“Norwich is like the spider in the middle of a web. It may be small but it’s a focal point for Norfolk and north Suffolk. It’s always been a radical place with a vibrant alternative movement” says Josiah Meldrum, a founding member of Norwich FarmShare.
“We’re surrounded by agriculture here but most of the production is of commodity crops. We started to think about what interventions we could make to show that producing our own food was possible. FarmShare was born out of Transition Norwich’s Food Group and is part of a larger Norwich Resilient Food Project, which is basically a big experiment” he explains.
They found a seven acre site on the edge of the city with a sympathetic landowner. The Norfolk Broads are on one side and a flyover, rail track and business park on the other. The plan is to acquire another acre in 2012, by which time they hope to be growing enough food to feed 150 households.
“2011 was our first growing season and it was a difficult year because of the dry spring. We’re still learning! We ask members to commit for at least a year. It’s about being part of the running of a market garden and sharing a joint harvest” says Josiah.
“We have funding from the Lottery Food Fund until 2013, by which time we want to be established as a social enterprise. We’re a commercial operation with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business model. CSA means a food, fuel or fibre producing initiative, where the community shares the risks and rewards of production” he explains.
FarmShare currently has 70 members and relies on team effort. They don’t deliver but instead hand out produce at a weekly collection day in the city centre. People weigh out their own share and bag it up themselves. Members are also encouraged to help out on the farm itself. On a morning when 5,000 onion plug plants arrived and needed to be planted within hours, volunteer effort saw they were in the ground almost as fast as if they’d used a mechanical planter.
“Members’ motivations are all different, but it tends to be about taking control of food production and being part of a vibrant community enterprise. Some have given up allotments in order to focus their attentions on a more collective way of growing. For the founders, it’s all about demonstrating a new and different approach of co-production. We’re blurring the boundary between consumer and producer” says Josiah.
Seven years ago, Mahesh Pant set up the Grow Our Own project, also in Norwich. For a small subscription fee, people get a slice of land, tools, seeds, plants and advice. They also become part of a community, working on a shared allotment site with a communal and well-stocked garden shed and regular events. The project has become Mahesh’s full-time job.
“I was an academic and in my spare time was reading lots about food production and organics. One day I got home from work and told my wife that I wanted to give up my job and provide for my family in a different way. I had an allotment, asked for more land to set up Grow Our Own and got it” he says.
“We’re half an hour’s walk from the city centre. We have 20 allotments on a site made up of 150 plots. Ours are subdivided into strips and we now have 200 growers signed up. There are more of us here than on the rest of the entire site!”
The shared allotment boasts a chamomile lawn, picnic area, greenhouse and compost loo. The site is always open, but twice a week volunteers are on hand to offer advice, seeds and plants. In 2011, 120 different varieties of vegetable, herb and flower were on the project plant list and handed out to members.
“Urban food growing is important for many reasons, but the credit crunch is not one of them” says Mahesh. “Food in certain supermarkets is incredibly cheap. In the 1970s, the average person spent 30% of their income on food, today that has fallen to 10%.”
“Our project is about bringing people together. Growing food and being in nature is important for people’s mental and physical well-being. Allotments also used to be about providing land for the poor but today they are very middle-class. We’ve recently acquired a new site in a more deprived area of Norwich, where we will engage with different types of people.”
43 miles south is the town of Ipswich, where, similar to Grow Our Own, several allotments have been fused into one. The People’s Community Garden was born out of a belief that the town needed strategies to improve health and well-being. A bid was made to the ‘People’s Millions’ for funding to build a garden – they won £80,000 in a public vote.
“Ipswich is a melting pot, with some of the most disadvantaged wards in the country. It feels like the town is taking a breath at the moment, but it’s on the up” says project development officer, Susannah Robirosa. “Ipswich’s first university has just opened and the area around the docks is being developed. The People’s Community Garden is within an existing allotment site and is made up of 13 plots. We’re close to the docks with views of enormous ships.”
“There was opposition to the project at first but people here respect us now, and we have lots of support. Many allotments were still under bramble when we arrived in 2008 but that’s changing. More are occupied now – it’s great to see that we’re reviving an interest in growing and inspiring people to take on that land.”
The garden features a permaculture herb spiral, ‘cut flower alley’, a sensory garden, three composting bays, several big veg plots, a wildlife area (with a meadow and a lizard bank) and a heritage orchard. They grow famous Ipswich melons in their polytunnel and the local Bangladeshi women’s group keeps one corner for exotic veg. The tunnel also hosts horticultural courses for people who are unemployed.
“What’s fantastic about the garden is that it’s not a closed resource, we’re open to everyone. The more people enjoy the space, the more confident they become. The garden gives our volunteers a sense of local pride, belonging and neighbourliness. We operate a ‘food for labour’ system, and also encourage community harvesting” says Susannah.
The £80,000 had to be spent within the first year and has long run out. How does the project survive without long term funding? “We apply for grant funding year on year” explains Susannah. “The council tend to fund us to do education, training and health work. We send produce to the local pub – they love our melons – and to lunch clubs, for donations.”
“We generate a very small amount of income this way. We’re not allowed to sell it because we’re based on an allotment. I think allotment laws need re-looking at, as it seems ridiculous that community projects are constrained in this area. If we could sell our produce we could plough the money back into our project.”