Michael Kennard is an energetic being.
He says he is shy, conscious that his worldview differs from what many call “the norm”, but when speaking, if you touch on a topic he is interested in, his passion is palpable. As a child people described him as very small yet very loud, “I would get excited, and would often get in trouble for talking in class.” So he tried to subdue this part of himself and adopted the behaviours of the community and culture that surrounded him. He was a good student without truly applying himself, unsure of the direction he wanted to follow. After high school, he drifted between jobs, “I worked in a gym, a leisure centre, I worked in retail, I didn’t have any sense of direction really, I played video games a bit, I socialised a bit.” He eventually found a job as his dad’s apprentice, becoming an electrician. “We drove up to London every day from Brighton, we worked on advertising billboards around London, sometimes in other parts of the country, sometimes as far as Scotland, but day to day we were putting lights in metal boxes to light up these canvases at night that say watch this film or buy this rubbish… When I look back now, I was kind of on autopilot or sleepwalking through life, it was like you get a job, you rent a flat, you get these things, you get a car, and you get married.”
He was living life without passion, he had suppressed the excitement that once filled him — “I didn’t have the confidence to get out there, I was pretty insular” — and his life started to break down. “I separated from a long-term relationship… I stopped seeing people, I stopped doing everything. I moved back into a spare room at my mum’s place and it feels like I went through some kind of factory reset.” He came across footage of Steve Jobs speaking in 1994 about life, how it’s a dynamic entity that we live with, something we affect and change. “That kind of triggered something, this intentionality in me.” He was still working as an electrician but no longer with his dad, “I had gone out on my own, I was fitting kitchens and bathrooms and property renovations… it was not particularly fulfilling, it didn’t really serve anybody.”
Through this period he met his wife Bella, who he speaks of with a lot of love, admiration and gratitude. Bella was studying psychology and gave Michael tools that helped him understand what he had been going through. “I realised, oh what I have is this anxiety thing, right okay. So I was able to figure things out and I started to overcome loads of stuff.” He sold his TV and started reading Alan Watts and Krishnamurti. “Krishnamurti was big, just in terms of prompting me to question everything… I became aware of my limited conditioning and the fact that everything is just an idea and if you don’t like it you can change it.” He started to question his life, his identity, basically everything that he thought and believed. “You know, like what are you, who are you? Okay I am an electrician, and then you go okay if you lose your job are you still you? Yes, okay, so I am not an electrician.” This stripping away of what he calls “erroneous ideas” set him on a path of discovery. “I needed something to believe in, I needed something to do, I guess I was on the hunt for something, I don’t even know if it was conscious at the time.”
It was through this period that Michael was notified he was next in line for a garden allotment in Race Hill Farm in Brighton. He had been cultivating gardens wherever he lived: “growing was something I was already doing because it just felt intuitively to be the right thing to do.” The allotment was very close to his grandfather’s house, which triggered one of Michael’s earliest memories.
“I remembered he always had a greenhouse, he had loads of birds in his garden in this big aviary walk-in cage sort of thing, and I remember birds tweeting all the time. But the thing that I remember was sowing a seed with him, it was a sunflower, so it grew pretty quickly. I didn’t go there that often, but I would go and it had shot up… I must have been really young… I remember feeling very excited about what we were doing, getting messy… He was a wise elder for me, he taught me to sow a seed into compost, water it and watch it grow, and as it was growing we had to put a stick in, tie it up so it didn’t fall over, so we were looking after it and tending to it, and then when it finished those were the seeds for the next year… It felt like magic because I then had a handful of the seeds from that one seed, it just felt like a connection to some natural magic… It demonstrated to me, as far back as I can almost remember, that we can do something positive, we can produce food.”
At the time he thought the best we could do as a human was the least bad. “I had this idea that maybe humans are like a cancer on the planet and we’re just a virus and we’re destroying the world, and to a degree we are, but not all of us… And I just thought right I’ll just do the least bad. So I converted a Luton removal truck and fitted it with solar panels. It ran on diesel but I didn’t drive around too much, and I lived in that for three years… And then I discovered permaculture and regenerative practices and I had this paradigm shift.”
Michael was living with life and his work in the allotment started to affect the rest of his reality. “I was like maybe we should have a child, like maybe we should do that and they can do some good in the world. People who are over-consuming and polluting, they’re having kids, and they’re going to learn that and do that, so I thought well maybe we should then.” Soon his son Cosmo was on his way. “I started looking into child psychology and brain development and all this stuff, and this guy said to me, you can tell kids all you like, you can try to get them to behave in certain ways, but in those early years when they’re forming behaviours that will echo throughout their lives, they’re being formed by what he calls their tribe of influence. In this part of the world that’s primarily parents, because we don’t have a community nurturing of kids, so they’re primarily learning from their parents how to interact with the world, what you do, how you speak, all of these things. So I was like if I want my kids to have a positive impact on the world, the best way to influence that is to be somebody who has a positive impact on the world.”
