Until six years ago Ed lived in London and worked first as a bar-tender and then as a tree surgeon. Now he was talking to us looking over 3 acres of flowers and vegetables near the village of Brook, about 7½ km east of Ashford. This farm, the Willows, is linked to WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
We had come to see for ourselves how organic farming is implemented in this part of Kent, having learned about Ed Kyrke-Smith, the Rebel Farmer, from Kent Food hubs.
Organic farming does not use any non-bio chemical inputs, either for fertilizer or against pests. Ed says:
“I’m not certified organic or have any intention of doing so. I’m an ecological Farmer and using permaculture design to mimic nature and build soil health, also known as regenerative agriculture. It goes beyond the simple act of refusing chemicals.”
He is also using a no-dig method. So how has he developed a tilth suitable for the many flowers and salad crops? The basic geology is blue clay in this part of Kent. On top of that is the fine soil he has built up over six years. He had a good local treasure trove of tons of old pig muck from Wye College, to which
A local mushroom farm supplies the compost from oyster mushrooms, and the farm also has a good range of compost boxes in various stages of readiness. All the plants are well-mulched, which adds to the soil health.
I was sceptical about how the no-dig would succeed in this part of Kent, where bindweed is a major challenge to gardeners, pushing its white roots deep into clay soil and shooting out white flowered tendrils all over the place, strangling new plants. Ed claims he just pulls it up and only occasionally has to dig out its roots.
All over the plot, various plants are flourishing side by side, rather than in segregated beds. This is known as companion planting.
Some of this is unintended. Waving his arm over a patch of rudbeckia and marigolds, Ed explained that he had intended to rotate that patch from flowers to vegetables this year, but the flowers were determined to flourish again in the same place!
There is also a long polytunnel, planted with mixed veg and flowers, which does not need much watering, as the water seems to flow over clay under the added soil.
The flowers are not just there for the pollinators. Many of them are edible, such as the nasturtiums and marigolds. Some, like the purple amaranth, produce edible seeds.
Sprouting Peas in an old stable
One of the benefits of WWOOF is that organic farming enthusiasts from overseas come to work on the farm and lend their expertise. One of them, Ece, worked with Ed on a project to cultivate and market sprouting crops. So an old stable shed, about 3 m2, was repaired, insulated with Celotex, and fitted with shelves and lights for the trays of sprouting seeds.
Ed says this produce yields about £400 a week for the farm. The distributor arrives with the van that delivers to various outlets in Kent, such as the food hubs, Wye Farmers’ Market, Perry Court Farm Shop, and The Goods Shed in Canterbury. In answer to a question about energy needs, Ed said it was less than £1 a day for the lights. He is planning to add solar panels soon to take it off the grid too. This operation has yielded enough steady income to employ Ece over the winter.
The Tipi and common room tent
A farm so boldly experimental obviously needs several different income streams. The Tipi attracts families on staycations, and it is fully booked for this season. They only take families from the same household, and not mixed groups, which means this operation has been able to continue most of this season. In addition to the Tipi for sleeping, there is a large airy poly-tunnel type of tent, equipped both as a kitchen with sink and electricity (kettle and microwave), and as a communal sitting area.
But not wanting to waste good space and light, there are beds of salad crops and flowers flourishing on each side of the seating area!
There is an acre or so of ripening heritage wheat – traditional Kentish varieties ‘Kentish Red’ and ‘Old Kent Hoary’ the majority is a popular heritage variety called ‘Miller’s choice’. This is a collaboration between Brockwell Bake in London and Wild Bread bakery in Faversham and the group of farmers, millers and bakers is called SEGA: South East Grain Alliance.
Rebel Farmer Ed is networking among other organic farmers who are trialling heritage wheat, which means varieties that used to flourish in the British Isles before hybrid wheat was commercialised. He claims that gluten-intolerance has increased with the use of hybrids, so the experiments of returning to the older varieties might prove worthwhile.
Modern milling machinery also strips some of the goodness from the grain, hence the market for stone-ground flour for discerning home-bakers. So there is potential to link up with traditional mills, such as Willesborough Windmill, where volunteers currently mill flour that is sold onsite and in various local outlets. However, our subsequent enquiries at Willesborough have revealed that Ed’s current crop yields are too low to warrant the extra work involved in producing, alongside their regular output, flour that can be certified as organic.
Not only for the wheat, but also for other salad crops cultivated at the Willows, Ed orders seed from specialist suppliers. He talks with the same enthusiasm I have encountered among the rare breed farmers who care for animals that belong to breeds that used to be the common farm animals in different regions of Britain, but have nearly died out.
These farmers are the committed practitioners of bio-diversity. For someone who does not have years of academic study of agriculture or bio-chemistry in his career, Ed is amazingly keen to experiment, to compare precisely what works and what does not. But this is not grant-funded lab work: this is the livelihood for his family too.
What more from Wye and Brook?
There is much local sadness that Wye College was abolished, with the buildings about to be made into flats. But this visit seemed to show that there is something about the place that encourages agricultural experimentation. Ed seems to produce a new enterprise there every year on the Willows plot.
The most encouraging thing he said in conclusion is that maybe he could produce a monthly column from the Rebel Farmer in Kent Bylines … yes, Ed, yes please …