We’re Stronger When We Share: FARM HACK 2022 @ Tolhurst Organic

Right, I’m going out on a slightly less than usual limb here for this blog. Readers may not have realised that underpinning much of what I write about foraging is a slow yet powerful current of land activism. My intention is that once we are directly connected to the land by our meals it comes shockingly into relief how much we want to take care of those plants, those animals, that land, which otherwise would have remained a greenish blur as we trudge past on the way to the corner shop. After eating nettle seed I will never use pesticides or herbicides (yet I will wee in said nettles and give them the gift of my nitrogen). After a meal of crayfish from under my boat I will never pollute that water. This is the dawning realisation that we really are part of the whole.

Cucamelons sold at the Farm Hack.

Since the Enclosures Act, people of this country have been disempowered from land rights and ownership for so long that we regard getting a mortgage (‘grip of death’ in French) as a desirable state to be in. We are told to pity the small farmers of other ‘third world’ countries as they work the land they still own, and build their own house that they own outright! We in the so called ‘first world’ are nations in debt. We are slaves to energy firms and large agribusinesses. We are starved of fresh air and sunlight. In short, we live most of our lives like nightingales in a gilded cage!

Yet there are choices. Peaceful ones, too.

Even one windowsill of your own produce, or a knowledge of local edibles, is a good start to regaining our relationship with the land. Offer to pick an elderly neighbour’s fruit. Try growing mushrooms in a cellar or damp cupboard. Spirulina in a bath tub. Farm crickets and snails. Get the neighbours together and make a veg garden on a spare piece of land (check for contaminants first).

My son checking out a seed broadcaster.

If you work a 12 hour shift and have no time except to collapse in front of the telly with a microwave meal, everyone understands. Or they should. Try looking for local small farms that can deliver a veg box, keep an eye out for neighbours selling produce, or Pick Your Own at the weekend with your kids. More often than not, you’ll find me grating or slicing fresh local veg into my Tesco ready meal wonder, because that’s what’s bloody realistic for most of us right now. (This will gain you the health benefits that you need, with minimal time and effort).

So, on to Farm Hack. What’s it all about?

Farm Hack was started in 2010 by a group of volunteers, with the mission of sharing tool and equipment ideas and designs between small scale farmers. All the designs are online on the Farm Hack website , and are open source for anyone to use. The designs are scaled for small farming businesses which makes them much more affordable than industrial scale machinery meant for large farms. These ideas range from a black soldier fly aquaculture feed program, to bike powered threshers, to 3d printed seed rollers. They’re big on sustainability, so there is a focus on green energy and pedal power, which works for small scale farming businesses (such as we used to have in ye olde days of medieval peasantry). There’s also useful electronic monitoring tools for greenhouses and tractor driven tools – they’re not Luddites!

What happens at a Farm Hack event then? Peasant revolts? Orgies and devil worship?

Actually, no. (Though it’s not like I checked all the tents.)

Myself and my seven year old son went to the recent Farm Hack at Tolhurst Organic Farm on the Hardwicke Estate, near Reading. We were soon guided towards the farmhouse by a friendly hippy and her dog. The weekend entrance fee was on a sliding scale between £40 and £80, depending on whether you were a skint but happy small scale veg grower or a City banker.

Workshop programmes were chalked on boards, and the kitchen volunteers served three lovely vegan meals a day. I was impressed by the hemp seed burger (though my son went the whole weekend refusing to eat anything except bread, jam, and a whole uncut cucumber. I contented myself that it was, at least, extremely good bread and cucumber).

Farmer Andrew Brackenborough showed off how to operate his home made bike powered threshing machine, with my son helping loudly. We threshed broad beans and barley. It was surprisingly easy on the legs!

Andy’s bike powered threshing machine.

Dave showed how to sharpen tools, and an assistant professor showed how to use a microscope to view the microbes living in your soil. This was a real eye opener, really bringing home what a healthy soil should look like.

We listened to talks about Biodynamic farming and the Right To Roam campaign, led by Nick Hayes. Nick swore just once during his talk, whereupon my neurodivergent child joyously repeated the F word many times in loud succession, and would not desist for a long time.

Threshed broad beans (pedal power!)

When evening came there was, I’m told, an excellent ceilidh, which I missed as as I was putting Marty to bed in the back of my Ford Fiesta, (having realised I had left the tent at my Mum’s house). I did get to play two quick harmonica numbers with the band afterwards however!

My only criticism is that there wasn’t much to occupy the children. A kid’s corner would have been a good idea, far enough away from the talks tent that my son’s amateur drumming didn’t disturb the event! The kids that were there had a good time though and got stuck right in where they were allowed to.

On Sunday there was a Lacto-fermentation and a Natural Dyeing workshop, and another tour of the organic farm. I would have loved to run a Forage at the farm, as there was a lot there, but my son was too hyper for this to actually work and I gave in gracefully.We ended with an agreement to run another Farm Hack at Tolhurst next year.

Expect this movement to spread as for prices soaring and we are given that push, that kick, toward land sovereignty once more.

Check out the Farm Hack website for more details.

So, over to you, the reader. Do you think I should be writing more posts about land activism and movements, or do you think I should stick to foraging and self reliance? (I’m not promising to do what you say. But I’d like your opinion. Do you think this subject is important? Or a load of codswallop?

Demo of seed broadcasting tools by Sparrow of Tolhurst Organic.

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