charcoal, veg and new beginnings

Nov 26, 2017

Returning host Dan Nettelfield shares his story, his aspirations and extends an invitation to WWOOFers to help make his dreams come true. Energetic? This man spends his days wielding an axe and then goes running!

I only discovered my official job title just recently – I am a wood-collier. I never saw myself as making a fancy fuel for specialist outdoor cooking; it just wasn’t top of my priority list. It wasn’t even in the top ten results spat out by the school careers advice computer programme – for the record, the number one suggestion was salmon farming.

A land-based way of life started calling me when I found myself spending all day chained to a computer, looking forward to retirement and desperate to be outdoors. This feeling was combined with a desire to be making a living directly from the earth in a thoughtful, sustainable way. There seemed to be so many issues that could be helped by reconnecting with soil.

WWOOFing was my way in; I squeezed in little bursts of travelling around the UK and visiting farms, between rubbish temping jobs in Bristol. Learning all the time, it became obvious that growing vegetables was the only thing that made sense to me in this over-complicated world. Sadly things are never quite so straightforward. Which is where, fast-forwarding a few years, the charcoal making comes in.

It started as a device to help with my planning permission problem. I, and my (now ex) partner, got kicked off Strawberry Field, the beautiful fifteen acres of North Devon that we were so lucky to ‘own’. We’d spent a couple of years turning our field and woodland into an off-grid smallholding. Sadly though, we didn’t quite manage to jump through all the hoops that the planning authority required of us for living on the land.

As demonstrated by Ben Law and others, charcoal making definitely has the potential to catapult you through those two tricky planning hoops of the functional and financial tests. There are other seriously good things about being a wood-collier, not least bringing my overgrown coppice woodland back into useful rotation. At first, felling lots of large trees seemed rather destructive though I always had confidence in the Forestry Commission approved management plan. Within months I was seeing vibrant and vigorous regrowth and many birds now living in the thick undergrowth. There are hundreds of newly revived coppice stools and thousands of new saplings, all competing for that new-found daylight.

Seeing all that vitality, it’s now easier to believe that young woodland absorbs more carbon than one whose canopy is already complete. And although many of the felled trees will be burnt as barbecue charcoal, some of the stored carbon in their trunks will make it into the structure of my house and tractor shed. And brilliantly, my veg-garden benefits from barrow loads of biochar, courtesy of the fine charcoal that gets graded out at the bagging stage.

I love the woodland work – particularly felling and processing in the winter. I use a chainsaw for felling and cross-cutting and a tractor for getting the logs out of the wood. Both machines seem pretty much essential, though part of me would love to do it all without fossil fuels like the good folk at Tinkers Bubble. I’ll never forget my fortnight WWOOFing there – my life seems awfully conventional by comparison.

So far, I have refused the temptation of a tractor-driven log-splitter. Give me my axe any day. Unlike a tractor it doesn’t rumble away requiring ear defenders and result in isolation from the wonderful countryside all around. And it doesn’t have hundreds of moving parts all needing oil and grease and just waiting to go wrong. Wielding an axe takes some skill, enough to engage the brain but not so much as to detract from the meditative swinging and thwacking. It’s cracking exercise too – fitness and accuracy both improve with pleasing rapidity.

Anyway, the charcoal did the trick (or rather has done so far) and I’m back living on the land. Thanks to a successful enforcement appeal last year, I finally won temporary permission to live in this beautiful place. The charcoal was deemed to give me the ‘functional need’ and – big win – my expected income of £8K was seen as ‘viable’. Temporary permission is a tool to test the financial viability of a business so theoretically, as long as I can hit that £8K, there’s a good chance the planning authority should let me build a permanent home. I barely dare imagine: a beautiful, hand-crafted and low-impact house that, unlike my static caravan, will retain heat, have more than an inch of headroom and won’t shudder in the gales.

I have John Seymour-esque dreams of a Jersey house cow, pigs, and veg – many small productive fields and a forest garden all working together seamlessly in a way Mollinson and Holmgren would be proud of. In reality, here on my own, the charcoal takes most of my time; especially when you insist, like me, on reserving a decent chunk of the day for cooking healthy, veg-tastic meals. And running. I often wonder why I didn’t join the local singing group or perhaps take up knitting but running has me hooked – the club in town is pleasingly competitive and an important part of my social life.

Despite the distinct lack of hours in the day, I feel the need to incorporate some commercial veg growing alongside what I produce for my own table. I’ve just installed a large polytunnel that will allow me to grow some valuable crops and keep salad bags going through the winter.

I’m looking forward to welcoming you WWOOFers again. I’ve learnt a lot about low-impact living over the years and would love to pass on some of that information. I’m also as keen as ever to learn more from everyone who visits.

It could be that you fancy taking on the veg-side of things allowing me more time for charcoal making. If we make a good team and you wanted to stay longer, we might talk about profit sharing. Or come and help me with a bit of everything. Log splitting is not obligatory, all the more for me! This winter I’m putting up an oak-framed tractor shed; in the right hands it has the potential to be a thing of beauty but with my current skills will be a rather rudimentary affair. So if you have building or framing skills; come and join me!

Whatever your thoughts, skills or available time, I’d really love to hear from you.

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