GROW LOCAL, BUY LOCAL
Produce, produce everywhere, but not a thing to buy. With supermarkets dominating the supply chain, access to locally grown food is often hardest in more remote rural areas. Now, growers are fighting back with creative ways to connect customers to their f
Many growers are now developing creative ways to bring fresh fruit and vegetables to market for customers to buy direct in rural areas
IT’S SUNDAY MORNING IN ILFRACOMBE, DEVON, and the Laston Green community vegetable patch is buzzing with families who have come out to enjoy the early spring sunshine. While children get busy in the outdoor ‘mud kitchen’, their parents set to work tending raised beds, harvesting leeks and parsnips, and examining autumn-planted garlic and broad beans. Sunflowers, tomatoes and peas are potted in the shed; lettuce and radish seeds are sown in the polytunnel. A retired gardener digs horse manure into the heavy clay soil while a new volunteer lights the large camping ‘Kelly kettle’ to make tea for everyone. When the session is over, everyone helps themselves to the pile of leeks and parsnips while some pick bay and sage leaves to liven up their Sunday roasts.
“I always wanted to grow food with my children, but my garden is too steep,” says Lindsay Derbyshire, who spends every Sunday at Laston Green with her three children, aged two, six and nine. “Ilfracombe is so hilly – a flat garden is rare – and many of the huge Victorian houses are converted into flats, so there’s little growing space.” While the quarter-acre patch of former wasteland provides Lindsay and her fellow gardeners with a place to grow vegetables and share knowledge – without requiring the time commitment that privately rented allotments would demand – it’s also a lively gathering
It’s an irony of rural life that you can be surrounded by fields but still depend on supermarkets for your vegetable supply
space, bringing generations together. “A playgroup comes every Wednesday; the scouts turn up regularly in summer; adults from a supported housing development have their own bed,” she says. “On some days we can have 20 families here; it has had a positive effect on the whole community.”
Lindsay helps run Laston Green as a volunteer for Incredible Edible Ilfracombe, one of 120 projects born from the Incredible Edible movement that first took root in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. It began in 2007 with a kitchen-table conversation about using food as a common language to encourage stronger communities. Activists started planting herbs, fruit and vegetables in roadside verges, car-park flowerbeds and neglected high-street planters – which anyone could then pick for free. Soon towpaths, cemeteries and public spaces all over the market town were sprouting, alongside an interest in ‘propaganda gardening’ that has now spread as far as North America, New Zealand and Japan.
“The idea of flying beans halfway round the planet is barking mad,” says Incredible Edible co-founder Pam Warhurst, with the same engaging bluntness she uses to convince local authorities to hand over redundant land for communal growing. No one who cares about their diet, environment or local economy could disagree with her: food sourced close to home is fresher, costs fewer food miles and keeps local producers in business. Yet in small towns and rural areas without the population size to support regular farmers’ markets, for example, such produce can be hard to come by. It’s an irony of modern rural life that you can be surrounded by fields but still have to depend on supermarkets, and often imported goods, for your vegetable supply.
The obvious solution is to grow your own, although many of us lack the skills, time and land. That’s why more communities are embracing the idea of getting together with like-minded people to share resources. Communities such as the ex-mining villages surrounding the National Trust estate of Gibside in Tyne and Wear, where Mick Marston and his fellow growers cultivate potatoes, onions and seasonal vegetables in a corner of the 18th-century walled garden. “I wanted to eat locally produced food, but it wasn’t being grown in this area,”
“The direct relationship between farmer and customer benefits everyone, and many schemes offer social benefits”
says Mick, a founder member of the Gibside Community Farm, whose 25 members pay £52 per year for a share of the crop – and do their share of the spadework. “It’s a social activity, too: we enjoy working together.”
Gibside Community Farm is one of about 100 examples of local food projects in the UK following the community supported agriculture (CSA) model. Imported from the US, the CSA movement is about taking on both the risks and rewards of farming: the schemes typically involve members committing to buy a proportion of the harvest, and while some are initiated by producers – not only vegetable growers but also bakers and livestock farmers – many are set up by communities seeking an affordable source of ethical, traceable food.
“The direct relationship between farmer and customer benefits everyone,” says Maresa Bossano, coordinator of the Uk-wide CSA Network, which offers advice and mentoring to new and existing schemes. “The farmer has a reliable source of income and the customer has access to affordable, responsibly grown food. Many schemes invite members to help on the land, too, which offers social benefits and exercise.” MARKET SHARE
Not all CSA schemes involve getting your hands dirty, though, and not all community-supported growing projects are based on crop-share. In Cumbria’s Eden Valley, for example, the 155 box-scheme members who receive Vista Veg’s weekly deliveries do not take a risk – the scheme guarantees a set quantity of produce. However, they do support a small cooperative of local growers who produce environmentally friendly seasonal salads and vegetables and deliver them on the day they’re picked. “I don’t understand why you would buy Spanish courgettes from a supermarket when someone is growing them down the road,” says founder Lynn Barnes, who was an amateur grower when she started Vista Veg eight years ago as a way of selling surplus produce from her garden in the
village of Crosby Ravensworth. “Buying from local growers also keeps your pound in the local economy.”
The co-op has just taken over a farm shop outside Penrith, enabling even more customers to support an enterprise that also generates green energy, makes biodiesel, leads gardening clubs in schools and runs beginners’ grow-your-own days. It’s the sort of initiative that every village would love on its doorstep. But even without the physical presence of a shop or shared growing space, communities determined to access local food are finding new ways forward.
In the Forest of Dean, for example, the Dean Forest Food Hub has harnessed the potential of online shopping to create a virtual farmers’ market. Begun four years ago as a collaboration between local residents and members of a community of eco-warriors, the hub offers a wide choice of food from local farmers, bakers, butchers, coffee roasters, cheesemakers, honey producers and jam makers; customers collect weekly food boxes from a network of pick-up points. A similar service is available in some market towns and cities from The Food Assembly (foodassembly.com), a nationwide social enterprise company. “People who buy from us tell us that they are going to supermarkets far less often,” says Judith Williams, a volunteer member of the workers’ co-operative that runs the hub. Its 150 regular shoppers can lend further support by volunteering as packers or joining monthly gardening days. But even those just logging on for a weekly bread and bacon order are contributing to the slow-burning food revolution that Incredible Edible envisages.
“The more you support local producers, the more you make local food profitable and create a virtuous cycle that leads to more local growing,” Pam Warhurst says. Before sowing a seed or beginning an online search for the nearest CSA scheme, the easiest first step we could all take would be to support markets in your area, she adds. “They are the natural place for growers to take their produce yet they’re struggling all over the country because they don’t have multi-million-pound advertising budgets. Vibrant markets create a buzz around locally grown food. Stimulated by the sharing of skills and better access to land, that can inspire the growers of tomorrow and build a different food economy.”
ABOVE Volunteers learn new gardening skills and get to take home the produce they’ve grown
ABOVE Local growing areas can be hugely beneficial to communities and help to bring generations together