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When the rain comes……

I’m writing this on what might possibly be the first day for weeks without rain, having been woken early by (gasp!) sunshine pouring through my windows.  I had resolved not to moan about the weather we have been experiencing, but the consensus among growers and farmers is that this summer (!) has so far been the wettest, coldest, windiest affair since any of us can remember, delivered to us by a ‘meander’ in the Jet Stream, the high wind that encircles the northern hemisphere, which seems to have become inclined to dip southwards (having first passed over Iceland).  When this flow of colder air meets warmer air, the result has been torrential rain, cold and wind.  We are also just out of an El Nino/La Nina cycle, which disrupts established weather patterns globally, producing droughts and rains (often in a ‘flip’ effect).

 
This climatic ‘anomaly’, which I have observed building up over some years, is resulting in a long-term change to our predominant weather patterns. These recently delivered us two consecutive extremely cold winters, and the monsoon like conditions we have been experiencing up to now (following a fairly extreme drought in the south). This has produced a crisis in crop production this year, because farmers cannot cultivate, sow and plant, or harvest crops.  Low light levels retard growth of the crops that are in the ground, heavy rain leaches out nutrients (particularly N in available forms), damp loving diseases flourish (potato blight has exploded recently), and crops go over and start to rot in the fields because it is impossible to get heavy machinery on the land to harvest (oilseeds are particularly affected so far).  The consequences of this anomaly will be higher food prices, among other things, and as I have been driving around in lashing rain, I recall a laughable short-lived publicity line by various farmer/industry groups that climate change presented great opportunities for agriculture, that in the south of England we would all be growing sunflowers. And, wasn’t it a great opportunity to profit from climate change?

 
Fools.  The whole point about climate change, to my mind (as a lifelong grower), is that of unpredictability, especially in a maritime climate like our own.  A warmer world, warmer seas, and a meandering Jet Stream could indeed make our climate prone to uncharacteristic weather patterns, making us periodically much wetter and/or colder.  It has occurred to me, driving past fields of stinking, rotting oilseeds, that we might need to look at the production of cold-tolerant rice varieties in lowland areas, and a have a big rethink about how we do or don’t drain land (and do or don’t cause floods). The point is, that if you are a farmer, you need to know when are the most opportune moments for cultivations; what to sow, when; which varieties are most suited to a warm/bright or cold/dull season; what pests and diseases are likely to be prevalent given the climatic conditions; and, if we are smart and well favoured enough by the weather, we all need to be able to get on the land to harvest crops, rather than having machinery sink up to the axles in soil, which then becomes a mud porridge, and so damages soil structure it affects productivity for the next few years. If weather patterns are unstable, all of these things become hugely difficult, and in an economic, social and political climate which is producing calls for ‘sustainable intensification’ of food production to feed the world, hugely worrying.  You can’t genetically engineer your way out of the problem of climate instability.

 
Needless to say, this inclement weather has played havoc with our project timetable.  We have not been able to get onto our new site to start the process of clearance and regeneration.  As I have a choice this time, I am choosing not to put heavy machinery onto the land, which would produce a churned porridge of soil, ruining soil structure and productive potential.  Last, time, due to pressure of funding cycles and spend deadlines, I was forced to do this to the soils of what is now Salop Drive Market Garden, which compromised productivity and required a lengthy process of reclamation and regeneration of soil quality.  Mercifully, our main funders (the redistributors of landfill taxes) completely understand the problem, being that they actually know something about land use.

All of this, along with a major decline in my father’s health (in fact he is dying, slowly, due to a hideous lung condition, COPD), an extended period of uncertainty in the workplace ( I STILL don’t have a contract of employment, on the eve of launching a major capital programme using large sums of other people’s money), and continuing major changes in the national and local institutional landscape, has ratcheted up the stress levels, and left me short of reflexive time of the kind necessary to maintain a blog.  The three part-time women that make up the ‘back office’ function, which includes fundraising for and managing the entire community agriculture programme, which (I think) now variously employs 15 staff, are stretched to a worrying degree.  We are managing such a period of productivity and growth, it is hard to find the time for work activity which requires reflexivity and the focusing of knowledge and learning into forward planning and securing sustainable growth – business planning and fundraising.

