If there wasn't a setback, it would make for a dull story

Dear friends and supporters of The Rural Project, 

I have been quiet for a couple of weeks after our plans for The Rural Project in North Somerset fell through due to unforeseen circumstances. Now that the dust has settled, The Rural Project will continue on in spirit with a search for new premises and partnership whilst I put on hold my immersion in the project and resource myself better.   

Thank you those who have already shown such continued belief in the project, it really helps keep the momentum and acknowledges the need for it. As an example, Stir to Action have run a feature on the project in this month's issue, ‘Cities as Counter Power’ which you can purchase here https://www.stirtoaction.com/issues/issue-18

The website will continue to be updated with news, ponders, and events. If you have any suggestions for sites, partnerships, events, or even a coffee, please do get in touch. 

In gratitude

Petronella 

Founder, The Rural Project 

And our first site is... North Somerset

There has been silence from the blog over the past couple of months as negotiations, fears of possibilities and disappointments meant I was quiet about shouting, standing on roof tops, bouncing on our trampoline at the potential of grounding the 'idea' here in North Somerset. An invitation was offered from a nearby landowner under the most extraordinary of circumstances that I will share down the line. 

So here we are. There is a site. It has three buildings, and acres of land. It is nestled between large villages in North Somerset, a woodyard and carbon zero solar company, twenty minutes by car south west of Bristol, accessible by two train stations, a direct bus and a cycle route. It is accessible - and that was our wish. Being the current home for a disability charity, it truly is accessible on site too.

We are navigating complex events, relationship and trust building, sharing our purpose and vision. It is literally groundbreaking and I cannot wait to open the doors to you. This year we will be focusing on the buildings to refurbish and activate them to be alive, super comfortable and befitting the space. Meanwhile the land will be prepared for next years herb farm, allotment and land-based work. 

Groups from the local area are stepping forward, particularly mens and boys leadership work, which is bang on the message of development we wish to enable. We will be hosting and running a start-up social enterprise incubation programme with six businesses on a six-monthly rotation who are from the 'hood, working with the local school and GP Practice with their chronic health patients. Our original intention for a healing and active enterprise space are coming to fruition. 

CANCELLED: EVENT: Land for land workers 23rd January 2017

Dear guests,

I'm afraid we are going to have to cancel our event on the 23rd January as it seems this is not a need for our community at the moment. We only want to offer excellent, relevant events and it wouldn't be very useful this time round.

We will be in touch with another theme and date soon. With this series, we want to tap into your needs and provide scale and network to help alleviate or solve common issues. If you have an idea, please do get in touch with us. 

With very best wishes, and hope 2017 is working out well for you so far!

Petronella, Steph, Jamie and Nessie. 

EVENT: Land for land workers 23rd January 2017

Are you a landowner? Are you seeking land for a growing or farming project? Are you interested in land access issues?

The evening will open with Humphrey Lloyd from Land Workers Alliance who will set the context for us: why is land access an issue, especially for new entrants to farming? Followed by: 

  • Matt Cracknell, FEED Bristol: his experience as a council tenant and working with new entrants on the land
  • Luke Hassel, Community Farm, The Story Farm, Valley Fest: being a landowner of Community Farm and what the benefits are to the landowner
  • Steph Wetherell, Coordinator for Beacon FarmsWhat we've learnt from the Landseekers' survey 
  • Beccy Marshall, an independent Land Agent: what to talk about when you've found your land match

Jamie, Petronella and Nessie will also be on hand to discuss their initiatives too if you missed the last event.

Light refreshments will be provided, and drinks will be available from the Canteen bar downstairs. 

Where: The Event Space (3rd floor), Hamilton House, 80 Stokes Croft, BS1 3QY (easy to get to from M32) 

When: Monday 23rd January 6:00pm - 8:00pm 

RSVP: Please email thefield@ruralproject.org or call 07950 808224 if you can or cannot make it. Spaces are limited. 

Please pass on this invite to land owners you know who may be interested, or to others who may be seeking land. 

TALK: Where is a good home for a project like this?

