Paradigm Farm – how we helped the owner find balance in multiple businesses…

Jan Wilkinson is a successful farmer and business owner. She co-owns Honister Slate Mine in Cumbria – the last working slate mine in England (counting Buckingham Palace amongst its customers!) Jan is also running an adventure sport business and 2 luxury self-catering cottages. Along with these very time-consuming business interests, she owns Paradigm Farm, 19ha of which has been planted with 13 varieties of Willow.

Jan’s decision to plant the willow was born out of the aftermath of a devastating family tragedy. Her lifelong partner, Mark, lost his life in a helicopter accident. Suddenly, the businesses became something that she simply didn’t have enough time or energy to devote to; their three young children needed her. Wondering what she could do to keep the farmland producing an income but with minimum input from herself, she spoke with other farmers who told her to seek out Neil Watkins. Following a series of meetings with Neil, Jan and her land manager went ahead with planting SRC Willow on her land by the Cocker River.

This land is extremely flood prone, making it poorly suited to arable and even grazing, as some sheep were lost in the 2015 floods. Jan realised that to fix her time management problems, SRC Willow was the perfect contender.

I came into this knowing nothing, but it’s been a lovely learning curve! I got in touch with Neil and slowly got educated into the pros and cons – there were far more pros!

Jan is very proud of her community and works hard to ensure that everything that her businesses do bring benefit to that community. She employs local people and tries to use local materials. So Willow’s Natural Flood Management credentials were particularly attractive – Cockermouth town has suffered badly over the last twenty years with more than one devastating flood. In 2017, Jan was excited to see how her new Willow crop was able to trap flood debris even in its first year, without sustaining any lasting damage. This debris would have gone on to block Cockermouth’s drains, causing floodwaters to rise even higher, if it hadn’t been trapped by the willow.

Jan was also happy to allow Neil’s work with Rothamsted Research to be applied to her land. As a result, the land was planted with thirteen varieties of Willow in carefully arranged squares, so as to monitor the different weed-suppression capabilities of the Willow. Following the first harvest, it’s very clear to see the difference between the weed load between the rows of the two varieties. This kind of research is central to what Energy Crops Consultancy is all about – maximising yields and minimising inputs. Further research into soil quality is ongoing.

Another important factor for Jan is the environmental benefits of willow, particularly its ability to offset carbon from other parts of her business. The slate mine is situated right in the Lake District National Park and as such, there are strict rules about infrastructure installation – there’s no electricity up there, for example.

The slate mine’s energy is supplied by diesel generators so the willow is carbon-offsetting against that.

Paradigm Farm is also partnering with local beekeepers to host some hives to see how the bees work with the willow pollen and nectar.

To top it all, Jan is also very excited about bringing young people onto the land, to get closer to nature and to understand the relationship between farmer and land:

Without a shadow of a doubt people should always work to the community benefit. I’m not an owner; I’m a caretaker of this portion of the land.

Jan says, “Neil has joined us here through: preparation, planting, all stages of cutback, education, pest awareness, land managing – he’s introduced me to other people in the area – he’s made it easy and enjoyable. His input has been very balanced and upfont: all the pros and cons are there.

Neil has always been on hand to advise me if there’s been any looming issues or steering me in the right direction.

“We’ve both worked together to try and educate government agencies about what we’re trying to do and the benefits of it and they’ve listened. They still need to listen more! Neil has also been working with me on an educational program I’m putting together. I want to put lots of junior school children in front of nature. Educating, inspiring them to work in nature or farms.”

For Jan, ‘balance’ is a concept that has become her watchword for all the many components of her business.

We shouldn’t always be economically driven – there should always be balance. It might not be easy but we should always strive for it.

Energy Crops Consultancy is part of Jan’s strategy to ensure that the community benefits from everything Paradigm Farm and Honister Slate Mine do.

Jan Wilkinson and her dog, Foofah.

Neil Watkins of Energy Crops Consultancy and Jan Wilkinson of Paradigm Farm, standing in a weed-free zone of 3 month old SRC Willow

The willow variety trial outcome can be clearly seen here – the bare patches between the rows show how effective certain willow varieties are at shading out the competition. This photo was taken 3 months after first harvest.

Neil and Jan discuss Natural Flood Management by the River Cocker.

This image clearly shows how the new willow shoots explode out from the cut stems.

Jan inspects her willow crop – just six months after initial harvest!

Jan has collaborated with a local bee-keeper to trial how bees interact with her willow crop