On Saturday the Permbrokeshire Permaculture group visited Real Seeds in Newport. They are a small seed company offering a wide range of seeds, some of them unusual. Unlike most seed suppliers they offer no F1 varieties. All their plants are open pollinated so that it is possible to save your own seeds for following years. Indeed they encourage you to do so, selecting the plants that thrive best in your situation so that gradually you produce a sub-variety ideal for your site. They even publish detailed instructions on how to do this on their website! I have been buying from them for many years so it was lovely to put faces to the names I have seen and corresponded with and to visit where my seeds come from. You can find them at http://www.realseeds.co.uk.
There were many things I found interesting so I will be using a series of posts to cover the visit but I decided to start with their business model. I know that some of you will not be familiar with Permaculture as a design system but this shows it really clearly applied to a business setting rather than the original and more familiar garden one.
Permaculture is based on 3 ethics; Earth Care, People Care and Fair shares.
Like all good gardeners Ben and Kate care for their land. They feed the soil with composted chipped wood which they mix in the heaps with stable manure from a neighbouring farm. They also inoculate heaps of chip with fungi – hopefully getting a mushroom crop as well as speeding up the breakdown of the wood. They grow comfrey to make liquid fertiliser. Once they have harvested their crops they sow ground cover green manures which both prevent soil erosion and add biomass when dug in. Some of these are chosen for their ability to fix nitrogen, others like chicory have deep roots which help bring micronutrients to the surface and break up the subsoil. Often they use a mixture for maximum benefit. And they rotate their crops although as some need to be in the ground for 2 years to set seed and also height and spread have to be considered this is more complex than the usual 4 fold system! So far so normal.
Where they really impressed me was in their approach to the other 2 ethics.
Many smallholders, unless they are hobby farmers with a private income or pension to pay the bills, find that they end up working very long hours at physically demanding tasks to earn a very small living. People care is sacrificed to earth care. Ben and Kate decided to design their business so that they were able to fund a decent lifestyle without overworking. And to do the same for their employees. So from the borehole at the top of the site water is pumped by solar power from dedicated panels to a tank on top of a wooden tower and flows down to an automatic watering system in the polytunnels. Unlike some purists they use weed suppressant material but treat it carefully and reuse it many times. In fact from the modules for seed sowing to the pump on the borehole every piece of equipment is chosen carefully to give good service with minimal hassle and running cost, meaning they are prepared to pay for better quality upfront if it works out cheaper in the long run. They have recently invested in a threshing machine run off the solar system in the barn since separating seeds from the rest of the plant is a big job. Everything in the barn is tidy and well maintained so that when a tool (they have an impressive collection of hand tools!) or spare part is needed it is easy to find and ready for use. By these simple strategies the work is done as efficiently and pleasantly as possible and they are able to keep their workload and costs within bounds. I doubt if they will ever reach the rich list but they are, I gather, doing OK.
And fair shares? Many jobs in the area are tourism related and therefore seasonal, part time, insecure and minimum wage. Other land based business with a Permaculture basis make a lot of use of volunteers – more about the pros and cons of this in another post. Ben and Kate employ 3 people on permanent contracts. Their staff get the same hourly rate as they pay themselves. They are employed all year round – sometimes growing, sometimes processing seed and sometimes in the office dealing with orders and sales. No wonder they stay!
The aim was to create a sustainable business and it is certainly that. I have watched the range of seeds they sell grow and develop, the move from a paper catalogue to one online and the website becoming ever more user friendly. Even though I now save as much of my own seed as I can there are still new things to try and replacements for when I get things wrong, so come November, when the new list is published, I will be putting my order in.