LIV JAMES - DOWN FARM GROWERS COOPERATIVE

Liv first met Liv at university in the student journalism room of the SU. Despite taking different routes to get there, they've found themselves in the same 'room' again all these years later and we spoke to her about founding the cooperatively run market garden Down Farm, just outside of Winkleigh in North Devon. Like SSAW, building community is at the heart of what they do. All produce is eaten within a 30 mile radius of the farm and they have just built a community barn to further welcome their neighbours to join in and get involved with the growing process.




HOW DID YOU GET INTO FARMING?

After uni I moved to London and started volunteering on a city farm, Stepney, and would go as far to say it changed the course of my life! I then meandered my way through office based jobs in the sustainability and food sector but never quite felt happy or fulfilled. On a whim I quit my job and moved out of London to go woofing. I started in Devon in 2015 and I’m still here now! At the same time my partner was working on an organic market garden in the Cotswolds and thought I liked the look of that..

WHO DID YOU LEARN FROM, IF ANYBODY?

I’ve learnt everything I know through a combination of volunteering, the Horticulture level 2 course I did in London, working my way round Australia with my partner picking fruit and working on market gardens and then blindly starting our own market garden on my partner’s family farm. Looking back, we knew very little but if I knew what we do now maybe we wouldn’t have had the courage to start our own market garden! I have done a lot of practical learning and am so grateful for the people that welcomed me to their various farms and trusted me to work with them. As with most things, farming is an ever evolving job so I am still learning now. I learn a lot from my peers, we have various informal groups where we meet on each other’s farms and chat veg.



CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR DAILY ROUTINE?

As of a year ago I became a parent so my routine has changed slightly! I am just now going back to farming part time, sharing child care with my partner and one day at nursery. My usual farming day looks a bit different to parenting day! We start the week with a farm walkround to discuss jobs across the team - we are now a grower’s cooperative with four of us working together in the market garden. The earlier part of the week is doing the "growing", so this could be anything from sowing seeds, weeding, planting out a crop, clearing a bed ready for the next, mulching the orchard. The middle and later part of the week is harvesting, packing veg boxes and going to market. On these days we start earlier and harvest the bounty! It then comes into your pack shed and is sorted into all the various orders. We go to 2 farmers markets - Crediton and Exeter - and sell about 30 veg boxes each week in our local community. On all these days we make time for a tea break together and a good lunch!



IS THERE ANYTHING IN PARTICULAR ABOUT THE GROWING PROCESS IN PARTICULAR THAT INTERESTS YOU?

A few seasons ago I started growing seeds to sell to smaller seed companies. Although it is an extension of growing, it is hugely different and works on a different timescale. Seeds need different attention and care to the vegetable part of the plant's life. I think it is amazing the amount of potential contained in a seed and all of the necessary steps for a seed to become a viable seed to produce food for our future selves.

HAS IT IMPACTED THE WAY YOU RELATE TO OTHER ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFE?

Growing forms such a central pillar to my life that there is no way it couldn't impact it! The most obvious impact is my new love of the winter. I love the short days, the slower pace, the opportunity to rest and spend more quality time with friends and family that I may have neglected over the summer season. Growing and farming has also given me an appreciation of the amount of work and care that is in everything around us, from the bunch of flowers at market, to the cauliflower head that takes 10 months to grow or the milk in all our fridges or the tea we drink every morning. Someone somewhere has had an impact on everything we eat, drink and own.

DO YOU SEE YOURSELF AS A FARMER OR A GROWER, (OR BOTH, OR NEITHER)?

I am a farmer, grower and landworker. My life and my familys' depends on the land that we steward.

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNT IN YOUR GROWING JOURNEY SO FAR?

Working with the weather can be challenging as with the changing climate you never know what is going to happen. We spend a lot of time planning what we will grow for the year (50+ crops), making sure we have enough for all our customers, but ultimately we can't change the weather and sometimes you have to go with it. It is a good idea to learn how to let go as a grower and to be happy with the lot we are given each season. Working with the season and the weather is definitely the easier and more fulfilling way to grow for me. To give you an example, last spring was one of the hardest we have ever had - cold, wet, new baby, staff leaving, bad compost - and we lost 1000s of plants and 2 months of work. Rather than getting stuck on it we scrapped our plan for the year and started over in June focussing on 15 core crops until we had the energy and resources to start again. In short I have learnt a great deal of resilience!




DO YOU HAVE ANY STRONG PASSIONS / VIEWPOINTS WITH REGARDS TO FARMING/ GROWING PRODUCE AND NATURE/SEASONALITY/SUSTAINABILITY/REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE THAT YOU WISH TO AMPLIFY?

Yes, quite a lot! I do think farming can make up a part of a positive solution to the future of a changing climate as well as creating meaningful work for people. Farming on a smaller, human scale, providing food for communities, and working with nature rather than against it seems such an obvious option but it is more complex than just getting on with it. People need access to land which is affordable; they need to be able to put houses on this land or be able to afford a house locally; food needs to be priced fairly for producers and customers without being caught in the supermarket price war; seasonality needs to be valued by customers; there needs to be training available for farming regenerativley; there needs to be statutory investment in the small-scale farming sector; and I could go on but these are just a few issues to name. Whilst some types of farming can be part of a positive future it is so wrapped up in political and social issues we need a whole system shift, not just a shift in farming. These barriers are harboring progress and innovation to a sector which has so much potential. Unless you are like me, lucky enough to have access to family land and savings from monies earned in a city job, it can seem an impossible task to start regenerative farming.

DO YOU HAVE A GARDEN? WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH NURTURING LIVING THINGS ASIDE FROM GROWING PRODUCE?

(I am laughing). My mother-in-law lives next door to us and has spent 30 years creating a beautiful cottage garden. We are lucky to look out the window and see something blooming almost every month of the year. She is an inspiration in the garden, but it is not something I have delved much into. I find it difficult to bring the nurture we give out in the market garden to things on a smaller scale - herb beds around the house, house plants, growing produce that is just for us. I am trying... but I feel the market garden takes a lot of that energy!


HOW DO THE SEASONS AFFECT YOUR PRACTICE, AND DAY TO DAY, NOT JUST IN YOUR WORK, BUT IN YOUR OWN ROUTINES AND PHYSICALLY TOO?

Unintentionally I became very seasonal. We work hard in the spring and summer and begin to slow as the nights close in and the winter solstice approaches. We use the new year energy in Jan/Feb to tackle big building projects and then the increasing length of days to work harder and longer, knowing we have rest coming on the shorter days. Being on maternity leave this year, I have really taken a step back from growing vegetables and as a result have felt a bit out of sorts with my seasonal clock. Only with the comparison did I realise how in tune with the seasons we are. Every year in the summer most people say "what an awful summer we are having" but honestly, if you are outside every day you see the weather. Since I have been working outside - since 2015 - we really have had a lot of good springs and summers with a lot of sun! (and a lot of rain!!)



WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE DOING?

The impact of buying produce from their local regenerative farmer. It keeps money in the local economy, supporting local people to farm in a positive and sustainable way that nurtures the local environment. And on top of that people get delicious and fresh vegetables to eat!

 

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