Join us on this virtual tour of the farm, we hope this will inspire you to come and visit the farm in person!
The aim of The Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm is to produce good food all year round, with the lowest possibly carbon emissions, as a viable business – and having a good time while doing so!
We are just 3 miles from the centre of Ipswich – here’s a Google Map of where we are. Being so close to the town enables many of our Community Supported Agriculture Scheme members to cycle to the farm, we even have a competition where the three members who cycle the most in each six month period win a prize.
Here’s a map of at The Oak Tree for 2014. Our plans are always evolving, so this is a snapshot of our current activities and plans.
Two and a half acres at the bottom of the field are dedicated to our vegetable Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme where we grow vegetables with no artificial chemicals and only natural fertilisers for over fifty local households, all of whom are very much involved in the day to day running of the farm.
Our weekly vegetable shares offer CSA members completely seasonal and utterly fresh vegetables.
We don’t buy in any vegetables, everything that goes into the boxes is grown on the farm, which is unusual: most veg box schemes import at least some veg from other farm or even overseas. We don’t ever as it goes against our philosophy of low carbon, ultra local food production.
So we eat with the seasons, enjoying gluts, and improvising through less plentiful times, together.
The traditional hungry gap of April/May is a always a challenge, a challenge which we tackle in several ways:
- Our polytunnels extend the season supplying salad leaves, beetroot, lettuces and radishes when other crops are in short supply.
- Growing traditional leafy crops such as Swiss chard, spring cabbages and cauliflowers to help bridge the hungry gap.
- We go on a wild food walk together to learn how to make the most of the abundance of wild greens that are available just when our cultivated crops are inshort supply!
- Some of our farm members got together to create the farm preserving group. We distribute the fruits of their labour among all our members in some of the hungry gap boxes in the spring!
Soil fertility, and sequestering carbon
When Joanne first bought the land late in 2009 the soil was very low in organic matter (2%) which isn’t unusual for farmland used for conventional chemical farming. But for an organic grower like Joanne it was a terrible shock! Soil organic matter is essential for healthy, naturally grown plants, and it also sequesters carbon in the soil, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We aim to increase our soil organic matter so that by 2015 the farm becomes carbon neutral, and then carbon negative.
Crop rotation signs. photo credit Jonathan Cherry
To keep our soil fertile we use any natural source of organic matter and nutrients that we can find locally, to reduce our fuel use. These include:
- most importantly we keep livestock on the farm which adds the best possible organic matter to the soil, while offering lots of other benefits. All our livestock is moved regularly, and kept on pasture where appropriate.
- growing green manure crops including nitrogen fixing vetch & clover.
- We undersow some of our larger vegetable crops, including brassicas, sweetcorn, courgettes and pumpkins, with undersown green manures. We then strim these to keep weeds under control, while releasing nitrogen from the green manure roots.
- growing comfrey bocking 14 which has wonderful long roots that reach into the subsoil to draw nutrients up which we then use as a mulch around demanding plants such as beans and tomatoes.
- we collect urine in the farm loo, which is rich in nutrients that plants need. In the winter we add it to straw bales which then break down to form a rich compost, in the summer we apply it to our comfrey plants.
- We scatter wood ash, collected from wood burners and open fires that have burnt only untreated wood, over our muck heap and among our trees.
- Members bring along vegetable peelings etc. to add to the farm compost heap.
Pigs at The Oak Tree
The pigs at The Oak Tree Farm are a vital part of the cultivation process. They work as a ‘pig tractor’ ploughing up areas of the land as they root around, removing the roots of the perrenial weeds such as couch grass as they do so. Meanwhile, very fertile pig poo is returned to the soil, completing the cycle. They are fantastic animals to have on the farm, and have an exceptional quality of life compared to any commercial pig farm. We offer shares of our pork to vegetable CSA members from time to time.
Pigs are excellent at clearing land infested with weeds, digging and manuring as they go. Where possible the pigs are fed on waste veg from the farm. We move the pigs around in electric fenced enclosures to cultivate and prepare land for vegetable crops.
Pigs were the traditional animal used by smallholders through the centuries to clear ground and convert waste food into useful pork and bacon. So not only do we enjoy the best pork we have ever tasted, we also improve our vegetable harvests.
Pigs have a natural rooting instinct that can only be achieved through free range living conditions. ‘Home-fed’ or ‘farm-reared’ usually still means they are kept indoors in a pen or a sty and on a concrete floor – and even ‘free range’ pigs basically tend to live in mud with little opportunity to root or graze. As soon as our pig pen turns to mud (or before if we are in a hurry to get them rooting on a new patch!) they are moved to pastures new. They have a constant supply of fresh water. They can root around in the earth, wallow in the mud and on sunnier days they can either lay out in the sun or shelter in their cosy new house built from waste plastic materials.
They are fed on pig nuts from Marriage’s feeds based in Essex, as well as leftovers such as reject veg & brewers mash from friendly local breweries which would otherwise go to landfill (no kitchen waste or meat products – it’s illegal), and of course whatever they can root out from the ground.
We do not use steroids, growth hormones or anti-biotics (unless required for veterinary reasons and so far this hasn’t happened at all). We have rare breed pigs rather than the fast growing commercial breeds which are naturally slower to fatten up, but this all helps impove the taste of the meat.
What about slaughter?
We take delivery at around 8 weeks old, and when they are ready at around 6 months we take them to a local abattoir which comes highly recommended for welfare and humane standards.
Chickens at The Oak Tree
Our chickens at The Oak Tree Farm are traditional “dual purpose” birds, which are suitable for both egg, and meat production. Our dual purpose birds are less “efficient” than their modern high-octane cousins. The girls lay fewer eggs, and the boys grow less quickly.
