Tribal Britain: Permaculture collective

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The Independent Online
Brickhurst Farm doesn't look up to much. The most prevalent features of the 25 acres near Pembury, Kent, are thistles and strange strips of carpets held down with wooden pegs. 'You just wait,' says Steve Read, wagging his finger. 'In a couple of years, this will be a permaculture heaven.'

The plan, he says, is simple. By 1995 at the latest, he and three colleagues will grow enough food at Brickhurst to supply 150 people with a weekly basket of organic fruit and veg all year round. 'Good, wholesome food that actually tastes of something. Not like the rubbish you get at supermarkets. And a snip at pounds 4 a basket.'

Both the thistles and the carpet have a role to play. 'Permaculture is about not poisoning the land and developing sustainable ways of living,' says Steve, an environmental scientist. 'As far as farming is concerned, that rules out chemicals. We don't plough because it erodes the top soil. Instead we use small allotment-style strips which we mulch. You cover it with carpet to kill the weeds, put manure on the top and plant through it. Bingo. Happy, healthy plants.'

And the thistles? 'Oh, the thistles are great,' he says. 'Their deep roots bring goodness to the surface.

'We eat some of the most ridiculously poisoned foods in this country. One estimate is that we consume 8-10lbs of additives a year. What we're trying to start here is an ecological food supply system to give people a healthy alternative.'

Since qualifying as a permaculture designer two and a half years ago, Steve has been spreading the word around his base in Brockley, south-east London. The local food supply system was set up 18 months ago after eight locals attended an introductory course on permaculture.

Based at the Brockley Bean, a pretty, cottage-like house with balloons painted along the facade and runner beans growing up the walls in summer, the South-East London Permaculture Community provides a monthly supply of wholefood - soya milk, organic flour, rice, cornflakes, muesli, bread, cheese and the like - to its 50 members. It also provides organic fruit and veg from Spitalfields Market. 'The mark-up is only 5 per cent and you're doing your body a favour. It's not so much a business as a proper community,' says Leslie Wills, a member who makes a living recycling clothes into an extraordinary range of patchwork coats and skirts.

They plan to grow all the green goods for the community at Brickhurst Farm as well as providing free-range eggs, honey and organic wine from the nearby vineyard. The project will mainly be funded by the annual membership fee of pounds 10 for individuals and pounds 15 for families. The members will have free access to the farm's woodland and 'wilderness areas'.

Steve Read believes the time is ripe for the idea of DIY food distribution. 'A lot of farmers are in trouble: 30 per cent are in negative equity and 70 per cent of farm income goes to service bank debts. Quite a few are selling off bits of land to pay the bills.'

Since the beginning of the recession, permaculture has become markedly more popular, together with other DIY alternatives such as self-build housing projects, credit unions, local exchange trading systems and companies such as Radical Routes which help finance alternative and ecological co-operatives. In the past three years, the number of permaculture groups in Britain has mushroomed from three to 60.

Steve himself started to look into permaculture after becoming disillusioned with his work as an environmental scientist. 'Basically, I was digging up more bad news,' he says. 'When I came across permaculture I thought here's a way of actually doing something about it on a personal level. I've been on several non-violent, direct action protests and I respect what people like the Dongas Tribe and Earth First are doing. But there is an alternative to meeting force with force.

'Permaculture has been described as doing aikido on the landscape; rather than being confrontational, you can set up an alternative that will eventually cause the undesirable elements to fade away.'

(Photograph omitted)