Soil, Soul and Society – Food Localization

15 Jun

SOIL, SOUL and SOCIETY
An Interview with Jeremy Weiss; Earth Steward at VelWell Orchard.

VelWell Orchard is a 1.7 acre bio-dynamic smallholding, with links to the local community and Steiner school, near Dartington. It was established by Derek Lapworth in 1993. Jeremy Weiss started coming to the Orchard once a week every Saturday, earning his pocket money when he was 14.

He studied Environmental Science at University of Plymouth. At the end of 2008 when Derek retired, Jeremy decided to take over the Orchard. During the first three years he was trying to run it as a commercial garden. In December 2011 he followed his aspiration and gave VelWell Orchard a whole new vision.

Autumn harvest celebration at VelWell Orchard, Photo: Adrian Antrum

Brigita:  “You’ve been coming to the Orchard since you were 14. You were also educated at Steiner school, does this have anything to do with the values you have and choices you have made in your life?”

Jeremy: “Steiner school gives a very balanced education. Apart from the academic side, they also support a creative way of learning. They teach you well how to learn. When I went to university I was quite far back with sciences, but because I knew how to learn, I picked up faster.

School should be on the farms or in the woods, rather than in the building, surrounded with concrete. There is a lot more to be learned in the natural world.

As you heard from Derek earlier on, I started coming to the orchard once a week when I was 14. I was working here full time during summer holidays when it was busy. At the end of 2008 Derek retired and I decided to take over. At that point I had just finished University; I was living up here and working next door at the farm. It was quite a big commitment, but it felt right thing to do.”

Watering tomatoes and carefully planted “pees”, Photo: Brigita

 

Brigita: “You were studying Environmental Sciences. The knowledge you have learned, does it support the work you do today?”

Jeremy: “I have quite strong opinions about Universities. I don’t think it’s the best way to learn. Most subjects are best learned in other ways. Thinking in retrospect, if I had spent 3 years traveling and working on farms, WWOOF-ing, I would learn a lot more, for what I am doing here. I think the university is not a particularly efficient way of learning.

For me personally the biggest thing I got out of the university was not only what we learned in the classroom. It was learning about social conditions in which most people are being educated. I was a bit alienated from that, because I went to Steiner school. Being at university I could experience various people coming from other systems of education and compare it. Living in a city for 3 years was a big experience for me.”

Brigita: “Reading the VelWell Orchard Newsletter I came across the story of Anastasia, written by Vladimir Megre. The books talks about the importance of connection with the land and how every family should be given 2.5 acres of a land.”

Jeremy: “I think this idea is absolutely essential for everybody to have that access. Anastasia describes it in a most accurate way and I recommend reading her books.

Anastasia was one of the biggest inspirations behind a decision I made last year when moving from commercial garden to what it is today.

The whole transition seemed as a logical step.

When taking over from Derek, three and a half years ago, I first wanted to make this land into a commercial enterprise and show that I can make a living from the land on a small scale, without using big machines, by a simple way of living. I tried for 3 years but it didn’t work. It wasn’t realistic.”

We love you Bertie, Photo: Brigita

 

Brigita: “Why not?”

Jeremy: “The whole system of money is seriously distorted; a lot of it by subsidies and benefits that distort the true price of things.

Often the price that you pay for something, particularly for a liter of diesel, is not reflected in the damage caused by using it, which is then paid for by the tax payers in clear up costs. Future generations will also have to clear up the mess we are making.

This is the general problem with why it is so difficult to make money from growing food on a small scale.

Actually, the real reason, why I decided not to sell the produce anymore goes deeper than that.

Taking over from Derek, he used to have volunteers coming over here. Over the period of last 3 years more and more people would come along. On Wednesdays, we had people from the age of 0 up to Robert who is 75, coming along, helping out and enjoying it. They were putting the purest form of energy into growing the vegetables, which is love.


Happy times, Photo: Brigita

When food is grown with that energy, with love, versus fossil fuel energy that has been imported from a country that is fighting wars, it completely changes the story.

In my opinion the food grown out of love has a potential to feed people in a completely different way.

When I was taking that food and selling it in a shop it felt really wrong. Firstly, it wasn’t really my food to sell, because of all the effort that went in from other people.

Secondly it was impossible to define the price. I had to charge the market price, which didn’t cover the costs of running the project and supporting me. If I had charged a higher price, I might have been able to make a living, but people wouldn’t pay for it, they wouldn’t have bought a produce.

