Recently I was introduced to Tom Booth, who, along with his wife Connie and their 2-month-old, farms the East Neuk Market Garden in Fife, Scotland. On this garden, two fields of four acres, the couple grow over 50 varieties of herbs, salad, fruit and vegetables. These are sold in the local market, Bowhouse, where we met, as well as delivered via a subscription service to the community — locals sign up and receive regular deliveries of fresh, locally grown, organic and seasonal veg. There’s even subsidies for the less well off, paid for by those in the community who can.
The produce looks beautiful as I meet Tom and one of his trainees at their market stall. We are soon talking about the nitty gritty of no-dig, its value and its challenges: getting enough compost for no-dig is expensive, and Tom speaks from experience about the varying quality of municipal waste compost; the cheapest on offer, but not without reason…
Beyond that, we share a lot of common concerns. Allotments raise the question of how best to farm, how we should be using land, and, like the market garden, are rooted in a history that predates the rise of industrial farming and imported veg. I was fascinated to hear Tom and Polly’s story, a story of two young people taking up farming to put their beliefs into practice. It reminded me strongly of this incredible piece by Are We Europe about young farmers across the continent.
The practice of the East Neuk Market Garden is underpinned by agroecological principles like no-dig, and political ideas about food sovereignty and access. While Polly studied Agroecology in London she did work around food sovereignty with the Women’s Environmental Network, and was involved in food cooperatives. Polly’s experience with movements for better food culture during this time laid the foundations for the Market Garden as it operates today.
‘Her ideas sort of rubbed off on me’, Tom said, and what started out as a romantic idea of living in the mountains, dreams, and pub-chat about smallholdings, became an effort to ‘sort out production’.
They gained clarity around this mission from the son of a pig farmer, another principled convert to small-scale farming, who had turned his father’s industrial farm into a market garden. What was formerly, Tom laughs, a horrible place to be, was now the site of the couple’s conversion: ‘He was a very good teacher, and very encouraging […] It felt like we learned a lot in that time, and without really knowing it we’d got the market garden bug’.
This began a whirlwind of events. They secured a job on a farm in Fife, and within a couple of months heard about some land on the neighbouring estate. Less than a year after catching the market garden bug the couple were standing on 2 acres of land, readying for their first spring.
Tom acknowledges that their story is unusual — they were lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and to take a great opportunity provided by the proaction and generosity of local landowners. It is an incredible story of the stars aligning, and several years on the garden is only growing. With an upgrade from 2 to 4 acres happening this year, the garden has 4.5 full-time equivalent staff. Having doubled in size, they are looking into hiring a delivery driver to help pack and deliver the goods in order to service the growing demand.
‘Our vision in the long run is to be part of a network of small farms that are helping populate the countryside in a productive way. That fills it with ecologically sensitive work. With people doing things in a just and fair way. We want to invest in people rather than tractors’.
I asked Tom about his take on no-dig: ‘I think that it’s really beneficial especially at smaller-scales. It allows us to do things earlier. The ground is ready to work earlier. We’re careful not to constantly be mulching though. You can do it too much. Aggressively composting every year. We want to support the natural facility for growing in the soil rather than importing it all the time. That’s the balance. I do think it’s helped massively though’.
We get to speaking about soil structure — that magic way the land composes itself through decades in ways that are impossible to manufacture. When you practise no-dig, Tom says, ‘you’re not trashing it by cultivating it all the time. I do think you can sensibly cultivate land. I’m not over zealous about it or anything. But I do think that at smaller-scales it makes your life so much easier. If I had an allotment and I was taking it seriously there’s no way I would not no-dig. It’s just so beneficial’.
Before our conversation draws to a close we touch on the big picture. You hear a lot these days about how top-down technological solutions are going to be key in the next 10 years to mitigate the effects of the climate emergency. But what’s also crucially important is work being done from the bottom-up by people like Tom and Polly.
‘Choosing to live and work in a different way has to be part of the solution’, Tom says, ‘but at the same time it’s important to be humble. We’re only a four acre patch of land. In a dream world there’d be one of us for every village in East Neuk, and multiple market gardens for each city, kind of like there was 150 years ago. But we’re a long way off that. But, that being said, the more the merrier’.
Tom’s vision of a countryside populated by more than second homes and commercial farms is beautiful. There’s an important place for allotments in this vision; there’s value in a return to old practices, as well as the development of new. It’s unreasonable to expect everyone to uproot their lives and start an intensive veg farm, as admirable as Tom and Connie’s example is. But allotments can have similar benefits: an understanding of where our food comes from, a place for productive and diverse work, play, rest, and a connection to the earth, all in an urban environment.
And again I’ll say: there’s value in a return to old practices as well as the creation of new. We know that the market and the guinea garden work: the more the merrier.