Having been on a roll with fundraising which saw us produce 130 or so bids in 18 or so months, this has now slowed to less than a trickle due to the pressures of actual delivery, which is worrying.  We have got through to the second round in a Lottery funded scheme (I’m told it’s a 50:50 chance of success) with a proposal for a major revenue scheme of work (with a small capital element), but I know it involves weeks of focused business planning, bid writing, obtaining of plans and permissions, etc etc etc.  I am hoping that August, the annual leave silly season, will allow me some quiet time for this intensely reflexive activity, which I will probably work on at home, as the office is such an intense working environment, which delivers minute-by-minute distractions, let alone having to grapple with ridiculously outdated IT systems that make it almost impossible to work productively.  Thank goodness for my trusty Macs.

 
Anyway, I recently found the video of The Beatles song Rain, which I think was on their album Rubber Soul, published with this blog, which has helped me to maintain a more positive outlook than might otherwise have been the case.  It’s only rain, after all, and yesterday, while down on my allotment plot (looking good, despite the late start and dismal weather) I did not run and hide my head.  Consequently I got bloody soaked, which actually isn’t that unpleasant. John Lennon, bless you.

Gearing up, winding down, and the comings and goings of springtime

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It’s been a while, but a very productive while, since I was last here – but in that while a lot of hard creative and developmental activity has taken place for what promises to be a productive season for community agriculture in Sandwell and across the Black Country.  Everyone has been heads down, putting into place the funding and infrastructure for a period of (for us) of significant growth, following a good year last year too.  Our new financial and operational year begins with the spring, and a hive of activity among the eleven or twelve people variously employed by our community agriculture initiative.  The all part time, all female ‘back office’ team, following a recent meeting in which we got a days work done in half, seemed to be like the little green men from Toy Story and Buzz Lightyear movies.  We discovered, or affirmed perhaps, that we are linked by a ‘UnaMind’ in how we see things working.  Quite uplifting for us, I think.  People at work have been commenting on how strong we are as a team, and how well we work together, lately.

The log jams and delays, the source of so much stress, along with uncertainties about whether we would have all the pieces of the funding jigsaw, gave way in a (managed) rush: leases being obtained triggered the release and signing off of funding agreements, specifications of service for our public health commissions were prepared and accepted, and more; then we had further successes bringing in funding.  It feels like being catapulted into a lively and (hopefully) creative workstream that, if it holds together, will mean our gardens and farms – and all of the activities and service there and in the wider community – will prosper and improve.

We will have a new community room/classroom at the urban market garden which will greatly support the activities with children and families, and the wider community. We now have the opportunity, working with partner Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust, to offer access to people from across the Black Country to our activities and our farms and gardens.  And, we will begin the very real process of bringing a third derelict parcel of land into a fit state for an urban market and community gardens slap bang among a sea of ugliness comprising big box retail parks, landfill, hideously congested motorway and other transport networks, and industrial areas.  It will be a green lung, a small but sparkling jewel of ecological health enhancing refreshment for anyone who cares to use it – eventually. It takes at least two years to work up a project to the starting line, and three to five years to begin to realise near full potential.

So much to write about, but today is the first day of some annual leave, the first opportunity to have some downtime, in a very long time.  I have worked to my utmost capacity, often while experiencing demanding and draining spells of ill health.  So it is good to remind myself of what this often intense, now fast moving, work is all for.  The answer is in the slideshow.  For me, looking at those photos of happy people enjoying the sunshine and side shows at Salop Drive Market Garden last summer, warms the cockles of my heart. And especially so as following a hot and sunny, Mediterranean stye start to the spring, and the declaration of a drought across much of England along with a hosepipe ban, the heavens opened and temperatures plummeted. It really hasn’t rained much for two years, and even the lashings of rain we have had will do little to alleviate the underlying drought.  The ground is saturated, low light levels and low temperatures are doing nothing for plant growth.

However, having (hopefully) put the right pieces of our year’s work programme into place, I am off to visit friends who handily have a huge gaff in the Tuscan countryside, with a view to die for, and a veggie garden.  They want to show me the sights, but I dream of a horizontal view from a sun lounger under an olive tree, with my thoughts so intoxicated by the vistas, and weeding the veg patch, that I can’t even be bothered to read a book.  I can feel the faint hiss of escaping stresssssssss…..

Oh, and if you are in the UK, can you please vote for us to win £10,000 for the new community agriculture initiative in a Community Action Award competition sponsored by a manufacturer of hair products for black women, called Creme of Nature.  Please.  The losers get £500 worth of products, so if we lose we will never have to buy shampoo again. It’s easy, just text Caa vote4 to 07786 200690.  If you are on a mobile contract it’s free, if not it is charged at your standard text rate. To find put more see http://www.communityactionaward.com/txtvote.php?finalist=4

Thanks.

