Esther’s journey from the city suburbs to global eco-villages

By Laura McMullan
Tuesday, 28th July 2020, 10:00 am
Esther Tolburn with her dog Daisy in the garden of her home in the Ravenhill area of Belfast. Esther is developing a permaculture of trees and plants which is intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. 
Esther Tolburn with her dog Daisy in the garden of her home in the Ravenhill area of Belfast. Esther is developing a permaculture of trees and plants which is intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON

As a young woman who spent her teenage years growing up in a Belfast suburb, before working in retail, as well as taking on jobs as a dancer and a circus performer, Esther Tolburn might not sound like your average permaculture devotee.

In fact, I’m a little unsure myself as to what exactly permaculture is - but the 25-year-old former CAFRE student is more than happy to enlighten me.

In a nutshell, it’s when agricultural ecosystems are developed with the intention that they will be sustainable and self-sufficient.

And after travelling to various parts of the world and seeing this in action, Esther became so taken with and fascinated by the whole concept, that she returned to studying, undertaking a FdSc in Horticulture at CAFRE Greenmount, which she was awarded with Commendation in May past.

And she has a wonderful array of trees being nurtured and grown in the garden of her Belfast house, where she can take pride in the fact that she is playing her part in this kind of eco-system. She also grows vegetables and has chickens.

“I’m from Carrickfergus, but I lived most of my life in Belfast, and also spent a few years abroad,” she says.

“I went to Carrick Grammar School and did my A levels, and then I was working in retail in Belfast.

“I also trained during that time to be a professional dancer and circus performer, performing around different nightclubs and cabaret shows.

“I took classes, but was mostly self-taught.

“Then when I was 21 I went to an eco-village in Devon called Landmatters. I was helping to look after a house and a farm there, and I was just blown away by the lifestyle there; I had never seen anything like it before, I didn’t even know it was a possibility, and I learned so much.”

This 42-acre eco-community comprised of land that was bought collectively by Landmatters co-operative, with permaculture being at the heart of the members’ interests.

Says Esther: “I just knew that I had to learn more. I came home from that, quit my job, and went travelling and volunteering as much as I could.”

She got involved with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a worldwide movement linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences based on trust and non-monetary exchange, and travelled around Europe working on orchards and small holdings.

“I went to France first, and I volunteered in a refuge camp for a few months,” she says.

“And then I just went round to all the permaculture farms - there are a few in France - and I visited my sister and lived with her.”

Esther then travelled to New Zealand for an internship alongside a Permaculture Design Course at The Eco School in Whanganui, and was out there for three months.

“I knew at that point, when I was asking my teachers questions that they couldn’t answer, that I was getting more and more interested in everything to do with how the land and the earth worked, and how plans just seemed to be the answer to it all.

“So I put my application in there and then to come home and study at CAFRE.”

So enthused and clearly passionate is Esther about her chosen field that I ask her to pause and explain a little more to be about permaculture and its ethos.

“Well, the word itself comes from permanent agriculture, and it’s basically a set of design principles which are all based around doing your best for the earth and for the people and the community around you.

“I also worked for a Biodynamic apple orchard in New Zealand as well, which was really amazing, as I had never heard of this before. (Biodynamic farming is built on the concept of following the lunar cycles in order to maximise plant growth and development.)

“It was probably one of the best work experiences I’ve ever had, and the first time I had worked with trees as well, and that’s my main interest at the minute.

“We actually did our own experiments out there and planted stuff at technically the ‘wrong’ time according to the moon, and again at the ‘right’ time, and those planted at the right time did 10 times better.

“When I came home I had a wee house in Belfast with a garden and a vegetable patch and four chickens and I loved that so much. I think I felt a lot of grief about the state of the planet. I felt powerless.

“Then I saw the Permaculture course at CAFRE, and I felt that for me anyway, this could be my answer. I realised that there were other ways that we could be farming and living and building houses.

“There were just better designs for these things and systems that worked in a way that didn’t destroy the environment, and actually improved it.”

She continues: “The whole ethics of permaculture is earth care, and how you aren’t going to do anything to your land before thinking - is this going to be good for the earth, or is it just good for me?

“It can be brought down to the simplest of things, you can apply permaculture to every aspect of your life.

“It was when I was living in working in New Zealand that I really came to my bigger life realisations, and for example on the farm there, they never really used chemicals.”

‘If the environment goes, there is nothing left after that’

“I grew up in the centre of Carrickfergus, but I always just loved my gardens; it felt like a sanctuary to me, I always spent a lot of time in them, and I think my interest just grew from there,” says Esther Tolburn.

“I would have spent a lot of time hiking and things, just a lot of time in nature anyway.”

Earlier this year, Esther won a bursary; she was awarded one in 2019 as well, and put the money aside to start her own collections of trees and plants in her back garden.

She says for now she is keen to get a job and “save up for a while”, but her long term dream would certainly be to work with woodlands.

“I’d maybe love to do a top-up degree in urban tree management, and I really hope to find a job that involves growing trees and helping the environment in Northern Ireland. I want to work towards getting the Province caught up with the rest of the world and get our woodlands in place again, or else they could end up completely gone.”

Indeed, Esther says that playing her part in helping the environment is her main driving force, and would encourage everyone else living here, including farmers, to do the same.

“If our environment goes, then there is nothing left after that,” she says feelingly.

“It’s the most important thing happening right now, but it can be hard to ask people to care about that when they have struggles of their own.

“In other cultures, the people would have been thinking seven generations into the future, but the way western society is now, people only think of their own lifestyle, and what they can get from this land now, or how much money they can make. But we need to think about our children, because they are the ones who are going to be suffering the way climate change is going.

“And by the time it gets to their grandchildren, the world could be completely hostile.

“So it really is an absolute emergency.”

**CAFRE Greenmount’s Foundation Degree (FdSc) in Horticulture, validated by Ulster University, has been designed to provide students with the knowledge and technical skills to enter the industry at trainee manager level. Throughout the course, students are encouraged to ‘learn by doing’. They learn a package of knowledge and skills which will enable them to have a successful career in horticulture. During the course, students undertake supervised projects both on and off campus. This provides them with real learning experiences and helps to develop contacts for the future.

This course is delivered over two years, including a 10-week period of professional work placement.

Log onto for more information on this and the rest of the courses on offer.