Mark Diacono is a man with a plan. The award winning food and garden writer, smallholder and all round good guy is over half way through a crowdfunding campaign. His plan is to raise a small pot of money and a big heart of support for his unique cookery school project based at his home and smallholding Otter Farm in East Devon.
Renowned for his brave approach to climate change gardening Mark successfully grows an incredible variety of fruit, vegetables, nuts, herbs and spices from peaches, apricots and almonds to Chilean guava, creeping Japanese raspberries and Szechuan pepper. Within his, wife Candida and daughter Nell’s 17 acres they have created a kitchen garden, vineyard, forest garden, orchards, nutteries and perennial gardens which he is keen to share and use as a learning space. Hence the plan to build a cookery school to house the variety of courses and events he hopes to offer.
When we meet he is at one of the most crucial stages of the build, does not have the finance to complete it and is battling the elements. It sounds like a project for Kevin McCloud to hang around with his hard hat chic and quizzical eyebrow. Oh he is. Not only is Mark managing the build of his home and new business he is being filmed by the Grand Designs team as he does it. And he has given up caffeine. He is still smiling.
‘At this point I am on schedule and on budget. And I have a brilliant builder, Phil. He is an interesting chap – ex-professional snowboarder, photographer and poet.’
As well as being a dream builder Phil has also introduced Mark to the Exeter Chief’s Hitz programme, employing young people outside of education and work to gain training through his building company learning traditional skills as well as the modern ways. Mark stresses it is not cheap labour, he is impressed at seeing how structured the education is and how much the trainees learn about themselves in the process. ‘Confidence is so much of everything’ he says.
Social responsibility and wider community involvement will be central to the focus of the cookery school through a Foundation Mark is setting up. The details are in development but will elevate the business from a commercial enterprise to a ground breaking charitably committed venture. It is one of the reasons Mark has chosen to crowdfund part of the business. ‘Big or small, I want everyone to feel part of it. Every pledge is really really crucial because it represents a person who has invested it. And I don’t mean financially but because it means they like what Otter Farm is and they want to get behind it.’ Every pledge made gains a reward from the signed book, first bottle of wine, membership up to the private course days and Mark’s consultancy time.
Mark has written seven award winning books as well as broadsheet journalism, event hosting and talks around the country, so his day job is surely big and fulfilling enough without taking this massive leap into the unknown? He knows it sounds mad but what’s madder is creating a spectacular 17 acre climate change garden and only being able to share it through his writing. This way he gets to base himself there, use it directly in his work and inspire and educate others through it. The courses will cover a range of growing and cookery subjects including permaculture, natural beekeeping, real bread making, distilling, designing food forests, sustainable building, garden cocktails and sea kayak fishing.
‘This enables everything to be joined up’, he considers, ‘It has been very disparate and now we have thrown every quid we ever had at it to see if works. I just want to make the space to make it happen.’
Spoiler alert: This project will only be funded by Crowdfunder if at least £60,000 is pledged by 2.37pm 16th
March 2016. For more info -www.crowdfunder.co.uk/otter-farm