The first setback – and the therapeutic benefits of allotmenteering

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This last week brought elation, frustration, and a large dose of despondency – and yes, I admit it, the first tears, being as I am such a girl.  At the beginning of the week, to add to the funds already raised and the contracts secured, we received a donation from the William Cadbury Trust which we will be able to use to put in new accommodation at one of our sites, Salop Drive Market Garden (pictured in this page’s header).  We ran out of space a long time ago, for community activities and use by visiting school groups.  There was an outbreak of pogoing in delight around the office, as we had a couple of days before put our heads together and decided that we were going to have a Portakabin type building, come what may – and so come it did in the form of a lovely cheque.

However, by midweek it became clear that as getting the lease for the new Barlow Road site from the local authority has been to agonisingly, painfully, slow, and as the critical signing off has still not taken place, it is now too late for us to start the regeneration of the site before July, a full six months after the process of procurement of the necessary services, and undertaking the first phase works, should have started.  We are a few days shy of the ‘official’ start of the bird nesting season, which means we cannot start work until 1st July.  Cue stress-out and tears, as I have not been well for some time, with a flu type virus and my constant stalker, fibromyalgia, which so restricts my energy levels that what is normal activity for most people is an exhausting struggle for me.  Plot temporarily lost.

There is a robust body of evidence in place now which demonstrates the health, social, and therapeutic benefits of gardening, food growing, and being in a green space.  Through our work we reach thousands of people of all ages and abilities, creating beautiful, safe, productive and well managed community farms and gardens, and providing a wide range of accessible activities.  In need of a dose of the same medicine myself after the rollercoaster week, I sought refuge in the hard labour of bringing a formerly abandoned 100x30ft allotment back into productivity, spreading and digging in lovely sweet smelling composted manure, sowing seeds, and watering newly planted top and soft fruit and herbs, as well as the rows of newly sown seed.  I have designed a six-course rotation, that includes one part red clover green manure, with two plots receiving a healthy dose of the compost.  I laboured in the magically warm weather, until the sweat was dripping from the end of my nose.  My physical strength and stamina has vastly improved in the ten months since I took on the plot, and this weekend it was the saviour of my mental health.

I love allotments, with a passion.  The site I am on, Thompson Terrace Allotments, in east Oxford, is a large site of 7 acres, with nearly 200 full size plots of ten poles each, the traditional allotment size for a working class man to feed his family.  The allotments tradition is alive and well, with new practices being brought in as women, people from ethnic minority communities, and younger people, take up allotment gardening.  The slide show is of the allotments and my plotholder neighbours, showing the diverse and sometimes amusing characteristics of the people on the site.  I have a bit of a thing about allotment sheds, too, the retreat of the gardeners as well as a handy storage space.  People improvise, as you can see in the slideshow.

It’s the first time I have gardened in the social space that an allotment site provides, and there is always some one to chat to, exchange gardening tips with, or as in the case of an American man I met on the site, discuss deep economic philosophy and theory, and the state of the world’s economy.  He was very well read, even if he did lean quite heavily towards a neo-Con world view, and hold some sympathies with the Tea Party.  On my last visit I must have chatted to at least five plotholders, including my Zimbabwean neighbours, who grow corn, squashes and collard greens in the traditional African way, although their crop of corn partly failed last year as they were using African-bred seed not adapted to our short growing season and wet autumns. Alastair and Owen, next door, have built what I call the Chicken Palace and cosset their small flock of hens, and other growers are setting up beehives.

So, I am largely cured of my outbreak of depression and frustration about the setback to our starting date by a wholesome dose of allotmenteering in the spring sunshine. I am now working on our service contract, to get that in place quickly so we can get paid rather earlier than we were in the previous two financial years (it was October!), and on reprofiling the Barlow Road project, as the programme of seasonal activities that were to follow the initial site clearance has been jettisoned out of the window. We will have to take a whole new tack to get the site into a reasonable semblance of order by the time winter sets in, and the Big Tree Plant funded scheme gets going.  Sowing a grass clover ley into thoroughly cleaned ground cannot now take place until next year, so we will have to resort to a much later sown rye and vetch overwinter green manure, tackle the weeds as best we can in an extended summer fallow, and reprofile other key activities.  It’s not the best we can do, and it IS frustrating to be put in this position by forces beyond our control, but I just have to swallow it and solve this first big problem with the project.  There will be plenty more big problems, and I’m sure there will be more girly weeping along the way.