Steiner suggests that the farmer should work out the price of each thing that he sells, based on how much it costs to produce it. And that’s how much he should charge.

When I sat down, trying to work that out it was impossible. Particularly when you have 20 volunteers who come every Wednesday and put their love into it.

How much is that worth? It is not worth financial money. The conundrum was – that this tomato is worth nothing in the shop because people are not willing to pay anything for it. On the other hand it’s completely and utterly priceless to the people who are actually involved in growing it. It is irreplaceable; if this is the case how can you sell it?

Now this has changed, I have given it away and the whole feeling has changed, because food is being grown purely out of love of growing it and not because people need to make money out of it.”

Brigita: “So, people who come to the orchard, to help out, they receive the produce on a completely different basis. I can see this changes the relationship we have with our food. If I compare it to the shop where we buy the food, we don’t have that relationship and we don’t necessarily know where it comes from and how it was grown.

Jeremy: “The food you grow out of love feeds you in a completely different way; after being involved in sowing it, planting it, looking after it, harvesting it and finally eating it. You also know that all the other happy faces around you have done this with love.”

 

Lucky Horse Shoe, Photo: Brigita

 

Comment: We planted a few trees this morning; a Sichuan pepper tree, 2 olive trees, a honeysuckle that Emily generously donated to VelWell Orchard. Kelsey even found a lucky horse shoe while digging out the whole to plant a service-berry (Amelanchier Canadensis).

Brigita: “Jeremy, you mentioned you would like to make one part of this land into a forest garden.”

Jeremy: “I would like to have a good diversity here. Forest garden is an experiment. It is also probably the best way of growing food, because it mimics what happens in nature.

If you left your garden alone, for the next 20 or 30 years and came back, all of the areas where you had your vegetables would become unrecognizable. The area would be colonized mostly by native plants. Trees that were planted by birds and squirrels would be growing all around; the place would become a young woodland. This would be a natural situation for this climate and this kind of terrain and soil type.

The further we go away from that perfect, natural system, the more work we have to put in to maintain it.

If you cut down the trees, you have to keep the grass short by cutting it or grazing it, so the trees don’t grow back. Otherwise it will go back to woodland.

If you go another level away from the grazed land, you need to plough the field to plant vegetables and stuff.

Each step further away from the natural system requires more energy.

If we mimic the natural situation i.e. woodland, there is less work and less energy involved in growing the food.”

 

Brigita: “How do you see yourself going forwards with VelWell Orchard?”

Jeremy: “I guess the land evolves on its own, to some degree. This has happened over the last 3 years. I have followed where it has wanted to go. At the beginning I wanted to make a commercial garden, but that was not what it wanted to be.

I feel like I am in an on-going conversation with the land about what it wants to be.

For example, this soil is not very suited for growing large quantities of vegetables; it is not fertile enough, so I am planting lots of trees.

Going back to Anastasia – it’s about having a domain, a place to bring up your family, having children and passing it on to them.

It is similar to VelWell – but here, the children are all who come to help; it’s a domain for the VelWell Orchard family. It’s a place people can relate to.

I had a young boy who came to work with me because he wasn’t doing very well in school. He remembered coming up here when he was in kinder garden. He came up again when he was 14, so he had a connection to the place. I think it is very important for people to have that connection. Ideally everybody should have a connection to a piece of land, they can belong to.

But for those who don’t have that, at the moment, VelWell Orchard is perhaps the nearest they have to that on a communal level.”

Kelsey: “What about people who are brought up in cities? There are more and more people living in urban areas. How can people in the cities have a connection to the land?”

Jeremy: “This is probably the most important question. Most people live in the cities and I think this connection is absolutely vital. So much that I’ve almost considered passing on this project on to other people and going to do that instead. Cities could become absolutely amazing.

Cities have so much energy in one place, but the energy is mainly used in one way; for fighting and conflicts. Cities have great opportunities for growing food. It is possible and it is happening all over the world. You can grow vegetables on your window sill, you can have a hanging basket, if you have a little terrace, take off concrete and paving slaps, you can use vertical spaces to grow peas and beans and grapes and you can train fruit trees against walls. There are all the roof spaces; there are massive park spaces that are being under used, where we could plant fruit trees and nut trees.

Cities could become amazing, full of food – it just takes few people to start. If you have a small garden, open it up, pull out all the concrete and artificial stuff and even on a few square meters you can grow a lot of food. It only takes one person to start and the effect ripples out. People become inspired by it and want to do the same.