After my presentation on 5th December event, people have asked me to post the talk I did on here.. it isn't quite word for word, and excuse some convoluted sentences. I took the room to a place where dreams are made of.. let's hope! "The rural hub dream is well.. the dream!", said one. 

"Thank you all for coming, it is a treat to have you all in this room, some familiar faces from those I have been privileged enough to meet over the past few months and those whom have been recommended to come, drawn to this conversation and our proposed ideas. 

Now that we’ve warmed you up...you have eaten well and have heard from Jamie and Steph who are building bridges with urban and rural around food and agriculture, this goes one step further. We are going to get a little dreamy now…  I want you to think big, really out there horizontally vast plains of possibility BIG; beyond farm diversification, beyond glamping and festivals, beyond weddings and orientation games.. Aaand hold it, breathe out, before you get indigestion.

With that openness, I want you to think about your working day.  who you see, how old / young they are, what they do, what their work is, and then what you’re doing tomorrow? Who you’ll see, what they do, what you will do even… Now, I want you to reimagine your working day.

Some of you already have a significant relationship with the land, for those who don’t, how might we resolve our connection with the land in a more harmonious way, daily. How might we receive the benefits from being more connected to the natural cycles? What would our products, our services look like? How would this contribute to a meaningful livelihood for our younger generations? 

We are again in a time of uncertainty and volatility. There is a cry for to be more self sufficient again, not only of the land, but of ourselves, to be more resilient, to revitalize our communities, our villages and the links to the farms. 

The rural project is a culmination of a physical space where people come to work, to grow, to learn, practice, to celebrate, to volunteer and to slow down. It is also an expression of a wider movement, where people and the planet are longing for holistic, land-based skills particularly in our young. This project provides the space for those ideas, those connections and the output of sustainable solutions to a widespread problem we are only now starting to feel. 

To provide: from the latin providere: pro (before), videre (to see) = to foresee, to prepare, to get ready

The purpose is to appreciate the natural world, to prevent isolation and bring a sense of belonging for people who feel displaced. The activity is diverse with a running theme of self sufficiency to look after oneself and others. As our working / job patterns shift too, we need to grow accustomed to working less, with less job security and job availability for all of us, and thus we need to relearn consume less and make more ourselves. 

These series of talks are part of this too, to bring rural life, from deepening our understanding of a familiar landscape from Daithi’s indigenous Bristol; transferring indigenous ideas to this city, to land matching in January, to tonight, the launch of paper napkin idea born out of the growing-element of the rural project. A nice-to-have on one piece of land, but let’s really shift something here and scale it up, it only takes people, you here tonight, to make it work.

In ecosystems it is at the edge, between a forest and a meadow for example, where there is the highest biodiversity and most number of relationships between different species. As a result it is there that evolution is the most powerful, where change and innovation are boosted.

Let’s start at the beginning. I’m going to concentric circles to describe the space, starting from the outside ring and bring it closer in. The vision I hold for the rural project is a piece of land, acres high grade for growing on, poorer quality for self-build projects and for land restoration work with land space for people to rent, a supply of affordable land for land-based innovations, projects that require scale, prototyping and security, like SNUG homes, or a natural dye garden. 

Next ring: The Outbuildings for light industrial use, people who need space to develop or produce, people who need space to craft their woodwork, people who need space to practice their art, people who need unfussy space to make a mess, to store their work and to make a noise. 

As we step into the next circle, this is where that last statement and the next could clash… the hearth. The therapy rooms, the offices and shared deskspace, the event space for courses, performances and talks,. I want you to picture for me the mix of those energies, of those flows… the proof of concept being this building where you sit tonight, the mixture of activity here and who’s users have called for a rural workspace too... 

Imagine two men carrying a piece of stone for a sculptor, of kids running around in the woods beyond ‘rewilding’, of small businesses having conference calls, of solo workers meeting each other in the cafe and starting a project together, of a band tuning up for their performance later that evening, of a meditation class happening in a therapy room whilst next door a man is counselled, and outside the window an elderly group with dementia are having horticultural therapy.. Phew! This is a place that breathes life, that embraces our edges, that embraces our differences, that the land, the same piece of land, can support. 

