Part six of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture
Sheffield nestles around seven hills and is said to have more trees than any other city in Europe. With greenery weaving through and around it, it’s no surprise that it’s also home to an active urban food growing community. “There’s a feeling that there are less barriers to food growing here than there might be elsewhere” says Coralie Hopwood from Grow Sheffield.
Grow Sheffield was born out the UK’s first ever ‘Abundance’ fruit harvesting project. It now acts as an umbrella over that and two other projects – community growing and a local food network. Art is a big part of what they do and ‘Allotment Soup’ is a series of events they run every year, as Coralie explains.
“We bring artists onto allotments and invite them to make installations. We then hold gallery style open days, where there’s always soup and a fire. It’s about showing allotments in a new light. We don’t want to just preach to the converted. We need to give people new ways in. I come from an environmental background and I know some people can be switched off by green hectoring. Grow Sheffield was attractive to me because its approach felt different and fresh.”
Their community growing project has six hubs, with six more planned for 2013. They’re all very different. “Our St Mary’s hub offers ‘speak and grow’ sessions, where people can practise their English while growing fruit and vegetables” says Coralie.
“Another hub is found on the notorious Lansdowne Estate, which was unfortunately used as the set for ‘Prisoners’ Wives’. They have an enormous kale patch in the middle of the estate. Another hub is part of a youth project in an area known as the ‘Townships’, where we’re trying to give young people something to do. All of the hubs are born out of ideas local people have themselves.”
Why does Coralie think Grow Sheffield is important? “What we’re doing is bigger than wanting everyone to be able to grow an organic lettuce. Food growing is necessary in an urban context because it’s where we’re most disconnected from our food. We have no idea how reliant we are on the soil.”
Heeley City Farm is going some way to highlight that reliance. It runs over 20 local food growing sites throughout Sheffield. “We’re producing and distributing increasing amounts of fruit and vegetables each year – about five tonnes in 2011 – with the potential to go on increasing production” says Jo Townshend, the farm’s food growing project worker. “The food is sold to raise money for the projects, used in our Farm Kitchen café and shared among volunteers.”
John LeCorney, the farm’s Chief Executive, thinks food growing should be part of the fabric of every city. “When we started growing vegetables, keeping animals and composting waste we were seen as rather strange. We have come a long way, but there is a lot more to do. Every school should have a vegetable garden. Doctors should be able to prescribe a day at Heeley City Farm rather than Prozac. Supermarkets should set aside part of their car parks for weekly farmers markets.”
Tucked away in the north east of the city, LEAF Sheffield is a community space within the existing Norwood Allotments. “Our project is about growing, sharing and eating” says Diane Cocker from LEAF. “Sometimes food harvested at the end of one session will reappear at the next in the form of a pie or crumble. We’re encouraging people to have new experiences and gain confidence.”
The site boasts a child friendly plot, a demonstration allotment, a greenhouse and cold frames, a friendly cat called Mitzi and an orchard, with bee hives, soft fruits and herbs as well as fruit trees. Sheffield allotments are often separated by hedges rather than fences, and LEAF’s are full of wild fruits like elderberries, blackberries and rose hips. They have a woodland boundary too, so there’s lots of wildlife including owls and sparrow hawks.
“We’re hoping to create an edible hedge this year to demonstrate the kinds of creative things people can do. We’re growing carrots in builders’ bags and have a huge beetroot bed, packed with six different varieties. We’re trying interesting tubers like oca, yacon and ulloco. Our project is addressing a need for fresh food in the area and it’s taking away some of the mystique around gardening” says Diane.
Ambitions run high in Sheffield, but how about down the M1 in Nottingham? Sandwiched between the motorway and the city is the Grow and Grow Broxtowe project. I speak to Alan Withington as he winds up a session with three childminders and their kids.
“Broxtowe is a varied area, quite rural to the north where the old coalfields are, and urban and ethnically diverse in the south. Our project is going to people who aren’t growing anything but want to. We focus on training staff at community groups so they can cascade knowledge down. We start with things that are easy to have success with, before upping the ante” says Alan.
“I’ve been involved with food growing for 14 years and every year the interest grows and grows. We’ve been inundated with people wanting to be part of this project. What we do is very practical. We’ll take raised bed kits into a primary school and the children will help us assemble them. Our hallmark is working with people, not for them.”
Further into the city proper are the unique St Ann’s Allotments – 75 acres of land with over 500 individual gardeners and various community projects, including a community orchard. The gardens were established in the early 19th century, but by the 1990s they were half empty and in serious disrepair. A group of tenants campaigned to save them and secured major investment to repair the infrastructure of the site.
“Some of the gardeners have been up here since the 1960s. Most are local to St Ann’s” says Mo Cooper from the allotments. “But it’s not all cloth caps and pipes, though some people do have racing pigeons! We’ve had more women and families taking plots over the last few years. An 18 year old tenant featured on Radio 4 Gardener’s Question Time recently, giving advice to people twice his age.
“The site is often described as a bit of country in the middle of the city. It’s a great resource for the local community who live in Victorian terraced houses or big council estates. As a grade 2* listed site with English Heritage it challenges the poor image St Ann’s often has in the media” says Mo.
Are the St Ann’s allotments tackling issues like food poverty or environmental justice? “Our gardeners are predominately local with low incomes, but with this green space on their doorsteps. This helps them source fresh food – there are no greengrocers or major supermarkets in St Ann’s. We provide access to nature for local young people. But we don’t use the jargon – we just get on with it!”