The discomfort of anticipation

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In February and March, the first practical, hands-on activity began at the new project site – the fragment of ancient hedgerow that has survived all that the industrial revolution had to throw at the area was cleaned out, and laid in the traditional way, by a team of volunteers led by Richard, an able member of the community agriculture team.  During the first session, snow lay on the ground, but it was a brilliant day of sunshine, with the rest of the work being completed in much milder conditions. Spring is just around the corner, and with it grows a sense of anticipation – enthusiasm that soon, hopefully, the lease will be signed, the funding agreements can be put in place (the latter depending on the former), and the first phase of site works can begin.  If we can get the worst of the clearance done during April and/or May, it sets us up for a summer timetable of follow-up activities that will see the site enter into next autumn and winter in good condition, with some infrastructure in place, ready for a second phase of works next year.

Behind the scenes, however, it all seems sometimes painfully slow and discomforting, with many developmental and administrative tasks that seem to take forever, making a start date seem like a vanishing point.  Yet of course these many and various tasks, and the sometimes frustrating slowness of putting the pieces of the puzzle into place to even get to a start date, are both inevitable and vital.  Rather like preparing a ship to sail, preparations are vital, because once the ship has sailed, it becomes more difficult to rectify mistakes.  Yet at the same time, adaptability and preparedness for the unexpected is equally essential.  Perhaps I learned that more than anything as a farmer – you can’t short circuit the organic cycles in nature, however much you want to plough, sow or whatever.  Similarly, it seems, you just can’t rush the processes that take place behind the scenes in preparing for what for us is a major new community agriculture initiative. Each step can feel both like a triumph, and very small,  like the day that we got first sight of the plans of the services such as power, water and drainage, which showed both a well placed storm drain crossing exactly the right part of the site, and a foul drain flowing in the right direction at the lower point of the land parcel. For a while, we were cock-a-hoop – about drains!  Small things, but with big implications for development costs if they aren’t in the right places.

The photos show the site in its untouched, overgrown condition.  It looks quite innocent, just a bit of a tangle of brambles and tussocky grass.  I assure you it is not, underneath that harmless looking overgrowth is all manner of potentially dangerous things.  Once we start work, we will dig up and expose any number of problems, and the number one in my mind will be that of asbestos. I suspect there will be a fair bit of it, from years of dumping and the presence of the remains of collapsed sheds, sties, etc.  Much of it will be relatively old, and broken into fragments, making it more of a health hazard.  What is found during the mechanical clearance will be safely disposed of, but it is likely more and more will come to light as the land regeneration progresses, and we will have to put in place health and safety measures to protect staff and volunteers.  Broken glass is also likely to be a hazard.  It is also hard to get a sense of the size and shape of the site, and the mechanical clearance and works on the perimeter boundaries will for the first time reveal the potential and problems of the land. These things will take time and patience, so having the luxury of a two-year programme of regeneration will enable us to address these and the many, various, and just as discomfiting, problems we are likely to unearth.

The now thriving allotment community that will be our neighbours on the site are also continuing to battle their portion of the land into productive use.  A few stalwarts have remained on this part of the site, through the 10-15 years of decline, tending productive plots, while newer tenants have had to dig in to derelict plots, with all sorts of problems – enough to deter the most hardy.  One plotholder reported digging up a whole fridge freezer, which must have taken some burying!  The gallery photos show early season preparations on various plots – these too make the site look innocently productive, where once parts of it were a monstrous mess.

Progress is also being made in exploring and scoping out working with partners and associations in the area to begin a structured process of community engagement – to bring people into the process of developing the new community agriculture initiative in ways appropriate to their aspirations, skills and talents.  This has to be managed, workers need to be deployed, local community and organisational networks need to be employed to ensure the reach of the process is wide, and that it is accessible to people.  Wednesbury Community Learning Trust (http://home2.btconnect.com/wednesburylearning/index.html), a cooperative community trusts of schools and Children’s Centres, has been a long-time supporter of the Barlow Road community agriculture initiative since the very earliest days, and can act as a gatekeeper, enabler and mobiliser of local people, with and for us.  A.F.Blakemore and Sons, a national food service and distribution company (among other things, the Spar brand is part of their business), has it’s depot within walking distance of the site, and they too are interested in working with us.