The last two years, I have been actively researching and developing plans for this site, pulling in inspiration and suggestions from overseas in Spain, Canada, France, Sweden, as well as visiting sites here in the UK, one trip by bicycle Lands End to John O'Groats. From high end retreat sites to simple low impact dwellings, where I learnt self-build skills, to lambing on traditional farms. Like an apprentice, I have been observing the field, whilst noticing a gap in the offering for a place where people could come to work, with reliable internet, facilities, a community, space and stimulation, and where people could pop in once a month, to learn a new practice, to see a band, to volunteer on the farm… yes it is a hub and it is informed by the growth and development work experienced by learning from others, from mixed disciplines of artists and growers and whomever walks through the gate. 

When we say a place for growth, it is not only the vegetables, it is the people. Helping on a self build of an eco-building to house new therapy rooms, for example when many of us may not imagine we can build our own homes, and experiencing that as a group is quite powerful. 

Secondly, it is the growth in the youth, Imayla are here tonight, a CIC who take out kids from the inner city and surrounds to welcome rural self sufficiency and a different type of territory into these kids lives, leaving them to entertain themselves, create their own entertainment...even in the rain! They are looking for a permanent project they can visit and be involved with. Similarly, a summer school for kids 16-21 who face many decisions, and whom don’t often feel equipped to make such a decision. Giving them leadership and land based skill development, would influence those decisions, taking a step back away from the urgency and short-termism, and recognise the important, or the real work.

There are a range of possibilities depending on the site, and with them a variety of business models and plans. We have reams of research, data, figures that support the demand and market for a project serving mixed needs, financial models that seem to change every hour!

What we have is our network and our following, and the vision that this is beyond a business park, beyond an educational farm, beyond a retreat site… this is an inclusive site that invites soft and hard industry to work side by side. We ask you to reimagine your working day. 

Why have I invited you here? To see the breadth of possibilities ahead, and also the bigger, yet local cry we need respond to. You here have an opportunity to contribute to this, the more we are based in the natural world, the more we understand, the more we care, the more we value.

So, who has a spare barn for me? 

For more info on the business model, finances and requirements, come find me."

Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make sense any more.
— Rumi

 

 

The human pace: using human energy to man-u-facture

Rural Project has been one of the South West community businesses involved in a Community Business Leadership Programme with the RSA, Power to Change and Real Ideas Organisation to understand more closely the needs of community businesses and what resources we would need to extend our reach and impact. What it really gives, agreed by the other nine members spreading from Falmouth, to Plymouth, Buckfastleigh to Salisbury, is the network, the shared experiences, learning from our peers trials and wins. 

One of the inspiring visits we had recently was to the Frome, the mecca for grassroots transformational economic planning that reinvigorated community responsibility for decision making and employment possibilities. The previous mayor Peter MacFadyen, the author of Flat Pack Democracy and pioneer, spoke of his experience encouraging and willing a different way to lead and govern a market town. 

What is prescient are the conditions that led to this bright innovation in leadership that enabled enterprise, local produce, values and collectivism to flourish, independently. Academia, civil rights and media attention celebrated the Independent Frome movement, held up by infrastructure such as Forward Space and the market. An aesthetic city with good transport links to London, the profile was raised and the town could afford to reimagine itself.

One such unique example and one I was keen to visit and hear more about, was Edventure. Edventure is based in the Welsh Mill Hub, a workspace they manage too in a residential part of the town along the river. Inside, they house a number of workshops, a community ‘toolbox', an indoor greenhouse, and the deskspace room-hire model. There is much correlation with the Rural Project on project learning, skill, team and self development. Their purpose is anchored in education: "Progressing young adults to a livelihood that matters to them." 

So, how do they achieve this? Collectively, local challenges are identified around a multi stakeholder meeting that welcomes suggestions around local needs that affect us globally: housing, nutrition, isolation, intergenerational interaction, fair opportunities… These conversations are held in the hub with a considered guest list, for example a recent campaign for Fair Housing Frome, included architects, councillors, planners, estate agents - a multistakeholder approach. The community has the idea, the students are given the autonomy within that frame to manifest it how they choose. 

