was part of the cover mix.
With very limited supply of more diverse or heritage long straw wheat seed Tim is seeing lower yields than he wants or needs. When ‘failure’ hits and Tim has to accept that a harvest is not possible from one of his fields, all is not lost. Tim uses a system known as mob grazing where livestock are grazed in smaller areas and moved regularly, leaving the grass a longer period to recover. This system improves soil and animal health while reducing costs through inputs and labour – with Tim’s impressive system he can manage the movement of his cattle with just the help of his dog. The trampling and grazing of the crop continues to feed the soil as plant residue mixed with cow dung composts in situ and the energy rich seed heads fatten up the herd with a health giving diverse diet.
Tim’s farm is in a stunning location and it was a real pleasure to wander the fields and hear his story of meeting Dan Cox and Fred Price some five years earlier and moving to the UK with his wife and son to begin the project at Erth Barton. Tim’s whole life is tied up in his farming and the workload and precarity are both intense. If this initiative fails, the home and farm Tim has been working to build will be lost. It’s not easy to take a soil which has been hammered by tillage and chemicals and turn it round in a few short years to compete with current market expectations. The systems solutions are not in place to support farmers such as Tim just yet, but he is part of a growing number of activist farmers, growers, bakers and eaters who are subverting normal supply chains and models of extraction and commodity to bring about a real change in our lived experience of growing with the land. This was our Sunday tour and we left Tim’s farm with much to reflect on and discuss as we set up camp and chatted round the fire at Rumbullion Farm.
May Bank Holiday Monday the campers headed down to a sunrise cove for a morning swim before we had the pleasure of visiting Crocadon Farm – home to Dan Cox’s Green Michelin star restaurant and new microbakery, James Rylance’s Ideal Day Brewery, Tim and Claire’s Cafe ‘Mamm’, market garden, pasture poultry and soon to be Tomorrow’s Ground flour mill. Crocadon Farm and the mixed enterprise’s hosted there collectively speak of a commitment and sense of responsibility to realise a profound change in our food and land use – there is the added joy that each of these enterprises has a real sense of beauty, a tactile and tender quality to the whole place so that when you enter this small oasis you are nourished in every possible way.
Tim, Clare and Dan are all working a 7 day week but so generously offered us their time. I met Claire and Tim at our gathering back in November and Claire quickly became involved in the South West Seed Network, attending the AGM in February and bringing really interesting seeds to the seed swap. For the tour 27 of us were guided by Tim and Claire through her abundant gardens starting with an ingenious Bokashi composting system which enables the site to make use of the waste from the kitchen, which otherwise could not be composted. Claire toured us though her polytunnels where she grows a wide range of vegetables and herbs for the cafe and restaurant, then up into the large field full of perennial and annual crops planted in a mixed polyculture. Tim had been experimenting with a Joel Salatin pastured poultry system but bird flu put a break on that. Claire, like her partner Tim, was candid about the challenges of irrigation, of soil compaction, of the labour involved in annual veg and the ongoing precarity to survive within the current system. Claire both buys and sells her produce into Cornwall Food Loop and organisations such as Tamar Grow Local are doing great things to support smaller businesses such as Claire’s.
After we’d seen the gardens Zac Poulot, chef and head baker at Crocadon restaurant showed us his new micro bakery which uses the grain grown on the farm. Dan Cox then shared the real detail of establishing the farm and restaurant, taking pleasure in picking out the detail of the handmade lampshades by Michael the head chef and the handmade chestnut and oak worktops. Commitment and responsibility are what really stood out for me from Dan’s conversation. The tableware is handmade using cornish china clay, the glazes are made from the sheep bones or fig leaves or other elements of the kitchen potentially considered ‘waste’. The imagination, care and attention to detail are inspiring.
In absence of the wonderful James Rylance, Tim took us on a tour of the Ideal Day Family Brewery who make use of the grain, such as Red Lammas, grown by Tim on site to brew a pretty stunning beer. Just as milling has been the pinch point in the system for farmers and bakers, malting has been the pinch point for brewers with many small local maltsters being lost. James is brewing with raw grain grown by Tim and is enjoying real success with this process. The set-up is small, the product is fantastic and James is selling more than he can make.
Finally we sat down to a lunch prepared by Claire and the Mamm cafe staff, eating Dan’s sheep, Tim’s Red Lammas and salads from the garden. The two days were truly extraordinary. The food and seed sovereignty movement in the south west feels to be ever burgeoning in both number and strength. The connections formed at events such as these enable real quality learning of key takeaways and deepened bonds of friendship, making all the hard work with it.
Our sincere thanks to the entire seed and grain network. Many more of us are out there on the land and in our bakeries and kitchens working to make a new food system a reality!