Traditional solutions for a broken food system

Autumn tomatoes
Traditional farming techniques may offer a solution to climate breakdown and the annihilation of species.


Terror gripped me at the thought of being crushed to death by a tractor hurtling down the country lanes. I was lost in the Sussex ‘wilderness’, but I was soon put at ease by the aptly named Kate Green who had invited me to her permaculture market garden. 

Arriving in late autumn it was hard to know what to expect and what grows when all the leaves are brown and the sky is grey. As we walk and talk Kate tells me her and her husband Richard own and manage Trefoil Farm, an 18-acre plot of land just north of the A272 between Midhurst and Petworth.

After winding through fields we come upon an enclosure the size of a football pitch and surrounded by 2m high deer-proof fencing. At the gates, we’re greeted by a rescue dog from Romania. Doe-eyed and affectionate.  

Permaculture garden

Even late in the year, the garden is colourful with signs of life and growth. Kate described it as “a sustainable rural business”, which grows organic fruit and vegetables on a seasonal basis.

Now in its third year of operating the farm supplies two local shops within the wider community. Kate said: “We do a veg box scheme and people really love the edible flower salad.’'

There are greenhouses, polytunnels, neat rows of planting beds and the beginnings of an orchard. Once a week and with the help of five volunteers, Kate and Richard grow their produce using principles of permaculture. 

Permaculture combines two words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture”. The ‘movement’ or philosophy came about in response to the 1970s oil crisis and as a way of living lightly on the living planet and making sure that humans can sustain their activities for future generations.

Ultimately it’s a design process which claims to meet human needs while enhancing biodiversity. Regardless of its origins, permaculture could be argued to be as relevant as it is today as it was in the 1970s.

Carbon footprint 

After a tour, I join Kate, Richard and the volunteers for lunch in the refuge of a greenhouse. The site has several. All recycled and all sourced for free. 

During discussions, Kate said: “Food production creates a huge carbon footprint and that growing your own food is a small and practical way to help”.

It’s hard to dispute this. Go to any supermarket and chances are you’ll find blueberries from Chile and strawberries from Spain.

Food from the farm, Kate claims travels 884 metres from the field to The Lodsworth Larder, the local community shop and is sometimes eaten within an hour.

A November report published by scientists from the InterAcademy Partnership claims that the global food system is broken and is driving the planet towards climate catastrophe.

Traditional solutions

Permaculture, in contrast, is solution focused and works with the balance of nature. Unlike many destructive methods used in intensive farming today. The garden employs techniques such as complimentary planting that offers a habitat for wildlife to thrive.

In other words, by growing certain plant species next to food crops attracts insects that eat the pests that eat the crops. No pesticides involved. Another example. Building ponds attract frogs that eat slugs. Again, no pesticides. All organic.

The market garden runs on a 'no dig system' that protects the soil by keeping it covered and relatively undisturbed as nature would do. Many of these are old fashion techniques that have been forgotten but Kate says: “There are countless examples of successful regenerative agriculture projects around the world”.

With limited daylight hours, it’s back to work. I sit like a garden gnome amongst what I think is rhubarb but at this time of year is in fact rainbow chard. 

The doe-eyed rescue dog licks my face and Kate picks her crop as the cold wind blows off the South Downs. 

More than just food

Kate’s story is inspirational. At the age of 23, she was diagnosed with ME. She was house and wheelchair-bound for three years, spending the rest of her 20s recovering. On discovering what a difference eating organic food made to her health she started gardening as there was always something she could do with any level of energy. 

Kate said: “I found it [gardening] to be transformative and a form of therapy, and permaculture fits with everything I believe in; positive solutions, the natural world and sustainability.” Since then she has recovered from her illness and designed and run several school and community gardens as part of her permaculture diploma. 

Kate started the market garden, as she had always wanted to set up a farm and own a small holding while at the same time boosting the local permaculture and organic scene.

But, her first project, the Petworth Community Garden has been running for 13 years and was originally intended as a way to get organic food to people who could not afford it in an area of rural deprivation.

With qualifications and experience working with people with physical disabilities and mental health issues the community garden now takes on a therapeutic role and acts as a support hub for the Petworth community.  

Richard said: “Trefoil farm plans to offer therapeutic horticulture, nature-based therapies and run courses in permaculture and organic gardening over the next few years as well as supplying local organic produce”.

As the day drew to a close I made my way to the local shop to buy one of the farm's winter salads.

This author

Tom Orde is a freelance journalist with an interest in environmental issues.

Image: Irene Mei, Flickr.