James at Wild Geese Acres in 2017.
Photo credit: Abbie Trayler Smith
In 2014, at the age of 49, James Dexter established Wild Geese Acres, at 6.5 acre farm on land leased from the Ecological Land Cooperative in mid-Devon. His partner Sukamala arrived a year later to help establish the business which, five years on, is now a thriving small-scale farm which is on the cusp of achieving permanent planning permission.
Oliver, ELC’s Membership and Engagement Manager recently interviewed him about his journey to get to this point.
The inspiration for the name of the farm seems to sum up so much of what I discovered during the interview about James’ values and philosophy. He explained that it came from the well known poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. “The end of the poem resonates a lot with me because our isolation is often connected to isolation from other people, but we’re so much more than that, there’s so much more we can be connected to. It’s good to have other people, but there’s also everything else, there’s a whole big web of life out there.”
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
James was born in 1965 and grew up in Chingford, near to Epping Forest, within walking distance of where the co-operative organic food growing project OrganicLea is now. “My playground was the forest. It had a huge influence on my early life. It’s half an hour from London but I had no interest in the city. My childhood was all about roaming in the forest, building dens and stuff like that. I was just naturally attracted.”
James moved with his family to the USA at the age of 5, where he experienced a typical suburban childhood. His family returned to Chingford when he was 10. “I resumed my love affair with the forest. It’s 2,400 hectares so you can roam all day. I got tuned into trees and what the forest can offer. I wasn’t a forager or anything like that, although we would occasionally raid allotments but that’s a different story...”
James’ grandfather, a vegetable grower, was an important early influence. “He didn’t come and show me what to do but what I learned from him I tried to do in my parents’ backyard. They had no interest in growing food or anything like that really. They were a teacher and a social worker. They weren’t interested, but I was quite excited about growing food, probably from about 10 years old onwards. There were lots of failed experiments. No-one told me you couldn’t grow under a tree. But that’s how you learn isn’t it?”
His passion and commitment to food growing was increasingly evident in his teenage years. “I had an allotment as soon as I could get one. I was pretty much an anomaly because it was the ‘80s and everyone else was using second world war banned chemicals and over 75. I was 17 years old and interested in growing organically.”
The road to Wild Geese Acres
“I’ve always been serious about food growing. There have been times when I’ve had less opportunity to grow because I’ve not had access to land”
James’ first job at 17 was working on a tree survey in Epping Forest. At the age of 20 he went back to the US to study organic farming in California, apprenticing for a year on the fledgling Agroecology programme at UCSC (University of California, Santa Cruz) which is now a prestigious, international course. “Back then it was a little farm next to the university.” he recalls. He returned to the UK to study Environmental Science, graduating in 1990, at which point he got married and Wwoofed in the US and UK for a number of years, including periods working at the Paddington Farm Trust, a 43 acre organic farm situated at the foot of the famous Glastonbury Tor in Somerset, and Freightliners Farm, a city farm based just off Holloway Road in the heart of Islington.
James at Wild Geese Acres in 2017.
It was during this period of his life, between 1990 - 2004, that he developed his passion for therapeutic gardening. “Food was always a big focus because I saw the power of people understanding where their food comes from and the pleasure and the direct therapeutic value it has for people, being outside, and the delight of pulling up a beetroot and then going and cooking it. This is what interested me more than the growing - the sharing of the wonder of it with other people, particularly people who needed a bit of help.”
I asked James what the circumstances were that led him to consider setting up a farm business. “I always wanted a piece of land of my own. I’d been looking at buying some land and setting up a business or smallholding but I was also aware that it’s really complicated in our planning system and it wasn’t friendly to sustainable farmers. I’d been looking and got discouraged because it was so difficult and expensive. Someone sent me an email asking if I had heard of the ELC, they’re doing good things with helping people access land. The ELC were doing a round of recruitment at that time and so I applied.”
“I could see that the ELC model, in which they act as an intermediate between the tenant and the council, would help the council see that there’s an overarching body that would be monitoring the tenants and that would make them feel less nervous. I could see this from the outset, because local councils are worried about people turning up on agricultural land and living there in caravans. I thought this model would be more of a success than if I tried to buy land and go it alone.”
James established his business with money from the sale of his house. In the first few years Sukamala worked two days a week as a speech therapist, but she’s since given this up to concentrate more on the farm. “We had more orders, we had more to do..”
“There are no days off, particularly with animals. You could have a day off with plants. Maybe on average we work seven hours a day in the week but it does depend on the time of year. We’re starting to work into the evenings now (in early April) to get things planted. We could be working up until 9 or 10pm in the summer. We enjoy working less hours in the winter.”
James’ reflections on some of the challenges that he faced when they were establishing their farms might be useful and interesting to anyone considering setting up a farm business. “I didn’t have any direct experience as a grower with a business as such. I’d grown food for myself and my family, and as a part of educational and therapeutic projects, but had never been a commercial grower. Learning how to run a business that is land-based was the biggest learning curve. It was always about education or self-sufficiency before that.”
“The commercial side of it was daunting but I don’t think it ended up being that much of a problem. We can sell as much or as little as we want, I think that’s possibly because we don’t have competitors and our product, gourmet salad, is somewhat unique. They can’t go out somewhere else and get it.”
Our unique selling points are that we deliver within 5 miles, our salad is picked that day and picked by hand, and it includes 15 types of leaf, herbs and edible flowers. “You just can’t get that anywhere else. You can’t go into Waitrose and buy that. What you get in a Waitrose salad pack is 5 different kinds if you’re lucky and as for edible flowers - no way, they just wouldn’t last.”
