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The Grower in our local community

Eleanor Boyden, of the St Agnes Parish Council newsletter recently visited The Grower, and has written about the business’s environmental ethos and practices, as part of a wider article looking at eco-friendly initiatives in the St Agnes area.

We have her permission to reproduce the article here, which contains some fascinating insights into the other places she visited, as well as Presingoll Farm and The Grower.



With the increasing emphasis on climate change as a global security risk, the need to generate innovative, sustainable development and environmentally friendly solutions is becoming an ever-growing political issue. However, making incremental adjustments in our everyday lives is just as important in tackling our carbon footprints, such as by critically examining where our food comes from and the impact our daily actions have.

 

There are many creative initiatives in the St Agnes Parish that encourage these changes, and this October I visited three sites that operate in different ways, but all promote environmentally conscious principles through their various projects, with a focus on increasing involvement, education and bringing the local community together. I spoke to teams from Mount Pleasant Ecological Park, an active events and community venue run under a environmentally friendly ethos, the volunteer-led Goonown Growers who supply veg boxes and markets from their homegrown sustainable produce, and the Williams family who manage Presingoll Farm and The Grower businesses by focussing on soil health and carbon sequestration.


On the rainy Friday that I conduct my interviews, I first arrive at the Eco Park, just outside of Porthtowan. I shelter in the office to speak with Claire Marshall, the General Manager, and Jess Owen, the Marketing Manager. The weather has not quelled activities at the park however, and occasional snippets of music drift up to the window, overlooking the barn. They explain that a cosmic yoga session is currently taking place, one of the many events, activities and workshops that are held all year round.


 

Jess explains that a crucial motivation for running many of the Eco Park events is making them accessible to the local community, and the team is constantly striving to increase local involvement across the parish. The current grip of the ‘cost of living crisis’, with interest rates and mortgage payments increasing without a comparative rise in wages, has unfortunately tightened the purse strings of many families who feel they have no choice except to cut out the optional, fun activities that incur extra expense. However, Jess emphasises that it is these days out that are important in maintaining mental health and wellbeing; for this reason many of the Eco Park’s countless events are free or operate on a ‘pay what you can’ basis. For example, the Eco Park regularly holds markets with no entry fee, where visitors are free to attend and absorb the atmosphere, with no pressure to buy anything.


A recent highlight for the team was the kite festival, in which lots of local children and families were able to create their own kites in a free workshop. Jess describes how a gust of wind rose through the previously quiet sky just in time to lift everybody’s kites up in the air together, in a special family event that generated a lot of positive feedback.


The Eco Park team consciously endeavours to find new and effective ways to involve the public. The venue is incredibly active during the summer months, supporting local artists and musicians in regular folk nights and open mic sessions (with a free pint for participation!), as well as holding the iconic Tropical Pressure festival each year in July, one of its resounding successes. However, the social scene is not abandoned when the tourists return home, and the weather closes in. The Eco Park remains jampacked throughout the year with music, theatre and entertainment, with a consistently busy run up to Christmas.


My subsequent site tour with Claire highlights how the forty-two acre venue's ambition to be a lively community hub is closely interconnected with its eco-friendly ethos. As well as the barn, that is used for weddings, music and theatre events, there is the amphitheatre, storytelling area, campsite, open area bar, small stages for gigs and entertainment, and sunset deck with an impressive vista rolling over the Beacon and down to the sea.


Despite its increasing versatility and scope as a venue, the Eco Park does not neglect its sustainable roots, and each building is constructed in an environmentally conscious way. Tim Stirrup, the Park’s founding director, also runs Pioneer EBC, an environmentally friendly building company that created the Eco Park units from rammed earth. These house several small businesses, including the ‘Roots Press’ sustainable printing services, who design and create the Eco Park’s promotional content, as well as the grassroots initiative ‘Roots Zine' that encourages contributions from the community.