With solutions they find, they prepare the ground for a start-up and recruit students who are willing to collaborate, co-design and make whilst acknowledging the team development that is well facilitated throughout the process. For example in cultural sensitivities in workstyle approach, in working closely together, in communication styles. They use action based learning with the final week spent in the natural world on a vision quest to set an intention for the next six months after they leave. Almost like an incubator, they help other social enterprises launch but the IP of those enterprises still belongs to Edventure. "People just get it straight away" - that was a key quote for me, when I get lost in trying to explain, justifying the reason why my project is important.

Under the umbrella of Edventure, there is Elderventure - the intergeneration aspect that helps older people be more resourceful for young people. I was impressed with their partnerships, with the job centre in guiding people to a different way to upskill yourself. The courses are free, commitment and value can be an issue, but the participant has to raise their own funds to resource the idea and materials. 

It does sound a little too good to be true and looking at the range and number of funders and supporters, I questioned the financial sustainability. Three quarters of their trading arms are profit making and the balance is delicately held between loss making activity and income making ones. Something I am well versed in. 

What I took away was the clarity of how they express their impact and measure that. I guess practical solutions are what they do well. Their use of graphics and measurements makes you trust them, and with authenticity that they are serious about change. Since then, we have met and look forward to working more closely once i’m up and running. 

The beauty in the wider cause

Sometimes we find ourselves head down in the valley, or in the hedgerow and look up to the valley and lose sight of what is beyond those summits. There is plenty, and our activity down here is a direct effect of and a direct contribution therefore too, the conversations and the cause of our planet and our human needs. 

One illustration of this handed to me yesterday is the latest film by Yann Arthus-Bertrand of The Earth from the Air photographs fame. Terra, his latest film, is true to form with extraordinary visuals, and editing, but the content asks us questions of our humanity and of our coexistence. 

The story itself is not that original: it’s the story of man’s life on Earth. So why tell it again? Because it is vital today that we wake up to what is happening: climate change, over-fishing, excessive animal production, intensive agriculture, the abuse and pollution of resources… such refrains have become clichés, but are nonetheless appallingly true, and involve the same almost inevitable consequences: humanity is heading for disaster, at full speed. But the public doesn’t want to accept this simple observation. It’s too much to take. And it’s not easy to understand the initial signs of a major change on Earth when those signals are mixed. How can we believe in global warming when New York City is buried under unprecedented snowstorms? If animals are suffering, why don’t they express this? How can maritime resources be running low when the oceans are so vast? In the disastrous climate of humanity’s failings concerning so many obligations and deadlines (climatic, social, war, resources), an umpteenth ‘the end is nigh’ announcement gets very short shrift from the man in the street.

And so… we close our eyes. That power comes from how we choose to represent things.

A film to believe in humanity

How do we now wish to regard what lives around us ? The force of TERRA resides in this very question. The film will show how our own image and representation of nature has always been decisive in human history on planet Earth, and how it can still change the course of events to come.
What if, within each human being, within each human heart, there was a way of changing things? And what if, by clearly understanding the importance of representation in human society and by grasping what effect a change in that representation could have on the living world, we could once again believe in our own future? The key is to draw on the extraordinary human ability to anticipate, and to revive an innate empathy, respect and emotional attachment to the very simplest aspects of life on Earth. In a word, very much of our age, TERRA’s ambition is to be ‘an ode to the human species’; a film openly advocating that humanity is still capable of ‘getting back to basics’. A humanist message, that is very deliberately positive.

 

 

Sprinkling of magic in the thunder rains

To provide a blend of heightened inspiration and lower concentrated delivery, sedentary patience and outward engagement, the West of England has a wealth of alluring, seductive projects and people to visit. Yesterday, as the forecast was hotter than Bangkok, a day on farms seemed suitable. 

The drive to my first stop was part of the exercise too. Chepstow, well North of, towards Coleford along the winding route through the ancient Puzzlewood forest, is where there is potential to develop the project with a business who has land, buildings and needs curation. They grasp the vision and purpose too. Along the journey, I felt the softening of the transition into far, to further and still, I was but 40 mins from Bristol. Through a village I caught the end of the school run, joggers along the road-side, a bustle. And the land would just be beyond that, looking out over to the Severn. And if we are talking about ecosystem boundaries in our study here, and the productive margins, the energy and friction of that, then what is more apt than that of England and Wales. 