“We sell to a lot of cafes and pubs. I assumed that if we phone up and say we can’t do it this week they’ll say ‘Okay that’s it then, end of order, we’ll find it somewhere else’, but they don’t. They just say ‘Okay, we’ll wait’. Everyone waits. And they wait all winter as well because we can’t produce enough in the winter. We don’t produce enough to supply everyone so we don’t supply anyone and we eat it. We can supplement our income from our other farm products during the winter, vegetables, pork, lamb, eggs and herbs.”
James and Sukamala's modified caravan home.
“The business side of it has not been as much of a challenge as I thought. I think what’s been more of a challenge for me at least is how physically demanding it is.”
James identifies the practical realities of dealing with succession (planting methods that increase crop availability during the growing season by making efficient use of space and timing) as one of the main challenges they face. “If you work in a factory that produces a product that needs springs, when your springs run out you phone your supplier and arrange for more springs to be delivered. The challenge of supply in growing food is much more complicated, because you’re at the mercy of many other variables that are out of your control. We might get hit with some sort of nasty pest outbreak which wipes out half the lettuce. We can’t really plan for that. What are we supposed to do about our customers who are expecting their order? That was quite hard to work around in the early years and it’s not really something you ever quite get on top of because as an ecological farmer you’re still always open to those unpredictable variables all of the time.”
Being off grid has also been quite a challenge for the business. ”Refrigeration is still an issue. For example, say we know we’re going to get a massive storm on Friday and that’s our picking day. You might say, well, pick on Thursday. Well, we can’t because we’ve got nowhere to store it. Trying to set up a business off-grid is very difficult, especially when limited resources are being shared with two other holdings.”
Now that the farm has been granted permanent planning permission, James recognises he’s going to have to think quite creatively about the practicalities of building a house. “It’s going to add a lot more work. Today I saw in the Low Impact Living Initiative newsletter something about a company who build eco-homes but their workers are participants on a course. They’re basically running a course to build your house, so the labour is basically free. You pay the instructors and for the materials. We may have to do something like this because of our time and energy constraints. At the end of a long day of growing I can’t see myself getting out there and building a house.”
He’s reflective on the pressure there is on businesses to always be expanding. “There does seem to be quite a big push to upscale all the time in business. We’re at that point where we need to decide if we’ve got enough business, or we need to cultivate more land, or add value to other products.”
Wild Geese Acres gourmet salad.
“We’re at a transition phase now because we have more choices - for example, I would like to get back into working with people with learning difficulties and/or mental health problems who come here to learn how to grow food. This is where the focus in the back of my mind has been - to prove this as a viable food growing business, which we have now, and then to start thinking about a more educational and therapeutic slant to what we do. For me, this is where the future’s going.”
Regular volunteers have been essential to support James and Sukamala with the workload. This year they have a wwoofer who works three days a week and is staying for the whole summer. “It’s pretty essential to have people like this during the growing season. Volunteer support has been fantastic. It’s not just that volunteers help us make our business viable, there’s a whole social aspect to it too. The volunteer aspect is imperative for WGA.”
As well as seasonal volunteer support (usually one or two wwoofers in two or three monthly blocks during the main growing season) Wild Geese Acres has a number of day volunteers too, receiving regular enquiries via the Do It website, a national volunteering organisation. “On Thursdays we have a local chap who’s had a stroke and he’s looking to do some outdoor work to help rehabilitate himself. He comes all day and we give him some lunch. He’s good and reliable, he comes once a week and he helps out a lot. We have a regular volunteer who comes on a Tuesday too.”
One of James’ most important values which he brings to his work and life is to do with passing on knowledge and sharing his love of nature and the therapeutic benefits of being in nature. “This is the deal we offer to wwoofers. My dad asked me, ‘How do you get people to work for you for nothing?’ My answer was, they’re not working for nothing, they’re working for an experience and they’re also gaining knowledge and they’re enjoying the therapeutic nature of working outdoors with their hands in the soil, understanding better where food comes from and their relationship with it within the larger ecosystem. People gladly come because they know this is what they’re looking for as well. They say, ‘we want to learn as much as we can because we want to do this too’. Some people go away saying, ‘My god, I’d never do this!’ because it’s too much. Six acres is a lot.
“One wwoofer said to me, ‘Ah this is great, all this land, what I’d do with this is put a forest garden there, and I’d have pigs grazing over there and I’d have chickens following pigs etc etc.’ All the stuff she’d read in Martin Crawford’s forest garden book. When she left she said ‘Give me half an acre, that’s all I want’. It depends on the person.”
Advice to potential applicants
James has some useful advice to give people who are considering applying for an ELC holding, or more generally wanting to set up a farm business:
“Check out your market. Make sure there aren’t two or three other people in the area doing a similar thing.”
Make sure you have outlets within a short distance of where you are and that there’s some kind of feel for properly produced food. “Chefs are usually very receptive. They’re artists. They want good materials to work with. Managers deal with numbers, they’re just interested in their bottom line.”
“Don’t isolate yourselves. Get to know your neighbours. In a small rural setting there’s not much else really. If you don’t get out there and meet people and get to know people you’ll end up being pretty isolated.”
Some of the people who have inspired James on his journey to become a agroecological farmer
John Seymour, author of The Self Sufficient Gardener, the textbook they used on the Agroecology course James attended in California in the mid-80’s. Seymour coined the idea of raised beds.
Masanobu Fukuoka, author of The One Straw Revolution - a book of philosophy about our interconnection with nature and how that affects how we grow food. A holistic view of farming.
Richard Mabey, author of many books including Food for Free and The Nature Cure
Mary Oliver - Nature poet and the inspiration for the name of James and Sukamala’s’ farm.