FW Awards 2009: Green Energy Farmer of the Year finalist – Richard Gedge

You don’t have to be standing on Richard Gedge’s north Devon farm to know that he’s put a lot of thought, time and effort into harnessing renewable energy to cut his power bills.

You can see the wind turbine as you approach Natsley Farm and then you might catch a whiff of burning wood as you pull into the farmyard.

Mr Gedge came into farming and alternative energy via a slightly unorthodox route. He always wanted to be a farmer, he says, and as a child his parents frequently took him to the Centre for Alternative Energy in Wales.

But it took a stint as a broker in London for 18 years, including helping to raise funds for biomass specialist The Wood Energy Trust, before he decided to jump from city to country. Seven years ago he bought this 180-acre sheep and beef farm, gradually turning it organic and boosting numbers of his pedigree Devon Reds from 30 head to 71, with 120 head in his sights.

Cutting energy use was on his mind as soon as he moved into the farm, he says. The farmhouse, which had not had much done to it for years, was first in line for change. First, the outside was given a 5cm layer of polystyrene before being rendered. Then all the roof spaces were filled with 1.5t of sheep’s wool insulation.

The next step was more complicated (and expensive) with a 50kW Austrian-made Binder biomass boiler going into a barn on one end of the house. Its £22,000 price-tag sounds steep, he admits, and you need to be spending £3000-£4000 a year on heat to justify it, but two grants totalling £5500 helped ease the financial pain.

It runs on trimmings from the farm’s eight miles of hedges, plus some bought-in sawmill waste and wood thinnings. But turning all that into useable fuel meant writing another hefty cheque, this time for a Heizohack chipper that copes with timber diameters up to 400mm (16mm). However, Mr Gedge rents it out and has started a small woodchip supply business.

The windy location of his farm did not escape Mr Gedge, but now it was time to turn it to his advantage. A 14m-high, 5kW Iskra turbine (the biggest he could have without three-phase power) was erected 18 months ago in a nearby field, mostly invisible other than to a couple of neighbouring farms.

Has it been successful? “It’s great; the electricity meter goes backwards. My electricity bill used to be £1800/year. Now it’s £900/year and I get £1000/year back from green energy supplier Ecotricity,” he says. The turbine cost £19,000, but he got a £5000 grant.

The biomass boiler and wind turbine may involve already-available technology, but Mr Gedge is also pushing ahead in a new and uncharted direction – food waste. “Dealing with food waste is the next big thing,” he says. “Approximately 25% of all food is thrown away and it’s a big source of methane, which is a far worse greenhouse gas than CO2.”

While commercial-scale, electrically-powered food waste composters (typically costing about £12,000) have been available for some time, smaller units – suitable for schools, pubs and small businesses – have not. So Mr Gedge and a neighbour have designed their own hand-turned version, called Ridan. They sold 10 in the first three months of production and have 150 projected sales for the next 12 months.

And after that? Mr Gedge is building a pond with a 60m-long, 100mm-wide pipe fitted with a water turbine that will generate 2.2kW – around the clock – throughout winter. Added to the other renewable energy sources, it is surely making Natsley Farm one of the greenest farms in the country.

Farm facts

  • 180 acres, 71 pedigree Devon red cattle, tenanted sheep
  • 5kW wind turbine cost £14,000 (after grant) and earns £1000 a year
  • 50kW biomass boiler runs on hedge trimmings and sawmill waste.
  • New business making small-scale food waste composters

What the judges liked

  • A great-ideas man with a passion for what he was doing
  • Any farmer could get ideas from what he is doing
  • Proves you can have a green lifestyle without wearing a hair shirt