How do you revive an entire Devonshire village?
Step one; have a philanthropic multi-millionaire business tycoon with a historical connection to Woolsery invest in several properties. Ensure these include your local village pub, fish and chip shop, Grade II listed Georgian manor house, a 90-acre farm, and village store above which, incidentally, his grandmother was born.
Secondly, you’ll need someone amazing to oversee this project, which is why Micheal and his wife Xochi Birch persuaded Emily Harmon to swap her fast-paced San Francisco city life for a beautiful village nestled within the Southwest of England.
Thirdly, and this is a biggy, you then regenerate the town by employing 4% of its population in the enterprise MXB Devon Operations Ltd, more affectionately known as ‘the Woolsery Project’. You ensure your vision is sensitive to the health and wellbeing of the people, the local economy, and the ecology.
A champion of this vision is Woolsery farm project manager Josh Sparkes. Josh lives, eats, and breathes sustainability; his passion is very present in how the farm is structured. Coming from a horticultural background, Josh, previously head gardener at Ford Abbey in Somerset, takes the lead in regenerative, organic, and sustainable practices.
The foundation of his plan is to implement a closed-loop cycle system using the Bokashi composting process to turn farm and community waste into a valuable resource. The farm will ferment their EM1 (supplied by local company Agriton Group) in-house to produce a homemade Actiferm to pickle and transform the food waste provided by the community into fertiliser. The community, in turn, receive organically grown vegetables their waste helped develop! The newly renovated village Gastropub and Manor House Spa Restaurant menu also benefit from hand-picked that day farm-fresh produce.
Josh designed the Bokashi set-up with the help of the Project Architect. Eight drums are housed in a wooden structure with a lift-up lid and accessible base. A swale sits in the center of the Bokashi plot lined by willow trees for their antifungal properties and miscanthus grass for the biomass. Beyond that are plans to build a Bokashi windrow and 1.5-meter wall with a soil surface and hardened trench to lay and seal the tarp. Both of these systems will drain into the swale filtrated by miscanthus and willow; the goodness extracted is used to make compost or build up the Bokashi windrow on top. The windrow Bokashi will be used in the garden directly as mulch.
Josh is also championing the construction of a nine bin worm vermiculture, using the Bokashi food waste mixed with a compound of crushed seashells, which include mussels and scallops which he gets from the Restaurant as a waste source. After washing, heating, and grinding it offsets the acidity to feed the worms.
“I come from horticulture originally; I focused a lot on composting. I did the Churchill Fellowship with regenerative soil practices for agriculture and horticulture, learning from both, followed by an internship in Japan and America.”
Josh is a member of the Triad Fellowship; the Triad Fellowship is a Christian organisation that promotes gardeners to travel and learn as a student. Josh explained that he knew about Bokashi before his internship; however, he truly understood the methodology after visiting Japan.
“It was disheartening to recognise how minimally we do this in the UK,” Josh explained. “So, on coming here, I thought RIGHT, I’m going to do this Bokashi system, mainly with the food waste; I wanted that closed system and EM (Effective Micro-organisms) is the bridge to everything we want to do!
When I trained in Japan, we focused heavily on natural farming and horticulture. And that’s the model that I want to put here – taking inspiration from Masanobu Fukuoka’s book ‘One Straw Revolution’ but putting more of a human element into it”, explained Josh.
“There is so much to learn; once you’ve opened the door! I want to go to Sariburu* in Thailand and Hawaii; in Hawaii, they use organic farming methods from Master Cho KNF teachings. I prefer Master Cho’s teachings. It’s completely safe; I can stand in the middle of a field and have all the different organic solutions sprayed on me and be completely fine.
We also do ‘Youngsang Cho’ when we need to hit the ground running. Youngsang Cho is Master Cho’s son and the author of the JADAM Organic Farming book.
We mix and match and use it all together into one system, cover crops, and build diversity. However, I don’t use any pesticides, not even from the JADAM do-it-yourself approach of making natural pesticides because I disagree with it. So we’re trying to build a balanced ecosystem; we’re fortunate enough to grow so much that we can give 40% back to nature.” It’s not difficult to detect Josh’s enthusiasm when he talks about sustainability.
Josh is passionate about creating as closed a system as possible, making sure that what they grow, they can use again in complete entirety, even weeds!
“We encourage weeds like dandelions and thistles to grow, which the Restaurant then uses as dandelion coffee or battered dandelion/burdock roots. Nothing is wasted and remains part of their natural farming fermentation process. Having a system that I feel is a hundred percent material back, minimal greenhouse gases, which you can brew up yourself, is the perfect system. Bokashi makes that easier for us because we are getting more back, more products for us; it’s a win-win.
I like this idea of guerrilla windrows; it’s just there; we have the space, the material, the EM – the EM is the bridge to everything we want to do – whenever we have too much material, we can start a new EM windrow.
Another benefit of composting ourselves is removing the danger of plastic contaminating the soil from 3rd party compost suppliers, like those provided by the council, which could end up in our food cycle.
From here on, we will be adding Bokashi inoculated rye. We’re going to build the compost and the biomass using plants rather than aerobically digesting it and breaking it down, and then doing it. I love Bokashi because we get 100% of the material. With the cover crop, I clear from this bed, I will have enough bulk to put back on that bed; I’m not going to lose that percentage you would with traditional composting,” he concluded.
Although this project is in its infancy, it is only six months old, and Josh and his team have a long way to go; the community is already reaping the benefits, some unforeseen and quite remarkable.
Josh explains, “I’m not saying this is entirely down to us, but we have discovered other benefits. Several months ago, no birds were singing; however, growing these cover crop systems, which I think go hand-in-hand with Bokashi and EM, allowing us to farm the way we wanted to, has changed this. You come here in the morning; all the birds are coming in. They’re all in the beds and hiding in the cover crops.
We’ve just had an ecological report back, and the ecologist said the farm birds we have here are different from the surrounding fields in such a small space of time! The ecologist is hugely excited about this and is coming back to document this in his own time!”
Not only are the local birdlife benefiting, Russell Mayne joined the team at Woolsery farm after he left a career in the army and ran into some mental health problems. “Working so close to nature has brought me happiness and stability,” shares Russell. “Josh, and the Woolsery Project has opened so many doors; I’m continually learning and developing skills in sustainable farming, it’s given me a new focus in life and I love it.”
With so much still to do and so many revelations, we will be revisiting Josh and his team to watch the Woolsery Project unfold and learn what it truly means to live the dream.
* The Saraburi Kyusei Nature Farming Training Center was established in 1988; this facility, covering an area of 160ha, organise training programs to extend Nature Farming and EM Technology. It also has a training and demonstration model farm on exclusive for Nature Farming using EM Technology.
The objectives of the training programs are to disseminate the technologies combining Nature Farming and EM Technology to provide benefits to humankind and produce safe food while developing a sustainable and clean environment. Saraburi Center, along with APNAN and EMRO (EM Research Organization), welcome guests from in and outside the country. Trainees who participate in programs learn about vegetable production, rice cultivation, sustainable farming, livestock, fisheries and aquaculture, horticulture, self-sufficient economy philosophy.