How one farm joined the permaculture club

Middlewood, Roeburndale, nr Lancaster. Rod Everett in the Hugel bed.
Middlewood, Roeburndale, nr Lancaster. Rod Everett in the Hugel bed.

At 31, you might expect Adam Sharples to be thinking about settling down; you know, with a wife and a mortgage and maybe a baby or two on the horizon.

But when I meet him on the long track that leads to Backsbottom Farm, accompanied by his mentor Dr Rod Everett, he looks like someone who has already found everything he wants… and it doesn’t include any of the above.

Rod Everett with daughter Eller

Rod Everett with daughter Eller

Instead of the nine-to-five grind and a pile of brown envelopes behind his door, Adam has opted for a more natural way of life. Most weekdays you can find the former IT expert gainfully employed on the land, doing whatever is necessary for the smooth running of the Middle Wood Ecological Trust, the charitable organisation founded by Rod.

“I wanted to learn about self-sufficiency,” says Adam, who moved to Preston when he was nine. “I began to volunteer with the trust in about 2007 because I wanted to reconnect. They asked me to take over Facebook page and then asked me to become a trustee. It isn’t monetary; it’s about exposure to this wonderful place.”

The three of us sit at a handcrafted wooden bench outside Rod’s home, with another volunteer on a month-long visit from his home in the South. We sip Keemun tea, passed to us via the kitchen stable door by his daughter, 20-year-old Eller, in an oversized teapot, and drink in the view across the trees and woodland to Ingleborough in the distance. An idyllic day; an idyllic setting.

The 240-acre site nestles in the Roeburndale valley, about nine miles outside Lancaster. Here, visitors are exposed to an impressive range of Rod’s experimental projects, all of which have their foundations in something called permaculture, a branch of ecological design based on sustainable architecture and self-maintaining agricultural systems.

Adam Sharples with some of the winter salads.

Adam Sharples with some of the winter salads.

Permaculture lies at the heart of the Middle Wood Trust, and as I walk around the site with Rod, a rangy man of 62 with a shock of white hair, it is evident everywhere, from the drainage ditches close to the track leading from the main road, which are helping to address the water erosion on the hillside, to the turf-roofed, timber-built house where Adam stays.

It is evident, too, in the raised Hugel beds Rod uses to grow a variety of fruit and vegetables. These mimic the nutrient cycle in nature, taking advantage of rotting wood and vegetation to warm the soil and retain moisture. There is no need for fertiliser, and generally these beds look after themselves, making them a great example of the permaculture ethos of increasing productivity with less effort.

He gestures to a hedge as we walk. “It has multiple uses,” he says. “When we coppice it, the sheep eat the leaves and the bark from some of the branches, which are high in sugar. If the hedge is hazel you can use it for walking sticks, if it’s ash it’s OK for spade handles.”

Nearby is a vegetable and flower garden. I use the description loosely, because what I actually witness is a tangle of growth, which overhangs the paths. Herbs rub shoulders with vegetables and in between flowers push their way up to the sun. Rod plucks a day lily and offers to me. “Try that,” he says. I take a bite from the crisp, slightly perfumed bloom; it’s good, surprisingly good. Later I sample an evening primrose flower with similar success.

Rod first came to this beautiful valley with his parents in 1957 at the age of seven and, although he ventured out into what some might describe as the real world to take a degree in ecology at Bangor and then, at York, a PhD, he soon returned to Backsbottom farm.

It was 1980, and the original farmhouse was long gone, washed away by floods in 1967. By the time Rod returned there were no access roads either.

“So many problems were down to farming,” he says. “What we need is a system that doesn’t cause long term damage to the land. Permaculture came along in the eighties and it was full of ideas based on observation of the natural world. Nature knows how to do it: can we learn from nature?”

Now Rod manages the drainage on his land using a combination of methods such as swales (shallow ditches) and check dams (to slow the flow of the water down the slope) as well as by planting trees, whose roots open up the soil, facilitating drainage and encouraging natural springs. And, of course, the ash trees, oaks and rowan trees he plants are multi-functional in that between them they produce animal feed, sweet edible acorns and berries for preserves. His next step is to persuade other farmers to introduce similar methods.

While the Middle Wood Trust is still a work in progress, it has also already achieved a great deal. Rod has cultivated about 200 varieties of apple trees on the site, and these have gone out to schools and community groups to help set up orchards around the county.

“The idea is that we propagate them with the aim of getting old varieties of apples back into community,” he says. “The varieties we use are those that have grown well in Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire – Scotch Bridget, Lancashire Pippin, Hutton Square, Proctor’s seedling.”

And then there is the forest garden, with its seven layers of productivity, from roots and herbs at the bottom to fruit trees and climbers at the top. Again, it looks like an unmanaged tangle of undergrowth and random trees … but Rod can name every plant and tell you exactly what it can be used for, whether it is nettle fertiliser or rowan jelly.

“Two years ago we made 1,000 bottles of elderflower cordial,” he says, demonstrating that he practises what he preaches. “And we’re self-sufficient in vegetables.”

Rod admits people used to regard him as strange, but says that is less the case now. Why? “Because people have been listening for a long time, and although we were the first to try new things, they are catching on.

“I’m experimental, and I’ve been fortunate all my life in being able to experiment.”

The results of his experiments are a sight to behold ,and while it might not be possible to adopt every one of them in the average house, there is a clear need to live in a way that is more sustainable and environmentally friendly.