Over the next year, I’m exploring the UK’s burgeoning urban food growing scene for Kitchen Garden magazine. Every month I’ll report from a different town or city, as I seek out urban agriculturists and profile projects ranging from the small-scale and personal to the unusual, ambitious and commercial.
“The allotment is my favourite place in Bristol – it’s beautiful because of the shared work that goes into it” says Lucy Mitchell, settling down to tea and cake. She’s sitting in a shelter made from clay and hazel, sourced from the land on which it stands in the Easton Community Allotment. A weekly Thursday drop-in session has just finished.
The allotmenteers were given the land eleven years ago by the council. It was overgrown and bramble filled, with no water supply. But this allotment is home to some of the most resourceful urban growers in town. They take a huge amount of pride in the fact they source everything they use cheaply or for free. “City fly tippers keep us well supplied” laughs Lucy.
“We’re lucky to be close to industry – we’ve reclaimed bricks, pallets and netting from the area. We keep worm food in an old chest freezer! We’ve also developed a water harvesting system that means we never need tap water. Guttering has been attached to the roofs of some neighbouring garages to collect rainwater that’s then piped into a series of twenty barrels.”
Over winter brussel sprouts, kale, purple sprouting broccoli, leeks, savoy cabbages, mooli, winter salads and a forest of Jerusalem artichokes can be found growing. Lucy is clearly in love with the place. “It’s about companionship and free, organic, local vegetables” she says.
Bristol is awash with examples of urban agriculture. The more you dig around, the more active Bristolians seem to be. “Bristol does feel proactive when it comes to food growing” says Irene Blessit from Fishponds Community Orchard.
“The recession means more people want to grow their own, and people are also more interested in eating organically. And they’re concerned about fruit waste, orchard loss and disappearing knowledge about local varieties.”
“Our plot is three miles from the city centre and very close to the M32, but it feels wild. We mainly grow apples, but also some soft fruits. We encourage members to get keys to the orchard and just come and sit here, have a picnic and bird watch. We offer a space for people who don’t have a garden of their own.”
Jane Stevenson helps to run the Bristol Food Network, which encourages growers to share knowledge and advice. She can offer an overview of the city’s growing scene, and is able to reel off numerous interesting examples. “There’s even a roundabout known locally as the ‘bear pit’ that has vegetables growing on it!” she says.
In 2011 the Network organised the city’s first ‘veg trail’, where groups opened their doors so visitors could see their projects, which are often on closed sites. The Network has also created an online map showing where all the food growing projects in Bristol are.
Many are in deprived areas, and some are working with hard to reach groups like asylum seekers and homeless people. “The social aspect is very important – it’s about the group growing experience and shared harvests” explains Jane.
Food is always a political issue. “Getting access to land in Bristol requires determination and patience. Ideally in the future there’ll be a ‘land share’ style system where all the available land in the city is listed and can be matched with growers looking for plots” says Jane.
On the city’s outer edges, between Bristol and Bath, the Community Farm is producing food on a grand scale. 22 acres are under cultivation and they sell around 350 veg boxes a week. They also supply wholesale to restaurants, schools and other box schemes.
“It’s both a commercial and community success” says Alison Belshaw, Project Director, “the business has to underpin all the community activity. If that’s not strong we can’t do the other things we want to. 409 people invested in the farm at the first stage, and this is increasing with a new share offer and annual membership scheme. We’re attracting all sorts of people – young and old, families and individuals, from as far afield as Cumbria, Moscow and New York!”.
Why is their project important? “How can a city support itself if food has to be distributed hundreds or thousands of miles?” she asks. “It’s much better to grow fresh vegetables close to where they’re going to be consumed, to ensure they’re eaten at their best and to reduce waste. Land also needs to be protected for growing. There are parts of Bristol that were once used by market gardeners, but the proposal is to have a park and ride scheme built on this excellent growing land.”
The Community Farm has a lot in common with a project just over the border in Cardiff. The Riverside Market Garden is a much smaller example of urban agriculture, but is equally ambitious. Project Manager Pete Brooks tells the story.
“We’re all local food freaks basically, and our social enterprise has been running farmers’ markets and community allotments in Cardiff for years. Cities were once surrounded by market gardens that provided residents with vegetables. Our project isn’t about nostalgia, but we started to think about how we could revisit this model and also update it completely.”
“We got a start-up grant from the Waterloo Foundation and some money from the Welsh Assembly for a feasibility study. Our first year, 2009, was all about planning. We found some land 10 miles from Cardiff City Centre, in the Vale of Glamorgan, where we have five acres, with an option on five more.”
In early 2010 a horticultural consultant did soil and microclimate analysis and came up with an action plan. In spring they started planting. “We decided to focus on direct sale to individuals and restaurants, rather than wholesale, and to grow high margin crops like aubergines, peppers, chillies and tomatoes, rather than muddy veg” says Pete.
Riverside Market Garden is an exposed open field, with one acre cultivated. In winter cavolo nero, Russian kale, spinach and amaranth grow out in the open, and winter salads in the polytunnel. They produce £2,000 worth of crops every month, but want that to treble in 2012 as they cultivate more land. The aim is to be fully commercial in the next four years, with outreach, education and training aspects to their work.
“Our project is addressing issues like urban food poverty and obesity head on” says Pete. “There’s a tide of under-nutrition sweeping across the country – it’s overwhelming to think about how to tackle it as a whole, but you’ve got to do your bit in your parish.”