All this is immensely promising.  And, as usual at the eleventh hour, things are looking more promising with regard to putting together a package of funding, from multiple sources, that will enable us to function as a coherent whole for the next financial year, just as it did last year.  Perhaps the publication of a government report on growing food in schools (see http://www.defra.gov.uk/news/2011/05/23/veg-out-in-school/)which spelled out the benefits for schools, children, parents and teachers, in which we were a case study, along with the funding already secured for the new project, helped to convince key funders of our value.  But in this was perhaps the most discomforting anticipation – the not knowing if we would have the resources to sustain the wide-ranging programme of innovative activities we have built up over many years, not knowing if people’s jobs would still exist after the end of March.  It has been exactly like this in previous years, and I salute the community agriculture workforce for their commitment in staying with the programme, despite the lack of knowing having very personal implications for their immediate economic survival, and personal and family well being.

Regeneration, regeneration, regeneration

More or less 12 years ago, we were commencing the regeneration of two parcels of land, about as different as it is possible for them to be, as were our approaches to their regeneration.  The first, and smaller of the two, was the footprint of a former 20 storey tower block, a pair of which were brought down at the same time, leaving a scar in the landscape, and an opportunity for new developments.  The tower blocks were being brought down as part of the regeneration of a ‘difficult’ area.  The other land parcel was a former 1.1 ha (3 acre) allotments site, which had gradually fallen into neglect and dereliction over about 15 years or so, save for a stalwart group of first generation immigrant Jamaicans, huddled together on one part of the site.

The tower block land was a mess, as you can imagine – Brownfield with a capital B.  It was contaminated, a mix of all sorts – rubble, live power cables, etc, and far from the kind of land that you would imagine could produce stunning gardens to support a professional standard therapeutic horticulture programme.  Part of the development land had already been dedicated to the development of Sandwell‘s flagship Independent Living Centre, bringing together public authorities and a user led organisation of disabled and disadvantaged people, now known as Ideal for All (IFA), about which I will write more in future posts. The people that made up IFA had put forward a proposal for a garden on the neighbouring brownfield site, and as hard cash for regeneration was flowing into deprived areas under the New Labour government of the day, IFA was able to secure a capital grant to develop the infrastructure of the gardens (later known as Malthouse Gardens) in more or less once lump.

In contrast, the second site was a greenfield site, in the sense that all allotments, along with public parks, cemeteries, etc, are designated as ‘green’.  We had found out in the first round of investigations, in 1999 or thereabouts, that a greenfield site can be badly contaminated, and a brownfield one not necessarily so, harking back to layer upon layer of use through the industrial revolution and beyond.  This site, which became Salop Drive Market Garden, was a mess of abandoned sheds, sofas, bed frames, broken bicycles and supermarket trolleys, all thoroughly overgrown.  We had no money, and had to set about raising the investment we estimated we needed through a focused campaign, trying to convince funders that our ideas for the transformation of this land parcel into a thriving, multifunctional, community resource, through gardening and food growing, were not completely barking mad.  And so we did, but the funding packages for each phase of development were assembled from multiple pots of funding, all stopping and starting at different times.

With this site, our first task was to strip off all the overgrowth, and the understorey of junk.  Which produced us rather large piles of a mixed up mess of green waste liberally interspersed with all sorts of debris. We realised that it would be impossible to separate the waste, so we had it compacted into a ‘bund’ around parts of the site, soiled it over, and planted a mixed native species hedgerow on top, which is now fully fledged, and rather lovely. Following this was a topographical survey to map the lie of the land.  The soil was ‘riddled’, to separate out some of the sticks, stones, broken glass, and other sundry junk.  All the while we were fundraising madly for the different elements of an urban market garden, alongside a fully inclusive community development process, within which the masterplan for the project was developed by members of the local community.

Incredibly, it all more or less came together, and a properly managed ‘build’ began.  Not so luckily, in the few weeks before the autumn sun shone daily, and the land was relatively dry, but the day the plant and machinery went on site, the heavens opened, it rained for weeks, and the combination of heavy machinery and heavy rain turned parts of the site to porridge.  As a former farmer and grower, this was horrifying to watch, as I knew we would have problems further down the line restoring the (once good) land to productivity, but I could not pull the machinery off site as funding agreements and financial year ends meant we had to carry on.  We put in drains, water supplies, a pressurised irrigation system, power, polytunnels, a large greenhouse, built roads and pathways, and craned in prefabricated buildings, which gently settled down onto all of their service connections, and were connected up, just like that.  Amazing.

