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A Design Process for Sustainable Farms and Small Holdings

Marina O’Connell details her design process for creating a farm in the most sustainable way for the land and people involved.

Over the last 25 years I have designed many large scale horticulture/agriculture systems, Two of these I have implemented as my own( School Farm Dartington and Apricot centre Essex), others have been for other people. My method is based on the Permaculture design process, experience, a sound horticultural knowledge and Organic and Biodynamic understanding. After many years of designing and co-designing market gardens, farms and orchards an outline of my method for doing this is below. Of course it is very simplified and this process takes a year of observation ideally and weeks of work to get the "pattern" in place and weeks more to fill in the detail. But here goes anyway with a taster …

The process follows the pattern of:

Survey – the site, the farmer/ group the marketplace, the wider social environment

Analysis – of these details using a toolkit of tools

Designing – planning and revising

Implementation – for a larger site this would be spread over 3-5 years

Presentation and Maintaining – and also "tweaking" the parts that have not work quite as well as hoped

My aim with these designs it to pause before the work begins, and plan the layout of the site to; make the most of the peoples energy going into a site,( growing food for a living is exhausting at best so the idea is to lighten the load a little), make the most of the materials and resources that are being used on site (can they be produced on site with some foresight, can a local waste product be used to reduce costs), to grow the business gradually and allow for the developments at later dates. The aim is to create a resilient system that can flex and bend with the people the weather and the economy. To be kind to the people in the system, and the earth, and to create livelihoods that are sustainable.

These farms are designed to be complex systems that work on a food production level, an economic level and a social level. In the Biodynamic world a farm is thought of as an organism in its own right, and as this organism comes into being it will interact with the farmers and the local community and things will often happen that were not expected, the project will grow and develop in all sorts of way not anticipated. This needs to be borne in mind as the development of the site happens and space left in the plan to accommodate this, the design is in reality only the first step of the process.

The Survey stage

This part of the process should really take a year to do, and as much information should be gathered at different times of the year. I have broken it down into 3 parts the survey of the people who will be running the farm, a survey of the site, and a survey of the business environment.

The Farmers interview

The "farmer" may well be a community or a group or a partnership, and all the voices should be heard as much as possible. Some of the simple questions or things to think about are:

  • The aims, objectives and values of the group.
  • Visual – what do you want it to look like – can you think of other places that you like and identify why ?
  • Feelings level – what do you want it to feel like – can you think of other places and ask yourself why do I like them ?
  • Cultural links and ties with the local community or distant communities.
  • Monetary financial needs for income and capital costs available – this can be quite specific, and I would encourage people to think about how much money they would need or like to earn as a starting point to aim for.
  • The skills mapping of the group; what skills are present in the group, the practical ones, of growing vegetables or raising sheep, keeping accounts but also the more ephemeral ones such as people skills, networking, listening … making a good cup of tea …
  • What is missing ? If there is a skills gap for what you think you might want on your farm and you can be trained to fill the gap or bring in another person to fill this gap?
  • The Things you want / need / desire on the site, these are things such as a polytunnel, a veg field, pasture, an office, a compost toilet, a fire pit …. a list basically. A need is something that the site must have ( a field, water, a compost toilet, a want is something that would would be really nice if you had ( a shed/ yurt for a cup of tea and a place to get warm) and desires – the slightly outrageous things that you could have possibly one day.
  • The Functions of the site with the hierarchy of need/ want / desired. The function of a site is more general such as to grow vegetables, to produce meat (which kinds), to produce milk, to make jam, to be educational …. to support wildlife…
  • The Events for the site need/ needed / desired; Are you thinking of open events,( 50 plus) school groups, (30 plus) training groups (10 plus) or a few apprentices( 3-5 plus). Do you want to celebrate any events and if so what space and for how many do you need it. What would Things do you need if you hosted these events – disabled toilets, car parking, paths, seats, shelter.

Survey of the site

  • Soil – type of soil texture and structure, drainage, and condition does it need anything added, and improvement, tested for pH and nutrients.
  • Aspect; north / south facing?
  • Location
  • Wind direction; where are the prevailing winds and the cold winds, the eddys and turbulence.
  • Sunshine hours; how much sunshine is here in the year and what time of the year where does it fall, where are the shady spots and sunny spots
  • Rainfall; how much and when does it fall ?
  • 1st and last frost of the year averaged out,
  • Microclimates- are there any cold or hot spots on the site ?
  • Electrical / water supply -is there any and if so where
  • Planning permissions / constraints – what can you not do?
  • Scale drawings – make a detailed scale drawing of the site with the slopes shown and mark as much of the detail above on it with overlays.
  • Entrance and exits – how does the food, people flow onto and off the site ?
  • Existing plants, trees, animals, structures. what is there already, and what do you think you might keep or not want to keep. what does it tell us of past use and the information above ?

