"Profit equals wildlife, equals people, equals land health."
Polegate, East Sussex, England
We visited Sinead Fenton and Adam Smith at Aweside Farm in East Sussex as part of our #LandUnlockedTour to find out about what it feels like to run a small farm and bring nature back to Polegate.
When Sinead first started growing edible flowers, predominantly for restaurants use, on a small plot of land in East London, she could only dream of running her own farm. But over the last few years, she and her partner, Adam, have started to make that dream a reality and thrown themselves into the hugely challenging task of bringing nature back to a small piece of land in East Sussex.
Sinead and Adam in their growing space at Aweside Farm
Aweside Farm comprises four and half acres of land onto which Sinead and Adam have planted 400 metres of hedgerows and 4000 trees. Before they arrived, the land had been farmed in a traditional way with monocultures which degraded the soil. Sinead explains, “This field was growing maize continuously for 30 years. So we have really, really bad compaction in the ground and very heavy clay soil.” Despite being in sunny Sussex, the quality of the land has been so poor that the couple have had to work incredibly hard to start to regenerate the soil and bring wildlife back into the space – something that they are passionate about. They are finding they can have most impact by focusing on perennial flowering plants, which can also be sold as cuttings for people to buy and have huge benefits for biodiversity.
Where the couple do grow vegetables, they are experimenting with different kinds of plants. Instead of spring onions, they’re growing Welsh onions, instead of cauliflower, Nine Star broccoli. These perennial alternatives disturb the ground less than annuals – using no-dig methods – and work with the less-than-ideal conditions. As Sinead explains, “We’re trying to mimic nature, looking at what’s happening in places that aren’t disturbed so much, we want to incorporate as much of that into what we’re doing, but also still provide edible food crops.”
Sinead is particularly encouraged by the impact of this approach on biodiversity. “Even in a small area, it’s obvious. Now it's full of flowers, bees, butterflies, spiders, ladybirds… our fennels became a massive ladybird breeding ground… even though the ecological appraisals that were made of the site before we moved here said that there was little to no insect activity.” She continues, “The most surprising this is that if you put something there, they will find it. Our patch of 4.5 acres is in the middle of a 20-acre field, but our toads have found the ponds and laid their eggs. It’s amazing – how do they do it? And dragonflies – we’ve seen loads in just one year. Imagine if more people just even let a little bit of their land get wilder. It would be incredible.”
Sinead and Adam love their work and value what it delivers for society, but she’s frustrated about the business of running a farm and making it work financially. “One of our biggest challenges is that we don’t exist to the government as a farm, because we’re under five acres,” Sinead explains. Because of the small size of the farm, they won’t be eligible for ELMS, or other forms of government support available to larger farms, despite the fact they are supporting government aspirations for farmers to contribute to restoring nature and biodiversity.
Accessing land in the first place is one of the biggest hurdles facing people like Sinead and Adam who want to farm agroecologically. Sinead points out that small farms can benefit from smaller input costs, but the initial outlay to access land is prohibitive for most people. She says they were lucky to have had some savings to start out, but they still couldn’t have bought the land without a set of particular circumstances coming together. They bought the land through the Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC) which took 20 acres of land and split it into three different portions. They own their land on a 150-year lease, and must meet some simple conditions which are enforced by the ELC.
But even with the support of the ELC, Sinead and Adam still have challenges ahead. They need to prove that they can make a profit within five years in order to meet the terms of their tenancy. Sinead wishes that land use policies were better developed. She explains that councils don’t have the knowledge or infrastructure to be able to fully measure the benefits of the work at Aweside Farm beyond simple profit. “You know, profit equals wildlife. Profit equals people and their wellbeing. Profit equals land health, flooding. Like hopefully some of these trees will stop the roads flooding and be an interception between the fields that are at the back of us, when we get all their runoff. Hopefully, we can stop some of that being a problem for the local area.”
Aweside Farm is a 4.5 acre smallholding
Sinead is interested in the fact that many more established farmers wouldn’t have seen the potential in the sort of farm that she and Adam are making a success of running. She says, “We like what we do. And we’ve been able to take the risk because, I guess, we didn’t have anything to lose.” She points out that all farmers are going to find growing harder because of climate change, and thinks the industry needs to take some risks in order to find new ways of making the land able to provide. “We will make a lot of mistakes on the way, but at least we’re willing to try something different.”
As she looks into the future, she sees the land she is working on responding to the changes that they are making now. “Hopefully the trees will have grown, the soil will be in better shape, life will keep returning and maybe I’ll have seen a slow worm and a hedgehog - we’ve seen grass snakes so we’re nearly there.” Beyond the farm gate, Sinead wants to see agroecological growing more widely accepted and regenerative farming to “have some welly” behind it. She’d also like to be able to develop the social enterprise side of the business. “We’d like it to be a training ground – helping train someone in growing – like a market garden where we could help them figure out not only how to grow, but also how to sell.”
In many ways, the sky is the limit. Sinead meets lots of other people eager to do what she and Adam are doing. Now, they just need governments to take advantage of the enthusiasm and energy of people like them, to help take a small piece of worn-out land and make it burst with life again.