Sylvia Smith meets Yolande and Andrew, a self-sufficient couple growing their own fruits and vegetables without animal by-products
Every morning brings a fresh surprise whether it is a formerly crook-back, slender stem that has straightened up or a tightly packed bud that has flung itself open — there is always something new to see on one of Britain’s smallest but most productive vegan small holdings run by British couple, Yolande and Andrew.
The size of the tiny plot, which measure 0.6 hectares (1.5 acres), of which a mere 0.035 hectares (350 square metres) is cultivated for vegetables, grains and soft fruits, is surprising considering the bounty of plentiful food which is the main food source for the couple.
But while size seems irrelevant, the condition of the soil is everything, according to Andrew. Andrew was once a consultant IT manager, but now leads experiments in how to grow food without manure or any other animal by-product. “I’ve found a way to nurture the soil using new methods in addition to crop rotation,” he explains. “And we don’t dig!”
Self-sufficiency without the security blanket of keeping animals for a supply of regular protein might sound challenging, but Andrew and Yolande sit on the top of Howle Hill in Hereford talking in passionate terms about their vegan small holding and the absence of moans about back-breaking toil is strikingly absent from our conversation.
“We put in about two hours a day,” calculates Andrew. “We’ll harvest about nine kilogrammes of quinoa, six kilogrammes of amaranth and eight kilogrammes of beans this year. We’ll keep all of these because they are easy to store for use throughout the year.”
Compost comes from their organic waste — whether carrot peelings or cabbage stalks — a waste-free system that was common until industrial-scale agriculture took over. A book dating back to the war years was the launch pad for their venture into self-sufficiency.
Common Sense Compost Making by the Quick Return Method by Maye Bruce taught them how to make a compost heap and about natural homeopathic conditioner made from various dried herbs. Its effect is to speed up the process of decomposition turning what looks a bit like dried grass into a super-charged fertiliser. “The first time we tried it over the winter it made the most beautiful compost in 3 months,” recalls Yolande. “The next summer we made a lot in 6 weeks!”
By combining the special compost with the tenets of crop rotation, Rudolph Steiner’s bio-dynamic ethos and the principles of permaculture, production has steadily increased in the five years since their agricultural adventure first began.
“Crop rotation is straightforward,” says Yolande. “It makes sense that if one year you put in plants that produce food in the form of leafy vegetables, the following year we introduce a root vegetable that depends on different elements in the soil. Ideally you give the earth time to recover.”
Andrew is experimenter-in-chief when it comes to making homeopathic compounds to add to compost heaps, which are kept in containers made out of old pallets. He is wizard-like in his ability to conjure up his own special magic mix using a wide variety of ingredients including yarrow, dandelion, camomile, wild valerian and oak bark all of which he dries in his hand-made solar dryer.
“I dissolve half a teaspoonful of the resulting powdered mixture in a pint of water and leave for 24 hours,” he points to a mound that is sprouting seedlings. “I then make about six holes in the compost heap and pour equal measures of the compound into each. The results are extraordinary.”
The results are even more extraordinary when you consider that the couple never dig the soil. “The micro-organisms, worms, bacteria which condition the soil and which help moisture penetration and retention, all need to be taken care of,” Yolanda says. “There’s a symbiotic relationship between mycorrhizal threads and the plants growing in the soil.”
Andrew continues: “Like the internet they [the mycorrhizal threads] provide a flow of information between plants and soil and assist the flow of nutrients from soil to plant. Digging is the equivalent of breaking a connection.”
Careful not to break any vital connections in the real food chain, the no-dig policy has paid off and there is spare produce rather than frugality. Food security is naturally paramount.
“There will always be something growing for us to eat on every day of the year!” exclaims Yolande. “We also don’t feel we go through a hungry gap in spring, although variety can be a bit challenging. We have chosen crops to provide us with starches throughout the winter and into spring by growing oca (which matures in November), Jerusalem artichokes (which last well into spring) as well as parsnips.”
In terms of priority, honouring the life force in the soil rather than following modern ways underpins their approach. “We found our own way through reading widely,” says Andrew commenting on the plot which formerly houses lime kilns. “We used our own intuition and really listened to nature’s messengers and messages.”
For the first year the couple added 6 inches of horse manure to the plots, but have subsequently discovered that yields are better and more consistent using pure green plant fertiliser. Andrew and Yolande are part of a small but growing band of farmers following a system of cultivation now known as vegan organics. The method avoids artificial chemicals and sprays, GMOs, livestock manures and animal remains from slaughterhouses or fish processing.
“We believe in feeding the soil and have put huge amounts of organic materials on the land and especially on the places where the soil is meagre,” Andrew points out. “This is having a dramatic effect on the quality of the growing areas as well as on the soil systems.”
While quinoa, amaranth and tree spinach all provide protein (as well as seeds for the following year), their diet is enriched with chickpeas, lentils and borlotti, cannellini, pinto and butter beans which flourish on the plot. The couple are proud to depend on the soil they tend rather than money and welcome visitors either to work with them on the land or simply to come and stay as paying guests.
“We earn a joint income of £5,000 in a year from Caenwood (our bed and breakfast) and have no other regular income,” says Yolande. “We live in an alternative economy and yet we live a rich life.”
Andrew explains that they are a carbon neutral household with solar panels making more electricity than they need. “We only heat our house using wood either foraged from local sources or traded for our time and skills. We build large wood piles in the Scandinavian style to keep them dry until needed.”
Andrew is particularly proud of his home made solar dryer created out of old bits of wood and a corrugated steel sheet painted black. “It dries our herbs and excess produce perfectly,” he confides. “It gets up to 65 degrees Celsius and dries the herbs in a half a day, keeping in the full flavours.”
Yolande and Andrew have converted their freezer into a larder because they have fresh produce readily available in the garden or hedgerows. “We try to do everything the most natural way possible and loath using motorised mechanical equipment,” Andrew continues. “I cut the grass areas annually with an Austrian scythe and we turn most of the grass into hay which we use for compost making, lining the strawberry beds and for protecting crops from birds and frosts.”
The rest of the grass goes for seed source of meadow flowers of which the couple have over 70 varieties. A passion for doing everything themselves by hand extends into the kitchen where most of their foods are made from scratch. From breads to preserves, and cider to liqueurs, there is a certain Caenwood flavour to everything they turn their hands to.
“We intentionally produce more vegetables, and forage more fruits, than we need.” says Yolande. “We either trade the surplus for goods or services or we sell it via the Dean Forest Food Hub. This is a website as well as a logistics system that allows us to advertise our surplus on a weekly basis.”
Every Friday the couple cut what has been ordered and deliver it to a drop-off point 3 miles away. With over 30 producers and over 50 customers it is a practical way to sell or source really fresh produce, most of which is organic and biodynamic, at affordable prices.”
The couple refer to their endeavour as a Taste of Self Sufficiency and teach volunteers their methods in exchange for help on the plot. Even those who stay at the Caenwood B&B learn something, even if just how to forage from local hedgerows.
“In spring we love nettle and wild garlic soup and in autumn we forage berries from our hedgerows and apples from our neighbours’ orchards,” Andrew explains. “It’s all free and we don’t eat anything fresh that hasn’t come from within walking distance. It’s hard to realise just how normal this used to be!”
Clearly, sustainability is achievable and Andrew and Yolande really are living the good life.
Photographed by Richard Duebel