The eco-friendly vision extends to ethical eating, with its on-site restaurant ‘Canteen’ incorporating purely plant-based and seasonal produce within their menus, that is principally supplied by ‘Community Roots’, a community support agricultural project also based at the park. Claire claims these principles have challenged people's perceptions about what meals are possible to create within a plant-based framework and aims to spark conversations about alternative lifestyles that can reduce our carbon footprints.


Other on-site initiatives, such as the local supply of veg boxes by Community Roots, and voluntary participation in the Community Garden allotments, also encourage the community to engage with ‘farm to fork’ produce and organic horticulture. The team eventually aims to run the site totally sustainably, to live by the principles they espouse.


The Eco Park currently generates its own renewable energy, including a wind turbine and solar panels, as well as sourcing its mains electricity responsibly. There is a bore hole constituting most of its water supplies, the rammed earth buildings are naturally insulated, and there is a biomass boiler to provide additional heating. The land also has organic status, and there are many tree planting schemes and efforts to promote its biodiversity. The team highlights that the Eco Park’s different projects and events are constantly expanding and evolving, and they want the public to visit, learn about its ethos and freely enjoy what it has to offer, even if it is just to walk their dogs around the fields.




My next stop is the Goonown Growers, a community market garden based in St Agnes. A good old Cornish mizzle has well and truly settled in, but it does not dampen the convivial and sociable atmosphere within the main polytunnel, where I am promptly invited to the lunch the volunteers are assembling, using produce they’ve grown on the land. Even just observing the collective effort to prepare the meal demonstrates the centrality of community and collaboration in propelling the Goonown Growers’ sustainable efforts.


The polytunnel we are in houses French beans and many seedlings that are being prepared for planting out, but the organically certified land also consists of three further smaller polytunnels and two fields that are run in accordance with stringent environmental standards. I am given a brief tour by Steve, one of the volunteers, who shows me the large variety of produce they are growing, such as tomatoes, fruit trees, cucumber, pak choi, chard, kale and cavolo nero, as well as the recently harvested squash. Planting is carefully planned to provide different seasonal foodstuffs around as much of the year as possible, and much of the fruit and vegetables produced are packed into veg boxes that are supplied to local people - these can either be picked up or delivered for a small fee.


The Goonown Growers also supply markets, such as the Truro Farmers Market held each Saturday. Ed Sweetman, a founding member, explains how their small-scale business model and future direction are governed by both environmentally and economically conscious principles. They are reluctant to expand the initiative in a way that would necessitate relying on subsidies or grants, or risk compromising the sustainable ethos and essence that is central to their enterprise.

 


This does not affect the Goonown Growers’ constant aspiration to increase community involvement. Another founder, Sally Westaway describes how the project originated in lockdown from a desire to create a reliable and nutritious source of food amidst the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only was this an insightful response to the reminder that even ostensibly stable global supply chains are subject to external shocks, it was also a way to maintain human connection despite the limitations on face-to-face interaction. The team found that safely volunteering outside helped maintain an important sense of purpose and community during these difficult times.


Since then, the Goonown Growers have held numerous open days and regular Friday volunteering sessions to encourage more people to get involved, on whatever basis suits them. Kathy, the Social Prescribing and Volunteer Facilitator, reasons that volunteering on the land positively benefits both physical and mental health, with a unique opportunity to appreciate the finished product grown from a seedling that you have nurtured.



This is a sentiment I can readily believe when a delicious autumnal stew made from homegrown squash and vegetables is served, along with a fresh salad. The only food item not grown on the land is the rice, which seems fair enough!


We head over to eat in the newly constructed barn on the land, which is intended to become an improved community space, as well as providing more room for veg packing operations. The group, consisting of all different ages, sit around a long table and contentedly chat with each other whilst enjoying their food. This communal ritual seems to bolster a happy and cohesive team, further proved when discussion arises about furnishing the barn interior, a conversation that encourages and genuinely values everybody’s contributions, including the younger members.

 

The Goonown Growers’ principles of sustainable growing and living are intrinsically linked to community involvement, fostering its friendly and collaborative environment. As Kathy asserts, this form of volunteering is a small-scale but practical way of supporting climate change resilience and reducing your carbon footprint, as part of a welcoming team.

