By Harriet Bell
Dartington Hall, Totnes, Devon
The Dartington experiment started in the 1920’s and was at the forefront of many of the agricultural innovations that shaped the landscape and the nature of farming by the end of the century. This tradition of innovation continues today as it considers how to tackle contemporary challenges in agriculture, such as climate change and lack of opportunities for new entrants.
Old Parsonage Farm, the estate’s largest holding, was re-let under a tenancy that stipulated it must be farmed to organic equivalent standards, look at low carbon approaches to dairy farming and deliver the transformation of a 50-acre arable field into agroforestry.
Some might have gone straight for an obvious crop, such as apples, because of the growing heritage of the area, but I had experience of planting apples under a Higher Level Stewardship Scheme and was keen to approach things differently. In that example, even with the stewardship funding, apples added limited value to that farm and agroforestry should make sense not just environmentally but economically, designed to complement a farm business.
So we began brainstorming end markets, which was deeply unhelpful in that there appeared to be no end of possibilities, I think the only crop which got ruled out was hops. The two paths we started down were timber and nutriberries, looking for that added value. In discussion with the Schumacher College horticulture team and The Agroforestry Research Trust, we honed in on a few crop ideas and commenced our market research.
We called a local company called Luscombe Drinks and through discussions with them we established that they needed more elderflowers, in fact we could have filled all 50 acres just with elderflower for them.
We also had a conversation with an adjacent community enterprise, who are experienced fruit growers, Huxhams Cross Farm. They were looking at some land rich in orchids to plant fruit trees, so we suggested they plant trees in our field to leave some space for orchids in their own field.
At the time, I happened to be reading The Observer Food Monthly and noticed that one of the top trends was Sichuan pepper from Salthouse & Peppermongers. Prior to that I had been blown away by the incredible flavour of the Sichuan pepper trees growing on the Dartington estate at The Agroforestry Research Trust. I called the founder of Peppermongers and asked if he thought there was a market for UK grown pepper, he thought there was. From there a 50/50 partnership evolved to give it a try.
Because we’d found all these interested parties, we threw away our original model of how agroforestry is ‘usually’ done. Instead, we developed a model whereby The Dartington Hall Trust owns the field, Old Parsonage Farm is the tenant of the field and the three other businesses have licences to rent rows within the field, between the arable crop, where they can plant, manage and harvest their tree crops.
I suppose sometimes being a novice pays off, if you don’t know what you should be doing you’re not stuck in an entrenched mindset and that enables you to embrace new approaches more readily. Also, a strong desire to save money and make it (not that that’s always worked!)
Going around talking to people is a massively underrated activity. People often worry that it’s not a productive enough use of their time but in my experience, it often results in unexpected but very beneficial outcomes.