James at Wild Geese Acres in 2017.
Photo credit: Abbie Trayler Smith
In 2014, at the age of 49, James Dexter established Wild Geese Acres, at 6.5 acre farm on land leased from the Ecological Land Cooperative in mid-Devon. His partner Sukamala arrived a year later to help establish the business which, five years on, is now a thriving small-scale farm which is on the cusp of achieving permanent planning permission.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Chingford in East London near to Epping Forest, which was my playground as a child and instilled a love of forests in me. I loved roaming free and building dens in the trees. My grandfather was a vegetable grower, he didn’t teach me but I absorbed a lot of knowledge from watching him and I became excited about growing food from about the age of 10. At 17 I had an allotment and I was trying to grow organically when everyone else was overusing dangerous chemicals on their land.
What kind of work did you do before you became an ELC Smallholder?
My first job at 17 was on a tree survey in Epping Forest. I applied to study environmental science at 18 but they told me to go and do something interesting and come back and tell us about it. So I went to study on the agroecology programme at the University of California in Santa Cruz, which is now a prestigious qualification. Back then it was a little farm next to the university and I was apprenticed there for a year. I graduated in 1990, got married and Wwoofed in the US and UK in a variety of situations - herb farms, dairy, livestock for a couple of years and then volunteered at Paddington Farm Trust at age 25.
When did you first start to get more serious about growing food?
I’ve always been serious about food growing. There have been times when I’ve had less opportunity to grow because I’ve not had access to land. Food was always a big focus because I saw the power of people understanding where their food comes from, the direct therapeutic value it has for people, being outside, and the delight of pulling up a beetroot and then going and cooking it.
This is what interested me more than the growing - the sharing of the wonder of it with other people, particularly people who needed a bit of help. From 1990 - 2004 I mostly worked with people with learning disabilities and gardening. I was growing food but not as a “grower” - it was more educational and therapeutic. I worked at Freightliners Farm in Islington. The city farm got me interested in passing on knowledge about food to inner city children.
James and Sukamala
What were the circumstances that led you to consider setting up a farm business?
I always wanted a piece of land of my own. I’d been looking at buying some land and setting up a smallholding but I was aware that it was really complicated and our planning system wasn’t friendly to sustainable farmers. I’d been looking and got discouraged because it was so difficult and expensive. Then I heard about the ELC and the plots at Greenham Reach – so I applied.
How did your skills and experience help you in your new growing business?
The commercial side of starting a business seemed daunting but I don’t think it ended up being that much of a problem. We can sell as much of our salad as we can grow, I think that is because we don’t have competitors and our product is somewhat unique. Our customers can’t go out somewhere else and get it. It is delivered within 5 miles of where it is grown, picked that day by hand, it has edible flowers and 15 types of leaf and herb - you just can’t get that anywhere else and certainly not in a supermarket.
We sell to a lot of cafés and pubs. If we phone up and say we can’t do it this week they say “Okay, we’ll wait” Everyone waits because of the quality of our product. And they wait all winter as well because we can’t produce enough in the winter.
James and Sukamala's modified caravan home
What challenges have you faced?
The business side of it has not been as much of a challenge as I thought. I think what’s been more of a challenge for me at least is how physically demanding it is. There are no days off, particularly with animals. I have some support from volunteers which helps and also adds a social aspect to the growing.
Maintaining supply is a challenge because you are at the mercy of many variables that are out of your control. If we get hit with a nasty pest outbreak it can wipe out half the lettuce. That is quite hard to work round and it’s not really something you ever quite get on top of because you’re still open to all those unpredictable variables all the time.
Being off grid has been quite a challenge for the business. Refrigeration is still an issue. For example, say we know we’re going to get a massive storm on Friday and that’s our picking day. You might say, well, pick on Thursday. Well, we can’t because we’ve got nowhere to store it.
Wild Geese acres gourmet salad
What advice would you give to people considering applying for an ELC holding?
Check out your market. Make sure there aren’t two or three other people in the area doing a similar thing to you. Find your own niche. Make sure you have outlets within a short distance of where you are and that there is a feel for properly produced food. For example, chefs are usually very receptive. Chefs are artists and they want good materials to work with.
Don’t isolate yourselves. Get to know your neighbours. If you don’t get out there and meet people you can end up being pretty isolated.
Are there any particular books - or people - that have been really inspiring or influential in your life journey?
- John Seymour, author of The Self Sufficient Gardener, the textbook they used on the Agroecology course James attended in California in the mid-80’s. Seymour coined the idea of raised beds.
- Masanobu Fukuoka, author of The One Straw Revolution - a book of philosophy about our interconnection with nature and how that affects how we grow food. A holistic view of farming.
- Richard Mabey, author of many books including Food for Free and The Nature Cure
- Mary Oliver - Nature poet and the inspiration for the name "Wild Geese Acres".