Market survey

  • Potential markets; identify where you might be able to sell your produce. If it is Demeter then where are the Steiner schools, where are the farmers markets or wholesale outlets ?
  • Numbers of people – how many families are in these schools or go to the farmers markets.
  • How much will they spend / do they spend – what is the average spend per family on food – of the type that you will be selling ?
  • What do they want to buy – you might need to do a market survey at this point and interview sample people to see if your ideas are based on reality ?
  • Out of the box – what else is there ? are there any other markets you might not have thought about in other places ?
  • Food processing – can you add value to your produce or sell to someone who can? sausages, pies, Ice cream, jams, juices, etc.
  • Who else is in the market place, what is the difference between your produce and theirs, and price differential.
  • Training – can you offer training, is any on offer already?
  • Education – what groups might like to visit ? how much might you earn from this?
  • Farm visits – possible HLS funding for farm and educational visits from DEFRA
  • Care Farming – is there any skills or potential groups that might come to the farm for care rather than training ? Is there any funding for this activity?
  • What is already there / supplied in the area?
  • Volunteers – might any come to help out?
  • An income from multiple threads needs to be created for resilience I often think of this as "plaiting an income"

Business Legislation Survey

This can be quite daunting when starting out and it is important not to let this put you off, most of it is quite straightforward but has a cost attached that need to be taken into account. Which of these will you need? What does your business need to have in place to function as any of the above;

  • Insurance – what type and what does it cost Public, employers, product …
  • Health and safely risk and benefit analysis
  • Policies that need to be in place – if open to the public …
  • Food processing; environmental health, food hygiene certificate, labels designing and comply with trading standards.
  • Register with Demeter/ Soil Association – fees and inspection criteria and records and files that need to be kept from the start.
  • Register for holding number with DEFRA – register for HLS.
  • Business structure – what form will the business trade under – this needs to be registered with local authority/companies house, HMRC
  • Accounts and record keeping – setting up systems for annual accounts and invoices, PAYE.
  • Logo and looking presentable to the public.

Links

  • Support and networks
  • Other agencies to link up with
  • Affiliations
  • Grant sources
  • Finance sources

Analysis of data

Once you have carried out the survey you have a huge amount of information and you need to make sense of it. We use a number of tools and methods to do this of which I will share a few…

Input output analysis of all elements and functions

For the site to be as ecological as possible you need to "bend round" the inputs and outputs on the farm – close the farm gate and start building the soil fertility from within . All the outputs generated should become an input for another part of the farm, and if possible you should grow or produce as many inputs for the farm as you can. For the physical site this process can be done with a series of overlays and flow charts.

Multi-functionality

Resilience of the system is built by each function being supplied by more than one "thing" so for instance the water supply might be supplied by water harvesting, mains water and reduced use through mulching and windbreaks. A windbreak might also supply coppice wood for pea and bean poles.

Flow and movement

The flow on the site is very important and should be intuitive and also conserve as much energy of the people on the farm as possible. You dont want to be walking miles each day because the pack house is not near the parking for the vehicles or trudging miles to move compost from one spot to another. The "things" should be placed next to where they flow naturally and make it easy for us humans!

Flow of Energy from outside the system

Make the best use of the energy coming onto the site, such as sunshine, water, wind. Put the "things" that like the sun in the sunnier spots, and put the things that dont like or need the sun in the shady spots, likewise the wind can be ameliorated with windbreaks, but if you are sitting a wind turbine it will need the wind. This can be sited on the drawings that you have made.

Constraints

There are always things that you cannot do and these must be added into the pot.

Designing

This is the stage where you gather all of the information above and chew the end of your pencil for some hours ! This is when you decide where all of the "things" in your list above go onto the site, the car park, the storage, the pack house, the water harvesting, the pasture, the tunnels the veg plots….site them so that they are in the right place for the people on site and the right place for the energy coming from outside of the site. Then go back over it again and again to imagine the wind and the sun, the rain and the people and the animals and the flow of produce on to and off the site – will it work?

It is really important at this stage to work from Patterns to Detail – I often find people are afraid to fill the whole space if it is a large site. Starting with the periphery and the paths that flow around the farm, then generalise where will the animals be, where will the large scale horticulture be where will the intensive horticulture be where will the people sit for their tea break where do people come in and out. At this point with lots of rough workings you can ask yourself does the design fulfil the functions listed above? ( there are many other tools and methods to use at this stage but this is just a taster of the process)

There are two main methods for representing this work at this point, one is the scale drawings and overlays, the other if on a larger scale with a group, with plasticine, twigs, gaffer tape and string, make a model on the floor and move things round discussing as you go how it fits together. Either way in the end it is good to have drawings to scale that you can work from for costings and implementation. It is good to have a written description as well.

Then go back to the group and get feedback and then tweak.

Implementation plan

To work out the implementation plan, imagine your design is complete in 3-5 years and then work backwards – again remember pattern to details -so the details will come towards the end of the implementation stage. Structural implementation comes first even though sometimes it feels counterintuitive, then day to day implementation including detailed cropping plans and rotations comes further along. The development of the site happens in the winter months and then the maintenance and growing happens in the summer months. Once this is done it can form the basis for the costings, the capital budget and the cash flow as income is generated gradually till it is complete.

Presentation

I would present detailed scale drawings and detailed written overall plan, with broken down implementation plan, costing, sources of where to buy the inputs that are necessary. Business plan, staff training, developing links. Grants applications and suggestions.

Remembering that once the project begins it will begin to evolve and be tweaked all through the process.

Marina teaching

About Marina

Marina is a horticulturist, and a permaculture designer and trainer. She writes from her farm, The Apricot Centre, in Essex. Click here for Apricot Centre events, activities and courses


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