We all have attraction towards beauty and there is nothing more beautiful than nature. Human beings can’t make anything more beautiful than already exists in the nature.

Well, we do try, with our sleek I-phones and stuff.”

Kelsey: “It makes me think of bio mimicry.”

Jeremy: “Exactly, things are going full circle. People are trying to imitate nature.

100% water proof, Photo: Brigita

Just this morning I was picking up purple sprouting and it’s lashing with rain and the water is soaking through my coat because it’s made out of a man-made fabric that just comes nothing near to the efficiency of nature.  And I’m picking the purple sprouts and broccoli, and the water is running off the leaf and it’s absolutely 100% water proof and it’s just incredible.

We don’t have the technology, despite how clever we think we are, to produce something as efficient or as beautiful as what already exists in nature. And they reproduce themselves.”

Brigita: “If people are interested to come and volunteer in the Orchard, when is the best time to come?”

Jeremy: “The volunteers are welcome to come on Wednesday mornings at the moment; we may go to 2 days a week at some point. Sometimes we have WWOOF-ers as well, but not at the moment, because I’m having to do some work to earn some extra money.

I am striving to make this place as close to an ideal situation as possible. I’m trying to create a system that is independent, not reliant on external inputs of energy, money, materials. I would like to create a model, which could be done by other people as well.

At the moment there are people coming from far away. In a way it defeats the purpose when people are driving from miles away.
There are a lot of community gardens starting up, so people can help and start growing their own vegetables closer to where they live.”

Brigita: “You mentioned you would like this model to spread? What exactly is the “model”?”

Jeremy: “The model isn’t so much a physical model. It has to do with the way it operates with the people. It’s more a social model.

The way it works – all the fruit and vegetables and nuts and produce is free to whoever wants it and people are then free to give what they can give in return for it, or at least to give what they can to support the project.

Of course the project needs time, energy, money, support, materials. But people are free to give in return what they want. This is the model I applied in December 2011.

If we go back to what I was saying about the woodland; if you want to have a field you have to treat it like a field. You have to graze it. If you want to have woodland you have to treat it like woodland, not let it be grazed.

You don’t really have to go out and plant trees. If you leave it, fence it so that animals can’t go in, it will happen on its own. You can speed up the process and choose what you want to grow.

The same is with people in my opinion. Depending on how you treat them, is how they behave. If you treat them like human beings, they will behave like human beings. Because often people are being treated like robots, they behave like robots.

When you say to someone: “you have to pay me 50p for that tomato!”

The first thing that comes into their mind is: “I want it cheaper”. They want to pay as little as possible to get as much in return.

If you say to someone, that tomato, you can have it, I give it to you, everybody is growing it together and we are happy to give it to you. Instantly that person will want to give you something in return.

This is what being human is about. It’s what people like to do. Think about Christmas. People like giving.  But the system of money we have doesn’t allow for it.

It says “I want this”.

I’m trying to say there needs to be other way around. It needs to be unconditional giving.

“Have this, it’s yours.” If someone wants to give something in return, they can, if they can’t; it’s ok. Maybe they will in few years to come, to maybe someone else.

You have to treat people like human beings, otherwise how do you expect them to behave like human beings. If you want someone’s respect you first have to respect them.”

Brigita: “Is there a link between Transition Town Totnes (TTT) and VelWell Orchard?”

Jeremy: “I am not directly connected to TTT, because I haven’t found enough time to get involved. I think values of TTT are really good, but I prefer spending time here, growing vegetables, working in the orchard. I don’t really like to go out and change the world. I rather change it around here, locally.

I rather make this garden a corner of heaven, where people can come to help and have some sort of experience that makes an impression on them. That way, they may go out in their life and the idea ripples out further.”

Until next week! Photo: Brigita

Comment: The ripples are felt much further. Hannah has been coming to VelWell Orchard for over 3 years. Her words resonate with the experience of many, including Kelsey and myself.

“I came to VelWell by accident, offering help for nothing in return, other than the opportunity to learn about growing food and just finding a beautiful place to ‘be’. Jeremy insisted that this learning wasn’t from him, it was from VelWell, it was from nature itself – he taught me that he doesn’t grow food, nature grows food, and that he doesn’t own nature, that nature gifts itself and we have to understand our role within this process. These are the foundations I have carried with me since.” Hannah Claxton

~

To receive VelWell Orchard Newsletter and receive more information, please contact Jeremy Weiss;

tel: 07 962 432 317

or email: jeremydweiss@yahoo.co.uk

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