But then we had to reclaim the poor, battered soil.  In the first year, we did no growing on outdoor land at all, while focusing attention on the soil structure in the tunnels, getting them cropping.  Outdoors, we allowed the weeds to grow, and sprayed them off, once.  From that moment, we used organic methods.  We used green waste compost, deep rooting green manures (rye and vetch), and careful cultivations to nurse the compacted land back into life.  I’d guess it took about 18 months, much quicker than I had imagined, before productivity was starting to build, as the soil was a quite decent medium loam before the bulldozers got to it.

And now we have to do it all over again on the new 1.2 ha site.  This last week we tracked down and met up with the civil engineer (whom colleague Veronica describes as ‘unflappable’) who helped us put Salop Drive Market Garden together, as we are now beginning again to consider the many and intersecting parts of developing a robust new community agriculture project, most of which have to be thought through in painstaking detail, as you don’t get a second chance to get some things right.

It’s not glamorous, and it keeps you awake at night.  I’m entering into that phase where I eat, drink, and sleep drains, mud, easements, leasing, fencelines, and much more, knowing full well that all sorts of things can crawl out of the woodwork to stop you in your tracks.  Being able to think yourself out of all sorts of boxes, and deal with multiple problems, continually, becomes normality.  But this time, my hair is already white, having given up to the ghost last time around.  And I’ve given up trying to fight it, finding it somehow rather cool to be a silver surfer, so that’s one less thing to worry about.

Spaces of hope: a gem of the old world of farming, trapped in an industrial space

I was wondering what to post about this morning, having been finally and rudely evicted from my bed by the Archers omnibus (a UK radio programme about rural life in England, which I loathe for its pantomime script and ham acting), and have decided to begin at the very beginning, as far back as we can trace the history of the parcel of land we are about to regenerate for urban agriculture.  Many years ago, when V and I first saw the site at Barlow Road, in Wednesbury North, and mentally noted its potential, while we set about developing out two other community farms and gardens, I noticed that a sad scrap of internal hedgerow was probably very old and likely to have marked out a long lost field boundary.  I went to the archives at Smethwick Library, partly to find out about industrial development in the area that may have left a legacy of land contamination (Sandwell is redlined as a contaminated area), and partly to find out the patterns of land ownership.

What we found out was that this sad scrap of land was once owned by a Rowntree, the famous former chocolate manufacturers and Quaker family, that did try to bring about better living conditions for people in Birmingham in the darker days of industrialisation.  We found the old pattern of field boundaries, and when you overlay the boundaries of the site (see pic), you can indeed see the field boundaries, and we can verify that the fragment of hedgerow can be dated to at least 1880, and is probably much older than that, perhaps dating back to the enclosures, when people were evicted from their ‘commons’, often being forced to migrate to find work in the emerging industrial centres as factory fodder – a pattern now being repeated in poorer parts of the world, but that’s for another blog on another day.

This land parcel, amazingly, this scrap of relatively unadulterated farmland, survived the most intense explosion of industrialisation of its time, at the birth of the industrial revolution, where mining and metalworking were first transformed from craft industries to fully industrialised, large scale technologies, which gobbled up the land and drew in a major urban population of industrial workers.  All around were pit and opencast mines, blast furnaces, metal fabricators, chain makers, engine builders, and associated industries.  The Black Country’s products fuelled the development of the modern industrial world. As the years progressed, the literally blasted landscape was left in ruins as centres of industrialisation moved on, and capital took flight, and industrial scale landfill and major transport networks took over the area.  It was Margaret Thatcher’s regime, with its visceral hatred of organised labour, that finally did for the place, in the 1970s, since then there has been little hope of recovery for the area and its inhabitants.

I can’t begin to describe the ugliness of this particular swathe of the Black Country, with stilt-raised motorway networks and intersections (not to give the motorists a better view, but because the land is unstable), rail shunting depots, acres of old and decaying, and newer, industrial infrastructure.  As for the site itself, to the north is an immense landfill site – now home to a fairly new ‘build ’em long and low on concrete rafts’ big box stores and Birmingham IKEA, with who-knows-what buried there; to the east are two high schools, most probably on landfill or old industrial sites; and not far beyond this is the 24/7 roar of one of Britain’s busiest, most congested motorways. The stream that once ran to the north boundary (now buried under the stores) was once the most significant source of copper pollution in the area.

