Imagine a tropical paradise alive with plants and animals, all living in perfect harmony and producing plentiful food for local people. You might be imagining somewhere like South America, but this story is actually set in Devon, England.
Hamish O’Brien set up Earth Circle Designs just over a year ago, but is already pitching his sights high. Inspired by the Eden Project in Cornwall, his vision of a tropical food forest close to the city of Exeter has become the company’s main focus.
Plans are at the concept design stage for a 10 acre experimental site with a bio dome containing tropical and subtropical areas, a small desert growing space and a water feature.
“This is a small-scale project to make sure things work and to see what is most productive,” explains Hamish. “We’ll then be looking at scaling up to something the size of Eden, if not bigger.”
There’s an extensive range of tropical foods planned for the bio dome, from coffee and coconuts to pineapples and plantain.
“As a species we feel entitled to what we want to eat and have had the taste of mangoes, avocados etc. but obviously the real cost of these fruits does not correspond with what we pay for them in a supermarket,” says Hamish.
“It doesn’t take into account the environmental impact of growing these foods – destruction of rainforests, carbon, mileage, airmiles and more. So this project is about finding a way of growing these plants closer to home and feeding the local community with the foods they want in a regenerative way.
“But doing that is a real challenge. A project like this can easily become destructive through the amount of resources it takes to heat, for example. That’s one of the reasons I’m advertising for another greenhouse expert who can come in with practical knowledge and experience to help us with that.”
The team has initial ideas about a triple layered biome; using thermal mass from the waterfall feature and a small channel of water with fish in; and creating ground source heat pumps, but are looking for more input from the permaculture community. One issue they won’t have is collecting water for the irrigation system as Devon is well-known for its copious amounts of rain!
The draft plant, tree and animal designs that are part of Phase 1 are now completed and has brought in experts to advise on the different aspects of the regenerative farm.
For example, he is now bringing a regenerative agricultural expert on board to help advise on the best way to build animals into this system. There are already pastures within the design, but they’re looking to see how animals can be incorporated in such a way that their natural way of being performs a useful working role for the crops and growing methods. He is also looking for a silvo-arable expert.
Setting up his own ethical company has been Hamish’s dream for many years.
“I was in a job where it just wasn’t my passion,” he explains. “Like many people, I think sometimes you have to be in that job or lifestyle which isn’t working for you to give you that drive to do something else. This was where I really felt I wanted to go”.
Hamish has worked as a gardener and landscaper for years and did his PDC two years ago at High Hethercombe Centre on Dartmoor.
“Working on new house builds I realised they don’t care about the soil at all,” says Hamish. “There were definitely times when I got dragged down by it, but if anything it made me grow and elevated me to where I am now. It’s interesting because it’s a similar thing with plants – as soon as the plant feels like it’s being destroyed it releases the hormones which make it grow.”
After college, the 23-year-old decided to go travelling instead of taking up the offer of a place at Plymouth University to study business and spent 20 months on the road, stopping often to gather skills by volunteering at permaculture projects along the way.
“I worked on cattle farms, fruit picking and on homesteads which had food forests, companion planting, no dig etc.,” he says. “They taught me so much and really appreciated what I was doing for them. It’s such a good way to get practical onsite knowledge and for me, that’s ideal, as I’m the type of learner who needs to be hands on.
“Although I have a lot of horticultural knowledge, I’m no expert in permaculture, which is why I’m employing people who are experts in their fields. I’m working with a regenerative agricultural expert, a market garden expert and many more. By surrounding myself with these people I’m kind of weaving the web for this project to go ahead.
“All I want is to give my love to this planet, its people and animals. I’m delighted to be part of this revolutionary movement of rejuvenation. But for me, this is really a movement of unconditional and absolute love.”
The next step is to bring their designs to the district council and look for further funding (they already have several investors).