Cosmo was on his way and Michael’s partner Bella wanted a home birth, it was time to move on from the van. “So we rented a house, we were like 45 minutes out of Brighton in this little town,” Hellingly, just north of Hailsham. It was early 2020, COVID was spreading through the world, the lockdown happened and they were stuck there. Michael couldn’t go back to Brighton to work on his allotment so he started looking for a new space near their new home. He found “degraded, horrible land”, it wasn’t ideal, but he thought he could test all he had learned. “I wanted to demonstrate that you could produce an abundance of food and you could do so while regenerating the soil, and boosting biodiversity in the soil, and above ground, like birds and insects and things, and produce healthy food and lots of it.” It was a small plot within a bigger piece of land, the owner was surprised by Michael’s plans, “I remember when I described what I wanted to do, he had a smirk like he didn’t believe me, and I didn’t find out until later that he worked part-time as an agronomist, prescribing fertilisers.”
The plan began when Michael collected cardboard from nearby shops, he used this to cover the land, “I then mulched over the top with heaps of well-aged manure, and then I got compost in.” Unfortunately the compost lacked the life he required, “it smelt burnt, it was black, kind of woody. I was told this was the best, I tried three different suppliers and I’m told they’re the best ones, I didn’t have the knowledge of it that I do now, but I kind of knew intuitively this isn’t great… It kind of blew my mind that commercially good compost doesn’t really exist, it’s all sort of sterile… So I started making compost straight away. I mean I’ve always composted…but I started studying the soil food web.” Together with a friend he enrolled in a course focused on the ideas of Dr Elaine Ingham. “She’s like a leading soil microbiologist, it’s an amazing teaching“ and through the course they learned how to make what they call “BioComplete compost”, compost that contains the necessary microbiological network to regenerate the earth to function as a living soil.
Michael applied this compost to the plot, then he started planting. “Every window sill in our house became propagation stations. I bought loads of organic, biodynamic seed, just like anything I could get my hands on. Like I set up this big patch, the first bit I did was corn, beans and squash, and I was using the three sisters method because they complement each other.” He worked his way from one side of the site to the other. “And I did it quite quickly, because I was just throwing long days at this thing, and the man that owned the place was really encouraged by it… I remember I turned around one day, and he was just leaning over the fence and he was just kind of wide-eyed, and I was saying you alright, and he said yeah I just can’t understand how this works, that’s when he told me that he prescribed fertilisers part-time.
“It was in the middle of eight acres, this little plot in the middle, he was like everywhere else is like dry cracked ground… He’s like I don’t understand, you’re not watering this that much, you’re not having to weed it that much, and so I said come in inside, and I just parted the compost and less than an inch down it was beautiful moist worms everywhere, and obviously outside of the plot you can tap it, knock on it, and you’d be lucky if you found any worms, and it was just the other side of this little fence. I said I am working with the natural processes. I described it as taking the ego out of it, I am not trying to impose anything on this piece of land, I’m trying to steward natural cycling of water and nutrients and biology and animals.
“So he was like do you want a bit more space? And I was like, yeah I’d love more space… I got double the space. So I just worked my way up. I did a bed of brassicas, like broccoli, kale, that kind of stuff. I did way too many courgettes… Anything I could get my hands on seed wise I was growing it, I mean what else, I did loads of chard, onions, spring onions, carrots, like different coloured rainbow carrot things. I started doing some little fruit bushes, blackcurrants, raspberries, things like that. I did some tomatoes and peppers in the greenhouse, cucumbers… Loads of stuff. It was going really well.”
“The owner was struck with how I was able to get that kind of growth, that productivity, that moisture retention, the worms that were in there. There were moles that were coming up, little molehills, I didn’t mind it, and I was just like they’re just part of the system, I mean they’re here because all the worms are here… And my plot was in the middle of the site, and they could detect this, and they are coming into this activity… I had these particular grubs that started eating the roots of some of the things, which wasn’t ideal but the thing that eats them will come, the predatory nematodes that are part of the microbiology, I didn’t know about them at the time, I was sort of learning about this while I was setting up the garden… I had to buy this particular type of nematode that you put in water and watered it on and that dealt with them, because naturally the equilibrium, the balance, everything has a predator somewhere along the line, so it all just figures itself out. That was very strange to him.”
Michael needed more compost to sustain all of these plants and all of their growth.
“I thought I don’t have enough inputs to make all of this compost, like I’ve got this manure here, but then I learnt about aminopyralids, which is a kind of broad leaf pesticide. If you’re not feeding the animals organic food then the food they’re eating has probably had that sprayed on it, and it’s sort of persistent, it will go through the animal and it’s still there. So you can setup a nice growing space but then the leaves in your crops will start to go all brittle and brown. It attacks all of the plants basically. The owner had horses on site and I was using the manure, I had used it on the first bit and then I stopped using it. So I started asking people for food waste and I was getting free wood chips from a tree surgeon, which I used for making paths, so I thought I’ll keep getting it and I’ll use it in composting. And then I was learning about hot composting and why that’s important, killing all of the pathogens, and any weed seeds that might be in there. And you’re achieving those hot temperatures not by heating it up, but by the microbiology interacting and replicating and growing. I mean it’s interesting, you’re working with biology.”