In amongst all of this, and housed on a estate that was built in the 1920/30s, which in part surrounds the fragment of farmland that forms the Barlow Road site, are the good people of Wednesbury, struggling as always to survive – a million miles away in economic and social terms from the middle and upper classes of Britain. Having previously worked mainly in the south of the borough, we are now just getting to know Wednesbury’s YamYams (a Black Country term).  We are beginning to explore local social networks and associations, and we are told that these are particularly strong, with a community of folk that will go a long way to help each other.  I can’t help but wonder to what extent these strong local associations developed in response to the poor economic, social, and environmental, living conditions people have endured.  It takes me back to my roots in the back streets of Brixton in south London, where people were poor, died in droves of (now) preventable diseases, but stuck together and helped each other in hard times.

So, how come this little gem of the old world of farming survived, and not only that, remained as a site of food production for the community?  As far as we can  make out, it was gifted by the owner to a local steelworks, to act as an allotment site for the employees, so that they could grow food for their families.  The allotments tradition is still strong, if largely invisible, in Sandwell and across the UK.  Some say it was less about filling stomachs and more about keeping the men out of the pubs and saving souls, and others will argue that it was a way of keeping industrial wages low, but ensuring that your workforce was fit to work; both probably true.  Then, when the steelworks closed, it was passed to the Council as a statutory allotment site and protected green space, where it fell into disuse over many years as the art and practice of allotment keeping declined.

Which is good for us, and good for the now thriving allotment community that have battled the dereliction on their portion on the site, and brought it back into production.  Now it’s our turn to tackle the dereliction and fly tipping on the remaining three or so acres.  It will be a major, and expensive, job, funded by charitable trusts.  It has been a two-year effort to raise the funds to restore this forgotten and unloved historical gem to productivity, and to restore the fragment of hedgerow to something resembling what it may once have been.  This scrap of land has the potential to bring into full view a timeline of the history of the area and its people, something we will be celebrating as we transform this hidden gem of the old world of farming, trapped in a mixed up, mashed up industrial space: a small ‘space of hope’ for the local community.

Exploring new ways of working

This week I am grounded, both by vehicle problems (I acted as roadie – I have a nice van – at the weekend for a band in which my son and best friend were playing, and was incompetently reversed into something extremely hard by the drunken bass player, and now am seriously out of pocket for repairs); and by attacks of vomiting which I am convinced were brought on by a food product (Blue Dragon pour in chilli and coconut sauce – avoid it!), as even the dog was sick after I gave him the leftovers).

However, last week I mailed some key pieces of work to myself at home, including the text of a publication we (Veronica, Helen and myself) are working on to showcase our work and achievements through the Health and Well Being Service, and specifically our community agriculture programme Growing Opportunities; and all the necessary papers to work up an expression of interest (EoI) submission to the Big Lottery Communities Living Sustainably (CLS) stream.

We write bids like there was no tomorrow – if we didn’t there would be no tomorrow, as we could not sustain the multifunctional service.  Often we draw on existing text from previous bids, becoming rather like a production line using the same components in different configurations.  But every now and again, an opportunity to apply for funding comes along that requires you to step back, think, research and explore new ways of working.  This happened recently with a bid I submitted to the Pfizer UK Foundation, where I worked with the public heath team’s research manager to frame a bid for work with families, children and young people around the tackling obesity theme.  It was successful  (£17.5k), and quickly, which vindicated the research and preparation that went into it.  This EoI requires similar discipline, research, thought, and speaking to people who have different kinds of experience and capacities.

The CLS funding stream is focused on climate change, and bringing positive actions down to a community level, engaging and empowering people to take actions and helping to build sustainable and resilient communities.  The partners that have been drawn together, including Blakemores (Spar), Wednesbury Learning Community Trust, the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust, the Sandwell public health team, and ourselves, have all come together around the forthcoming new community agriculture scheme at the Barlow Road site in Wednesbury, close to Junction 9 of the M6.  One of the group, Paul Southon, part of the public health team, suggested a ‘asset based community development‘ (ABCD) approach, which sounded very interesting, but was new to the rest of us.

So I am reading up about ABCD, as well as food and climate change, and climate change as a public health issue, to help me frame the EoI, which allows 600 words to describe your proposed project to the funder, and 150 words to describe each partner and what they bring to the table. That is a real discipline and challenge.  I find myself captured by ABCD (an acronym that is as easy as abc – literally) as both a methodology and strategy, which has real potential to work in the new community agriculture setting, helping to take community agriculture to the next level, and continue to realise the vision as set out in the community agriculture strategy (I will upload the link to the publications page soon).