Continuing on, I headed to The Fold and what an optimistic, fruitful (pardon the pun) welcome it is on a busy road opposite a recent drab housing development. On the way I had passed many rural trading estates one with a pertinent sign "PLACE YOUR BUSINESS NAME HERE" with seven empty boxes below, I gulped at the sobriety of attracting businesses to our site, and mustered on. 

 

Meeting Lucy, Head Grower who I'd previously met a couple of years ago at a do at Patrick Holden's (Sustainable Food Trust / Soil Association / Farmer)  house in Bristol. The trees were heavy with quinces and pears, the car park brimming on a Tuesday morning, and a sense of use, relevance and vibrancy. The old grain store has been transformed to a warm cafe serving their produce and ethical dishes. I was more interested in the outdoors, however as we finished our coffee and headed out in a dress and Birkenstocks... the rumbles began. The sky turned that ominous grey that illuminates green leaves to a lime colour. Covering up in waterproofs as the clouds let rip, Lucy kindly showed me still the farmhouse where twelve workers and the couple who own it live. The extensive polytunnels where she grows the vegetables, the nursery of thirty (!) polytunnels further down the site towards the bottom of the hill. We walked past their biomass producer that with 15 acres of willow and a harvest of 5 acres a year powers the whole site including nursery (PIC) along the Nature Trail to the Care Farm, where Lucy conducts her family gardening days and other assisted therapeutic programmes for vulnerable people. There she grows on 1.5 acres, and with four polytunnels produces enough for five outlets including the farm, and is seeking another market. 

We talked shop in between the downpours, and I noted the scale they operate and how they have resourced it- the main enquiry in my research. It was also enriched by a successful business from the Nursery that oiled the cogs. 

Squeezing out the rain from the dress, I popped on over to Stockwood Rush Farm, a business park that supports the operations of the farm. Rush Farm is headed up by Seb Parsons, who also runs The Biodynamic Land Trust and previously Dr Haushka cosmetics UK arm (we noted the correlation between the connection with cosmetic companies (me The Body Shop) and rural projects). Half way in our conversation on excel spreadsheets, implementers v ideas people, the politics of land ownership, we hopped and jumped into a Land Rover to help with a bull in a field. There I am in a soggy dress, in a soggy field with a bull, a vet, a farmer, Seb, his son Brendan and other helpers to hold the bull for the vet.

Walking back, I asked Seb about the Biodynamic element of his vision and how that informs the practice on the farm. It started with the consciousness of the farm, how it all integrates and is an ecosystem made up of living organisms, whom have their own boundaries and catchments to respect and be aware of, and then how those boundaries interrelate. I learnt about the preparations for the compost: seven blends of yarrow, valerian, chamomile, oak bark, dandelion, stinging nettles..  the water supply, the fields. I learnt about the four lunar influences on the plants: roots, leaves, flowers / fruits and seeds. To respect the type of crop you are planting or harvesting according to these types, e.g. if it is a 'root' day in the lunar cycle, then you plant the potatoes on those days, you harvest them on those days and they are flavoursome. Similarly with vineyards, Sainsbury's has reported a 20% rise in sales from wine that is picked on the fruit days as the grape is bursting. Sounds fun. He showed me the water sculpture where the cells of water are broken and repaired, broken and repaired in a figure of eight as it falls down the pools in the sculpture. The water preparations are added to this water, which is then sprayed on the land. 

We discussed Steiner and the balance of power: politics, economy and personal development (health, education, culture) and the I (free), you (service) and us (the agreed). The higher self, the higher I in the ego, responding to the lower i, Waldorf and the development and refinement of feelings in our human development (in 0-7, 7-14, 14-21 cycles, that by the time we are 21 we have grasped our feelings so we are able not to get in the way of ourselves - a topic that is pertinent for me at the moment).  It was a journey and a dialogue that enthrals me, to bear witness to how rearing cattle relates to this. To the propagation of land, to our ownership models, to how we want the world to be and work within, to wisdom and bravery of a few to draw it all in, to the ground. That is where I wish to stand too.