Welcome to the English capital – a beautiful, hulking behemoth filled with would-be farmers. Research suggests half of the UK’s urban agriculture projects are found here and that demand for food growing land is as high as ever. It is in London that a single borough can grow and sell 28 tonnes of salad, and land in the wake of Heathrow Airport can be squatted and made productive again.
“Talk of the ‘good life’ drives us insane!” says Kerry Rankine from Growing Communities, the social enterprise that’s responsible for all that salad. “Very often the food gets forgotten about, but we grow to sell. Our sites are lovely to look at but it’s not an exercise in making scenic lines of cabbages. Our visibility is a side effect rather than an aim.”
Based in Hackney, east London, Growing Communities runs three market gardens, a veg box scheme and a farmers’ market. “We’re serious about changing the food system, about providing an alternative that involves supporting small farmers in the surrounding area and bringing food as close as possible to the people who eat it. There are 18,000 people in the square kilometre around our office – it makes sense to grow here, for them.”
Growing Communities runs apprenticeships and offers people paid work. Their Patchwork Farm is a collection of micro-sites that are given to graduates of the apprentice scheme. “It’s an experiment to see if people can generate an income from urban growing. They’re selling their produce to us and to cafes” explains Kerry. “In 2012 we’re also planning a much bigger scale project in Dagenham, with 1.89 hectares.”
Kerry is realistic about what can be achieved within a city’s walls. “It’s not possible to feed London from inside it, but the Hackney grown produce has significance beyond simply being food. We have a big volunteer programme and our sites are open to visitors, so people can see what we’re doing. We serve 700 households, and so are feeding about 3,000 people.”
“We’ve been going since 1997, but still haven’t quite cracked making urban growing pay for itself. We have to cross subsidise from other projects to pay the grower’s salary. It highlights how difficult the life of a small farmer is. The current food system is deeply flawed. Food is really under-priced, and those prices are distorted by agribusinesses and supermarkets. The urban farmer’s role is to both produce and to act as an advocate.”
Clare Joy from Organiclea would surely agree. “In the future I hope that London will have more productive green spaces, but this is only viable if people are willing to pay more for food”, she says. “It’s the urban grower’s job to teach people about the real value of food every day and the hard work that goes into producing it.”
Organiclea inspires many of London’s urban growers, especially its Hawkwood site in Chingford. It’s a handsome slice of land on the edge of Epping Forest that’s producing unusually large quantities of food. Clare confesses they are able to grow on a scale they sometimes have to pinch themselves to believe.
“The Lea Valley used to be the bread basket of London, and local people saw food production as meaningful employment” explains Clare. “Our aim is to see more London grown food that’s produced with integrity. Our project is about people as much as it is plants – they’re the muscle of our production.”
The professional grower
Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, coordinates the high profile Capital Growth project, which aims to have kick started 2,012 new growing projects across London before the year is out, by providing small amounts of funding and lots of advice. Ben Reynolds from the project is thinking about its legacy.
“We’ve seen 50,000 people getting their hands dirty through Capital Growth to date. Groups’ main driver has turned out to be transforming spaces and the main benefit has been a community one. How do we motivate and mobilise those people to think more widely about food issues, and to grow more food?” asks Ben.
“A small number of people involved with Capital Growth will take steps to become professional urban growers, but their path isn’t clear. The next aim for us is to help create a meaningful amount of social enterprises that employ people. There is land but it’s complicated to access it. It’s time consuming, hard work, and we need to make it easier.”
‘Roots to Work’, published by the City & Guilds’ Centre for Skills Development, explores how employable urban growing can make you. “Food growers can play a very supportive role in their communities and the food itself is only half of what they achieve” says Olivia Varley-Winter, who wrote the report.
“Most jobs in urban horticulture seem to be part-time or entrepreneurial and, while opportunities have been growing, there are still not that many jobs. But it’s important to recognise the transferable skills that people gain in the process of food growing, and that the experience can be a real asset when going into employment.”
Growing as activism
For some, urban growing is a form of activism as much as it is a chance to learn new skills. “It’s a political act to reject unsustainable food systems” says William Ronan from Grow Heathrow. He is one of six ‘Plane Stupid’ campaigners who moved to Sipson in 2010. They’d been working with residents since 2006, after a proposed third runway threatened to flatten the village.
“In March 2010 we swooped on some derelict land that sits a mile and a half from the airport – half an acre with three, 100 foot glasshouses on it. It used to be a market garden and we wanted to reinvigorate it. Heathrow Airport was built on farmland and the land around here is very fertile” explains William.
“Our growing is largely an experiment – we have limited experience and have been learning as we go. We’re using permaculture methods and working with the environment to get the highest yields. We had an abundance of black chillies last year, but our most successful crop was salad – we had it coming out of our ears!”
Ten people live in the garden, and their intention is to become self-sufficient and also to share their produce with local people. The site welcomes visitors and the growers see themselves as educators as well as producers. They have a weekly gardening club, organise special events and run projects out in the community.
“There are misconceptions about what squatting is – the transformation of this land challenges media stereotypes. On our first day residents were representing our case to the local police. We’d built good relationships with them before we arrived” says William.
“We were negotiating to buy the land but the landowner pulled out. We are due back in court in spring 2012 and are currently working on a community campaign – we have lots of statements of support including from the local MP. We’d like to have a long term future here.”
This feature appears in the April issue of Kitchen Garden magazine