Feeding body and soul - an exploration of Britain's new age landworkers

Ruth & Alex at the Steepholding, Greenham Reach. Photo: Walter Lewis.

Ruth & Alex at the Steepholding, Greenham Reach. Photo: Walter Lewis.

For most of 2015 Walter Lewis travelled around England and Wales meeting and photographing people producing food outside the confines of mainstream agriculture - working out of a passion for the earth and the Earth rather than for commercial gain. He completed his exploration inspired, and determined to spread word of quiet revolution under way across the fields of Britain.
We not only ate healthier, we became aware of the seasons and the world around us. I was also convinced there's a deep wellbeing that comes from moving closer to the earth - even if it's just seeing the dirt on our carrots.

I retired slightly early from a life in technology and commerce early in 2012 with the aim of realising an ambition to be a documentary photographer. I wanted to make work with an aim of connecting people back to the earth.

I had grown concerned at the disconnect between heart and brain - belief and knowledge - for a society where few argue that we do not have an environmental crisis, yet few in that same majority make significant change to their lifestyle. We are seemingly driven by an overpowering need for keeping up with an out of control capitalist consumerism.

My approach was to make work which I felt expressed a heightened awareness of the world around us. I had work exhibited on several occasions, but it also started to get very esoteric. Me, for example, wandering around Ilkley Moor thinking about 'oneness' and I started to look for something more pragmatic.

It was at this point I had a great eureka! moment in realising that every time we eat something, we make an astonishingly deep statement about how we feel about the world. Thus, few take the time to seek out food of strong environmental and ethical provenance. Our societal mindset just doesn't require it.

Could I take this idea and create work which challenged our sleep walking into the nearest supermarket for virtually everything we ate?

Land Workers Alliance

I was soon to spend a week moving around the core group of the Land Workers Alliance down on the Dorset-Devon border. That week opened up the prospect of work featuring the very people producing alternative food.

These were people who were operating on a relatively small scale, producing to sell locally, often led by and within a community operation. People who were thinking of the future in what they took out of, and returned to, the land and putting organic, permaculture or biodynamic methods to the fore.

Their practices were low in energy demands and low in intervention, whilst high in animal welfare. Everything that factory farming is not. In short these were people who were passionate and committed, and living an activist life to give the rest of us choice.

If we took that choice it was multiple 'wins'. We not only ate healthier, we became aware of the seasons and the world around us, and we were taking steps to limit our impact on the world. I was also convinced there was something deep inside by way of wellbeing that came from just moving that bit closer to the earth - even if it's just seeing the dirt on our carrots.

Learning point one - the network is growing

When I started out I anticipated finding around 20 farmers and working with them through multiple visits to build up a picture of their activities and lifestyle. What I didn't anticipate was how the list of places to visit quickly burgeoned to the point of careering out of control.

Everywhere I went, there was advice and directions on others to visit. The disparate fragmented network which I had envisaged was in fact a well populated network, albeit fragile financially and hidden below the radar of everyday living.

We not only ate healthier, we became aware of the seasons and the world around us. I was also convinced there's a deep wellbeing that comes from moving closer to the earth - even if it's just seeing the dirt on our carrots.

The farming was out of a passion for growing, a mind-set where marketing and promotion doesn't come easy. The very thing that would turn the activities into a burgeoning businesses is the very thing the people involved feel uncomfortable with.

But just think - if they can survive with little promotion, what can happen if awareness in the general public starts to grow? This network, partly hidden as it may be, is a precious starting point for building new lifestyles.

Learning point 2 - the youth of today

I was also taken by surprise by the number of young people who were committed to producing food differently. Yes there have been organic movements and like in the past but at the present time the number of young people, and young women in particular, that are involved seems to suggest that something special could be happening. People like Alice Holden at Growing Communities Starter Farm in Dagenham. Growing Communities is a fabulous story in its own right.

Starting life as an education project in Hackney it has nurtured a demand for local food which translates itself into patchwork of growing sites around Hackney and a weekly local farmers market. It also resulted in the takeover of the municipal nurseries site in Dagenham and its conversation into food production. Alice is Head Grower. She moved there when the site was almost totally concreted over and covered in glass houses, very much a bedding plant production centre.

Under her care and direction much of the concrete has been lifted - used to build raised beds - and new soil introduced to produce an array of salad and vegetable crops. Such is the nurturing that when I was there in June, she was showing me the amazing changes that her methods have produced in the soil. Nine inches or so down it is now white with a rich growth a mycorrhiza.

Then there is Laura Burlison just outside Newcastle. Laura gained a degree in sociology and went on the obligatory world travels, intending to settle down when she returned as youth worker. But motivated by her experiences, she returned determined to now be a grower. Determined she was, so they moved Beau, the much loved horse, and the majority of the family owned paddock converted into a small holding from where, three years on, she now runs her local veg box business.

There are also people like Ruth O Brien and her partner, Alex Wilson holders of the Steepholding at Greenham Reach. They took up tenure of the 10 acres of Steepholding owned by the Ecological Land Trust, a wonderful operation which buys farming land and makes it available at realistic rents.

In some two years from virgin fields, they have built their own house, put up a paddock and stocked it with goats, put up two poly tunnels and opened up a market garden and fruit garden. This is serious commitment - from a couple who also have two young toddlers!

It really does seem unfair to mention some but not others. Everyone was so inspiring, everyone had something special. There is loads more currently on the website for the project and more to follow in the coming months. Suffice to say here, the extent of the network and the age of people impressed a strong positive conclusion in me.

The bases are primed as they have never been primed before

It irks me to use a US based metaphor, but what strikes me is that despite its fragile financial nature, the bases of alternative food production world have never really been primed as well as they are currently.

There is a wonderful committed level of supply which can work wonders if we can only get it on to people's radars. It leaves me even more determined to get the work I made out into the open, on show and hopefully sufficiently inspiring to have people change their ways and make use of the local, sustainable and ethical food production resources we have around us.

Please do view the website, but more importantly please do share. Help bring about awareness of this wonderful resource. Help bring about a meaningful change to society's eating habits.



Walter Lewis is a researcher and is now attempting to follow his dream of being a fine art photographer. His interest in photography has been lifelong, initially as a means of creating holiday mementos, and then as a serious amateur landscape and travel photographer. With the support of MA studies at University of Sunderland, he is now evolving a practice which aims to create visual narratives which arise from, and which promote, serious reflection on our relationship with the world around us.

Project website: 'Feeding Body and Soul' currently featuring Laura Burlison and The Paddock.