 


The final visit I make is to Presingoll farm, which has been run by five generations of the Williams family, who have also created ‘The Grower’ nursery, supplying and planting trees. The farm has faced the challenge of reducing its carbon footprint in larger scale food production, whilst establishing a business and farming model that will remain viable in the future. The Williams family have farmed at Presingoll for over 120 years, but twenty fiveyears ago they had the foresight to adopt regenerative principles, becoming the first farm of its size in Cornwall to do so. The farm’s management practice focuses on promoting fertility through enhancing soil organic matter, which in turn has generated increased biodiversity and environmental diversification, as well as gradually higher yields.


In 2018 they made the difficult decision to switch from a cattle-based regime to a primarily plant-based one. However, this allowed Inez Williams-King, a landscape architect and the fifth-generation in her family to work the farm, to co-found The Grower in 2020 with her partner Christopher King, who studied commercial horticulture and forestry. It was through discussions about taking action to ensure the quality of trees and promoting climate initiatives, that the idea for The Grower was born out of their combined specialties.

 


Tree growing integrates well into production planning as a vital part of its rotation, which is meticulously designed to best preserve the soil and its necessary nutrients. Mark and Andy Williams, brothers from the family’s fourth generation on the farm, have been responsible for making many of Presingoll’s structural changes to improve its sustainability, and they emphasise the importance of soil as a finite resource. Each year 30 percent of UK topsoil is lost due to erosion and run off as a result of adverse weather conditions and unsustainable practices.

Presingoll has therefore adopted a rotation which incorporates tree growing for a few years, followed by cover crops, cereals and brassicas.


Keeping 'roots in the ground' allows the soil to remain structurally compact and resistant to run off, as well as replenishing its different organic materials and nutrients.Planting flowering field margins allows them to attract ladybirds, as well as other beneficial species, as a form of natural pest management for aphids, which is still a very unusual method within tree production. Critically, it removes the need for pesticides and reduces the need for herbicides. They also avoid the use of chemical sterilisation of the soil which kills all soil flora and fauna, and other essential matter, including fungi communication networks that are crucial for the mobilisation and release of nutrients, therefore compromising its overall health.


By maintaining grass cover and no longer ploughing their land (using a system called minimum to no-till cultivation), the farm creates carbon sinks that increase by 5 percent annually, sequestering carbon in the soil and preventing it from being released into the atmosphere to contribute to further global warming. The family’s creative and environmentally conscious farming methods clearly reflect their approach of 'balancing with nature'. This strategy involves carefully planning woodland creation in ways that have positive spillover effects. For example, the team has committed to planting over 20,000 metres of trees next to their existing hedgerows to enhance their growth and biodiversity, in a symbiotic relationship that

also shelters younger trees from the unruly Cornish elements. They also grow crops in between shelterbelts of trees, improving their weather resistance, water retention and the soil quality, as well as encouraging a variety of wildlife.


Presingoll has also pledged to the Local Nature Recovery Strategy, and their measures have seen net gains in biodiversity, encouraging owls, cuckoos, bats, polecats, buzzards, dormice and more birdlife.



Meanwhile, 'The Grower' business has been progressing from strength to strength, growing over two million trees. They’ve sent trees as far as Scotland, Wales and even Richmond Park in London. It is the largest tree nursery in the Southwest and the main grower of beech trees in the UK, a member of the Woodland Trust’s Sourced and Grown Assurance Scheme, and a 2023 sponsor of the inaugural Agroforestry Show. Inez asserts that they take a sustainable and collaborative 'grow well' approach, cooperating rather than competing with other growers to work optimally within diverse UK soil types.


In Cornwall, the business has proved a great success, providing specialist knowledge in tree-supplying and offering a service which has successfully planted 46,000 trees with an 85 to 95 percent survival rate across the county, as opposed to the 40 percent industry standard. As well as preserving healthy trees, The Grower strives to promote robust biosecurity standards to save them from contagious pests and diseases, including through projects to plant trees that are resistant to Dutch Elm disease. Initiatives such as these are crucial to protect vulnerable native trees from diseases that can be transmitted in deceptively simple ways, such as from water droplets on people's walking boots.