Michael started to appreciate the quality of his compost. “With quite a lot of commercial compost, I’ve taken a sample and put it under a microscope and there’s a little biology and a bit of bacteria if you’re lucky and very little else. It’s organic matter but it’s sterile. Whereas the compost I’m producing, I have to do further dilutions to be able to do counts because it’s so abundant, there’s so much zipping and buzzing about, like nematodes, protozoas, bacteria, fungi, all sorts of crab-like little spiders, all sorts of little things, and they all serve a purpose in that soil food web and they’re making plant available nutrients all of the time, they’re making structure all of the time, you don’t need to go and dig it all, they’re creating the structure. You know the most abundant landscapes on the planet, no one goes in there and digs them over or applies any fertiliser or chemicals, they’re so abundant because that natural cycle is able to happen and to flourish. In terms of regenerative agriculture, regeneration happens if we allow it, if we work with those natural systems. And with having my little one, I thought we’re here for such a relatively short amount of time, how can I do something that has a positive impact and basically makes a form of activism my work so I can do it all the time. So the idea of Compost Club alongside the growing project became a thing.”
Compost Club is Michael’s business, which naturally emanated from the processes he was engaged with in his garden, but also through the time he was granted through the COVID lockdowns.
“The jobs I was doing had stopped, that was why I was able to really go and bosh it all out, I had so much time at the same time as this idea… I thought how can I make use of this time, and then the idea could I make this my work, could this become something, because I could go around to people’s houses and they leave a bucket outside and I swap it, I wasn’t having to come into direct contact with anyone. So I felt this sense of urgency that I need to use this period, maybe I can make Compost Club a thing… And it worked really well, there were some businesses still running that I was collecting the food waste from, and they were the right kind of business that would have the kind of customer who would be interested in composting, that was my thinking… It worked too well actually, I got inundated with people who wanted me to collect their food waste and become Compost Club members, and I didn’t have enough capacity to compost it all… So I put my savings into setting it up, and I was working with a friend at the time, and the money that was coming in we were just growing it, it grew organically.”
The concept is simple: Michael collects the food waste of Compost Club’s members, which then goes through his composting process, resulting in living compost that he then delivers to the households and businesses he has collected from. If they don’t want the compost, it’s donated to community food gardens, and if there’s surplus compost he sells it to fund the business’ growth.
“The impact of it, both in terms of the emissions being saved and the potential of this living compost to regenerate soil. Like you only need one tonne per acre, so a little two and a half litre bag that I give people will cover six square metres, which is ideal for an allotment, so you don’t need very much, it’s like a cordial, a highly concentrated biology that populates soil. So I had this difficult decision because I had to do some work and bring some money in, I had to let the garden go, because I felt I could be more impactful with the Compost Club, so I thought that’s the thing, that’s what I am going to do.”
With more focus on compost, Michael had less time for the garden. The owner of the property appreciated all that he was doing, “and he said he had people asking about it, and if you can’t do it, you’ve done a great job of setting it up, I’ll pass it on to somebody else and they’ll look after it… I thought that’s fine, the infrastructure I’ve put there and all of the effort, it’s still happening, it’s all good. I still feel a little bit sad about it, but at the moment I’ve got this mission.”
He recently moved with his family from Hellingly to Lewes, which is now the centre of Compost Club’s operations.
“I know about the impact of compost like this, I know about the emissions we are saving, and the opportunity to expand it now with new sites, and the social impact of creating new jobs for people, and the interactions I have with the people that become members, and how they become more conscious as consumers as a result of connecting again, it’s just kind of unquantifiable. And I’ve just got one little site, and it’s just me, it’s kind of, it doesn’t feel real, it’s a bit of a dream really, but I feel like I’ve got this social responsibility to do more… It’s nice though, I say to people my work used to be what drained me and now it’s where my energy comes from.”
Meeting Michael and hearing his story is inspiring. The magic he felt in the seeds he held as a child is now in his eyes. He shares a profound connection to the energy that facilitates and creates life.
“I see the world and existence as a beautiful playing out of energy that transfers from one thing to another. It’s helped me in so many ways. When my grandfather, the guy that got me into growing died, I didn’t feel that sad like I used to when somebody died, because I felt like the energy that was embodied in him was just going on to be something else, I didn’t feel that sense of loss that I always used to feel… I feel so connected to kind of everything… I don’t see another person as that different from me, because I see the whole world as this enormously complex interconnected organism. We’re part of the same organism… I don’t believe there is any such thing as waste, if we’re clever, it’s just an input or a nutrient, and nature cycles nutrients and we can do that, we can be part of that… What I love about compost is that it demonstrates to me on a day to day basis that death is the source of life.”
Anton Rivette is a writer and photographer. He leads storytelling at eco-nnect.