Weaving farming worlds together

To create the ultimate sustainable farm, we will need every tool in the box, says Marina O’Connell in an interview with Jack Thompson.

Marina O’Connell is a grower and founder of the biodynamic farm and education centre The Apricot Centre, in Dartington, south Devon. In her new book, Designing Regenerative Food Systems, she traces the roots, methods and benefits of six farming methods and describes how she wove them all together to create a thriving, profitable and nature-friendly farm.

Wicked Leeks (WL): Can you tell me a bit about your background and why you wrote the book?

Marina O’Connell (MOC): During my degree in horticulture, I was trained in the industrial model, or the reductionist model, as I call it. But when I came to Dartington, south Devon, in the late 80s, I was immersed in this completely different worldview. I did a permaculture design course, I went to biodynamic evening classes, Guy SinghWatson and Riverford were just starting out. I was just immersed. The great and the good like Vandana Shiva and Wendell Berry were coming to Dartington Hall and you could go listen to them for the evening. I then retrained in lots of these different methods. But I was unusual in that I didn’t stick to one; I was interested in all of them.

WL: What does each method bring?

MOC: As I wrote it, I realised how each one of those systems has brought another strength into the system. The biodynamic system has got that element of spirituality of it, agroecology brings the politics, and regenerative farming speaks to a lot more people; it’s got a larger uptake than all of those methods.

WL: What would you like the book to achieve?

MOC: I’m naturally quite a shy and modest person, so if I could inspire just one person to move their land to a more regenerative system, then I’d be happy. If I’m honest, we are facing a massive crisis in the next 20 or 30 years. It seems to me that the answer is, although it seems quite radical, is staring us right in the face. Sustainable farming is a straightforward solution, and it solves so many problems all at the same time.

While most would stick with one system, Marina O’Connell integrated six into her farm.

WL: It seems that the term regenerative farming is quite loosely defined, what does it mean to you?

MOC: I think the term regenerative is what they call emergent at the moment. I was bold and defined it on my side of the debate. There’s a lot of industrial farmers who say I’m a regenerative farmer because they don’t cultivate [plough the land], but they’re still using synthetic fertilisers and glyphosate.

Martin Wolfe who started Wakelyn’s Farm, was my great mentor. He always said: “to design truly regenerative systems, you’ve got to go back to the point of divergence and build a new system.” We need to go back to the beginning of industrial farming and take the other route.

WL: What is the difference between a regenerative food system and regenerative farming system?

MOC: A regenerative food system, to my mind, is one that is based in the circular economy; it’s good for everybody, it regenerates our human ecology as well as our human network and fosters community. The food is good for you, it’s healthy, you can taste where it comes from and you can afford it. A regenerative food system doesn’t just feed us food – I don’t want to get romantic – but it nourishes us.

What I had in mind is the Growing Communities model in Hackney, a veg box scheme and network of farmers’ markets in London. As a farmer, you get to talk to your customers, which is a godsend, and you talk to other farmers and your colleagues. You have a coffee, you eat some really nice food, you make some money and you spend some money. Through those networks, friendships build, and other networks build. It’s an extraordinary example of a regenerative food system because everyone wins.

O’Connell transformed the land in south Devon into a biodiverse and productive haven. 

WL: You’ve really seen this movement progress over the years. What gives you hope?

MO: We run lots of training course and it gives me hope to see all the lovely young people coming through the door. It’s really exciting to have lots of passionate high school people who are coming into this world with lots of new skills.

WL: If you were PM for the day, what would you do?

MOC: I would subsidise the sustainable farming transition. I would say to farmers ‘you’ve got to become regenerative farmers. I would set up training courses all over the country and every agricultural college would run courses for new students and existing farmers.

I would somehow wave a magic wand and allow new entrant growers access to land, and I would make every market in the country obliged to sell 20 per cent local food.

An excerpt from Designing Regenerative Food Systems.

In order to create the sustainable farms now urgently needed for the 21st century, it is useful to have a ‘toolkit’ of methods to radically transform a piece of land or at least nudge food production in a more sustainable direction.

All the methods described can be used in a pure form by themselves and each system appeals to individuals and communities in different ways.

However, in my experience these various methods weave together to create resilient, low carbon, and productive biodiverse farming systems. They contribute to what I have called the ‘sustainable agricultural revolution’.

Visitors and students on courses at Huxhams Cross Farm have asked me how we created a productive, beautiful, profitable and regenerative farm from depleted soil on the former land of the Dartington Estate, in south Devon.

The contractor who had previously worked this land had called it ‘a miserable bit of land.’

The ‘miserable bit of land’ before taking on the farm in 2013. 

The short answer to that question is that we drew on the methods described in this book, to create a sustainable farm from industrially farmed land. We observed that many visitors understood one sustainable farming system but rarely grasped the variety of approaches and how to weave them together.

The methods are culturally different, but from a farmer’s perspective, they complement each other very well, each bringing different strengths.

Relatively few people understand what biodynamic farming, organic farming, permaculture, agroforestry, agroecology, and regenerative farming are and how they relate to each and how they compare with current industrial farming models.

Each farming system brings a different quality to a comprehensive holistic systems approach to sustainable farming and food systems.

Designing Regenerative Food Systems by Marina O’Connell (£25, Hawthorn Press) is out now.


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