Most meat and egg laying birds in large scale commercial operations are either meat breeds or egg breeds: these “high octane” birds have been bred either to grow very fast for meat, or to produce lots and lots of eggs, at the expense of a small carcass. It seems to be little known that the boy chicks of the egg birds are killed as they are not useful – we are proud to give our boys a happy life in the sunshine for a few months instead!
So why do we do it? Well, first of all, we don’t want to kill boy chicks. Also, our birds may be less “efficient”, but they are more robust and resilient, able to cope with a less finely tuned diet and with fewer health problems. Not only this, the meat of our slow growing meat birds is delicious. We are working with Steve Merrit of the Welsh Poultry Centre and a network of other breeders to improve our dual purpose birds through selective breeding.
Many dual purpose breeds have been bred for showing rather than utility over the past few decades. We’ll be crossing breeds, bringing in new breeds, and new strains of existing breeds by buying fertile eggs (they can be posted) and incubating & raising the chicks. Dual purpose birds we either have, or hope to have in the future, include Rhode Island Reds, Buff Sussexes, Light Sussexes, Plymouth Rocks and Ixworths (a local Suffolk breed). We will select the birds with the best carcass weight/egg laying combination, and then breed from them each year. In the future we hope to offer both live birds and fertile eggs from our improved birds for sale.
Our chickens live in movable pens that Tom built, made from discarded industrial food liquid containers, in electric poultry netting fence to keep them safe from Mr. Fox while having plenty of space to run around in. During the winter months we put sometimes put them on straw on the veg beds to improve the soil as the grass cannot absorb the nutrients from the chicken poo unless it is growing, but a bed of straw can. This is good for the soil and good for the chickens. It really does seem to have quite remarkable benefits for both the chickens and the soil. In addition, the eggs from pastured chickens are really very good to eat.
In addition to a grain based diet, our chickens enjoy reject vegetables from the veg CSA, as well as comfrey that we grow on the farm. The way we keep our chickens is inspired by Polyface Farm in the States.
Our eggs are available to members of our vegetable CSA through our Chicken’s Egg CSA.
Beef cattle at The Oak Tree
In the middle of 2014 we were delighted to welcome two of beautiful calves, Forrest and Gump, from The Calf at Foot Dairy to complete our range of livestock!
They have settled in beautifully, we move them onto fresh grass twice a week, and we could hardly imagine life on the farm with out beef cattle… and maybe one day milking cows?
Low Carbon Farm Tools
We keep our use of fossil fuel powered machinery to a minimum. Our main tool is our fabulous little Jolly two wheeled tractor which uses a minute amount of diesel to cultivate the ground and cut the grass and clover back, as well as pulling our new potato lifting attachment!
We also use hand tools that make the whole business of growing veg on an acre or so scale far easier, such as this Swiss made wheel hoe and an American line seeder that lets you sow a row of carrots in a couple of minutes. I thought these were newly designed tools, but it turns out they were in widespread use in market gardens a century or so ago, and used to be manfactured in the UK.
Self funding and innovation, and now a not-for-profit social enterprise
Until September 2012 we had been almost completely self-funded. We had been given £500 each by two private donors, the Cooperative Community Fund (for CSA tools) and The Permaculture Association (for trees and accessories) and we are very grateful to both organisations.
We are always on the lookout for the cheapest way of doing things, and “necessity is the mother of invention!” In the early days our coldframes were made from our old secondary double glazing, and we use old ladies tights as fruit tree ties.
Scrounged woodchip and old newspapers serve as biodegradable mulch for our trees, and at our harvest celebrations we sit on straw bales, supplied by our neighbours at Lux Farm, which are then reused as potato clamp insualtion and finally as a mulch to be dug into the soil by the pigs.
In September 2012 we set up the “South Suffolk Low Carbon Food Community Interest Company” – a not-for-profit limited company social enterprise with directors Joanne Mudhar, Tom Wilmot and Eric Nelson, to run the farm. We are very grateful to both The Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the Big Lottery Fund for their financial support which is enabling us to expand the farm activities so we can take on new CSA members.
A very fundamental aim at The Oak Tree is to create a viable business. Right now, it is marginal. The farm depends very heavily on the good will and support of its CSA members, and on growers Joanne and Eric accepting very modest wages for their work. As fuel and food prices rise, and as we expand the size and range of CSA activities, we expect our financial situation to improve.
An important, longterm project for the farm is tree planting. Inspired by the work on Forest Gardens by Martin Crawford at the Agroforestry Research Trust and Martin Wolfe’s work on agroforestry at Wakelyn’s Farm we have planted hundreds of trees on The Oak Tree since its creation in 2009. There are several good reasons for us to plant trees:
- Food. Fruit, nuts and leaves from our permaculture forest garden, which is a multilayered woodland designed to mimic a natural young woodland. A well designed forest garden is incredibly productive, largely self fertilising and self watering, containing not only trees, but also fruit bushes and ground level plants. We are exploring how to apply these techniques to the dry, sunny climate of East Anglia.
- Fuel. By pollarding (coppicing above deer grazing height) the ash, Italian alder and chestnut trees that we have planted we will have a renewable source of firewood in a few year’s time.
- Shelter. The Oak Tree is a very exposed site, on a local ridgeline in a windy part of the country. By planting rows of trees across the farm we will reduce the effect of wind on our crops, increasing yields and reducing the need for irrigation.
- Fertility. We’ve planted a lot of Italian alder trees, the most drought tolerant of this family of nitrogen fixing trees. This reduces the need for imported sources of nitrogen to fertilise our soil. Trees in general draw up nutrients for the subsoil, and in combination with the action of soil mycorrhizal fungi, help to increase and redistribute soil nutrients from areas of excess to areas short of nutrients.