Part eight of my series for Kitchen Garden about urban agriculture
“There’s a huge amount of food growing going on in Manchester, and demand for allotments is high. It’s a good way to make communities more resilient, especially at times of high unemployment” says Chris Walsh from the Kindling Trust.
Kindling is the organisation behind various projects designed to ensure the city’s food supply becomes more sustainable. Urban growing may be increasingly popular, but it would be foolish to assume every urbanite has green fingers, or that all growers have the same goals.
“There’s a new generation of gardeners – they tend to be graduates and public sector workers – who are joining an older generation of allotment holders who continue to grow in the city. But there’s a gap – lots of people don’t see growing as something they want to do” says Chris.
The Land Army
“It feels like there are two food movements – one focussed on community and health projects, one on organics and environmental issues”, he continues. “There’s a funny separation between the two and the Greater Manchester Land Army is about trying to bridge that perceived gap. We’re also creating solidarity between deprived rural and urban communities.”
2011 was the Land Army’s pilot year. They bus groups of volunteers from Manchester out to farms in Cheshire where they can learn about commercial food production. Volunteers do everything from weeding leeks to planting garlic and harvesting potatoes. Chris describes them as “a group of people who want to increase food production in the city. We’re still learning and there’s no guarantee that what we’re doing will work, but there’s a real buzz about it.”
The idea is to provide training and encourage people to think about perhaps becoming commercial food growers themselves. “Urban growing as a career is in its early stages – it’s still hard work, poorly paid and under-appreciated. But that is changing. I think there’ll be 40 to 50 part time growers on the scene in Manchester within the next four to five years” he predicts.
The Land Army was born out of Feeding Manchester – a loose network of groups that bond over food. “Food is complicated – you can’t focus on issues in isolation. We’re taking a holistic approach, sharing and swapping ideas, and working out how we can influence policy. Food is about relationships, trust and getting to know people” says Chris.
Out west is the Unicorn Grocery’s land project, part of the Feeding Manchester network. They have 21 organic acres in an area of peat land that once was full of salad and vegetable crops. Stuart Jones works in both Unicorn’s shop in the city and at the farm in Glazebury.
“Our soil is great for growing vegetables. We have a six year rotation in place including two years fertility building with red clover, white clover and chicory, followed by brassicas, beets, alliums, umbellifers and lettuce. We also have a rotation for overwintering green manures like rye and crimson clover, to keep the soil covered between cropping” says Stuart.
“We’re passionate about producing food in a more sustainable way to feed the city. That means working with nature rather than against it, feeding the soil with good compost, boosting organic matter levels and creating healthy, biologically active soil. There’s plenty of good growing land that could be providing Manchester with veg, but at the moment most comes from Lincolnshire or even Spain.”
Not wanting to step on anyone’s toes and keen to pool knowledge, Unicorn is part of Manchester Veg People – a cooperative with buyer and grower members. “We meet buyers when we are planning our crops and they let us know the quantities they want” explains Stuart.
“The growers work out their production costs and then set the prices. We get a fair price and the buyers know they’re supporting a more sustainable way of doing business, sourcing food grown no more than 20 miles from Manchester Town Hall.”
Growing to eat
“Everyone eats. We’re all united by food” says Amanda Woodvine from Didsbury Dinners, a group based between Manchester and Stockport. “An easy, but often overlooked way of reducing our carbon footprints is considering the food on our plates. We want to make it easy for people so we published a ‘low-carbon’ community cookbook last year.”
As well as sharing recipes, Didsbury Dinners also grow food in various spots around town. Planting projects include 40 fruit trees on land at the back of local rugby pitches and a landshare-style plot, where four growers share a privately owned garden rent free. A local estate agent has even given them access to space behind a rented property where they’ve planted soft fruit, herbs, salad leaves, various beans and peas.
Growing often leads to a desire to learn how to cook with homegrown produce, as well as an increased understanding of food related issues. But urban agriculture isn’t just good for the environment – it’s good for people too. Working the land improves physical and mental wellbeing.
Bite – a partnership project between Mind and the Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust – runs five cafes and nine growing projects across the city, as well as an affordable veg bag scheme. Their growing land ranges from allotments to daycentre grounds.
“Food poverty is a problem here and people might not have the skills or confidence to cook the produce we grow, which is why we also have cafes where people can learn” explains Rowena Pyott from Bite.
“Our project is also part of Fairshare, which is about using up food waste from supermarkets. So we’re addressing wider issues too, and teaching people about things like food provenance. We’re bringing the sustainable food message to deprived communities who aren’t usually exposed to it.”
Inner City Forest Gardening
A unique project just outside Manchester city centre has seen part of a public park transformed into a forest garden, with a delicious plethora of edibles including walnut, apple, pear, cherry, plum, damson, gage, nectarine and hazel trees.
Birchfields Park Forest Garden is also home to raspberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries, jostaberry, logan and tay berry, not to mention gojiberry and blueberry. Species like eleagnus, alder, clover, bird’s foot trefoil, vetch, peas and beans have all been included for their nitrogen fixing properties.
“The project is about permanence – we’re demonstrating the potential of forest gardening, complimentary planting and gardening with nature” says forest gardener Jane Morris. “We want to show that we can have higher yields than monocultures. And that there’s potential for forest gardens in even the smallest of public spaces – why do we need so much mown grass?
“Urban growing keeps the activist in me alive” says Jane, who is generally positive about her home town’s food growing credentials. “Manchester is proactive, and the Food Futures Strategy is moving us towards a more sustainable food system here.” But there’s work to be done.
“Inner city Manchester is one of the poorest areas in England – there are huge differences in quality of life and life expectancy. Our project is trying to counteract those inequalities. It’s about improving nutrition, increasing physical activity and also has a therapeutic aspect.Our garden showcases robust and resilient planting, and hopefully is creating robust and resilient communities too.”