Damage from diseases, such as ash dieback, could cause potentially vast costs for the economy, not to mention local ecosystems. The supply and replanting of trees is therefore a vital service, especially when considering areas such as the Tamar Valley, which consists of 95 percent ash trees and therefore is susceptible to dieback. It is these types of issues that the teams at The Grower and Presingoll want to educate and involve the local public with, to assist in the campaign to protect trees and the wider environment.

 

The farm has found that previous open community events they’ve held, such as sunflower fields, pumpkin picking and the 'Paws at Presingoll Farm' dog walking field that opened during the pandemic, have helped raise public awareness of their ethos and projects, and they hope to hold more activities in the future. They have been advised by numerous users of the significant mental health and wellbeing outcomes they have experienced since the field opened. By allowing the community to get out in nature, witness the benefits of the initiatives at Presingoll and engage with where their food comes from, the team hopes to increase positive rhetoric around farming. Andy points out that larger scale farm structures cannot adopt the same methods that smallholdings do to create sustainable produce, and often receive bad press around their environmental impact. However, the innovations at Presingoll show how regenerative farming techniques are capable of generating carbon absorption. The farm works closely with Riviera Produce, a Cornish-based business that in turn supplies several major UK supermarkets with fresh vegetables, grown through environmentally friendly techniques. In terms of sustainably powering their operations, Presingoll has invested in renewable solar energy for their campsite and farm, and also supplies 75 percent of the neighbouring railway park’s electricity at a lower price than the National Grid.



The team affirms that their drive for sustainable development will continue to influence the future direction of their business and farming models.


Although their transfer to a regenerative planting regime has significantly reduced Presingoll’s carbon footprint and gradually increased yields, Andy underlines that it will be necessary to utilise emerging technology to make further environmental changes. Another important aspect of increasing public involvement and education about farming is attracting a younger demographic into agricultural careers, which are shifting from traditional labour towards managerial and tech-oriented roles. Artificial Intelligence (AI) may prove instrumental as a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly tool in the future of farming. For example, laser weeding tools or AI hoes that use cameras to distinguish between trees and weeds would further reduce the need for chemical herbicides. GPS self-steering tractors (used at Presingoll) are more efficient than conventional ones, and in the future could be powered through solar energy.


People with innovative ideas about effectively using technology to increase farming efficiency will become essential in sustainably producing food for the country’s growing future population. Inez also plans to establish an apprenticeship scheme for The Grower, focussing on expanding its tree maintenance and consultancy areas. The Williams family has so far adopted a flexible and insightful approach in adapting their farming techniques to sustainably and successfully modernise their business, and want to engage and educate local people in their future efforts to build upon this.

 

All the teams I spoke to were genuinely committed to involving and educating the local community about their various schemes and initiatives, designed to combat the negative effects of climate change in innovative ways. They aim to engage the public with the origins and ethics of their food, in an age where it is easy to buy items from supermarkets with little idea of where they come from, as well as starting valuable conversations about how we can adapt our lifestyles to protect our future environment.


These enterprises also place a concerted focus on bringing people in the parish together as an important objective in its own right, whether by volunteering, attending events or simply enjoying a day outside. I certainly learnt a lot from my conversations with the teams at the Eco Park, Goonown Growers, and Presingoll Farm and The Grower, and would encourage anybody else who is interested to visit these sites and learn more about their valuable projects, as well as investigating the many other initiatives around the parish.

 

Credits for all photos used are to the Mount Pleasant Ecological Park, the Goonown Growers and The Grower and Presingoll Farm respectively.

 

 

Find out more

 

Mount Pleasant Ecological Park - https://www.mpecopark.co.uk/ 

The Goonown Growers - https://www.goonowngrowers.co.uk/ 

The Growerand Presingoll Farm - https://www.thegrower.co.uk/



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