ABCD is a growing movement that originated in the USA, which has captured the attention of people working in community development, as an alternative to needs based community development.  Broadly, the appeal of ABCD lies in its premise that communities can drive the development process themselves by identifying and mobilising existing (but often unrecognised) ‘assets’, thereby responding and creating local economic (to which we would add environmental regenerations and ‘natural capital’) opportunity.  ABCD draws attention to social assets: the gifts and talents of individuals, and the social relationships that fuel local associations and informal networks.

To me, this seems to be an ideal way to build on the methods and approaches we used some years ago, which were based on a user led framework and the social model of disability.  There was indeed a vibrant process of community engagement and community led planning, and our Health and Well Being Committee remains a committed user led group, drawn from the diverse communities of Sandwell.  More lately though, our attention has been absorbed in developing and delivering a multifunctional programme, driven in part by the requirements of public sector service commissioners.  It is time we moved on, not from delivering award winning community agriculture sites, activities, and services, but towards new approaches that link community development work with hard edged academic research.  ABCD is both a methodology and a strategy, which offers great potential to build on our user led, inclusive, social model, which, on reflection, all of us in the team agree was pretty powerful in developing the community gardens and the framework of their operation, but lacked theoretical clout.

But this isn’t getting the EoI written. Each time I am involved in developing a major bid, I cram myself with information about different, other peoples thinking, hard data, interesting new approaches, etc., and it all swirls around in my head 24 hrs a day, with occasional flashes of insight, while the deadline looms ever closer and an undercurrent of procrastination and anxiety flows through me.  Maybe that’s why I have stomach ache.  But I still blame it on that Blue Dragon chilli and coconut sauce.  And to their credit, Sainsburys are taking the matter seriously and have sent the remains of the product to their lab for testing.  Ugh, even thinking about that sauce makes me feel ill.

And happy Chinese new year to you – year of the dragon (but not dragon sauce, in my case).

Week three – the pace quickens

This week turned quickly into a small whirlwind of activity, so much so that by Wednesday there was a traffic jam in my brain that required a brisk walk in the fresh air around the Independent Living Centre (what there is of it with a busy dual carriageway alongside), which is in Smethwick, one of the six towns that make up the metropolitan borough of Sandwell. In many ways it was a positive and productive week, accompanied by a rising sense of excitement about the new community agriculture initiative we are beginning in another of the six towns, Wednesbury, but also by a rising sense of panic about my workload.

It began with a great meeting with Garden Organic, the UK national organisation for organic gardening and growing, which, like many charities, is undergoing restructuring due to the economic downturn, and is actively seeking out new opportunities and collaborations.  Among other things, we spoke about the Lottery’s Communities Living Sustainably (CLS) funding stream, and the possibility of a partnership (with others), to bring forward an expression of interest (EOI) in making a bid. It was also a chance to catch up with a couple of old friends who work there, who were long time (from 1987!) fellow travellers from my organic farming and growing days.

Following this, a day in the office was spent beginning to deal with the diverse and accumulating tasks in dealing with the requirements of funders, from match funding, budgets and spend profiles, through business cases, procurement, legal agreement and leasing issues, all the while thinking hard about how we were going to organise ourselves in terms of capacity to deliver on our commitment, preparing for the CLS partnership meeting and a Board seminar the following day, and discussing all of this and more with my two development managers.  A mild sense of panic began to set in as the list of tasks seemed to get longer not shorter.

Wednesday was a day with back-to-back meetings.  First up was a meeting of partners identified as being likely to make up a strong partnership group for a CSL application, discussing the forthcoming Barlow Road Community Agriculture Initiative, and how it, and we, could bring forward an asset based community development programme worthy of Lottery funding, that would stand out from the jostling crowd of other applicants.  This has to be submitted by January 31st, and seems to be in line with a new approach by the Lottery to open very short-term windows of opportunity to submit these EOIs.  This worries me, because it is only the larger and better resourced organisations that have capacity to dedicate staff (at the drop of a hat) to work on such things.  Although on the positive side. it is a kind of discipline in fundraising that makes you very focused.

It was an extraordinarily positive meeting, that included the Wednesbury Leaning Community Trust, a co-operative organisation encompassing all the area’s schools and many community organisations; Blakemores, a national food service firm with very local roots and which is still a family business with a strong commitment to positive action in the local community through a corporate social responsibility programme; and the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust, which brings a biodiversity and ecological perspective to the application.  Absent but there in spirit were Garden Organic, and Sandwell Primary Care Trust.  The Lottery CLS programme is about supporting communities to find ways to find ways locally for more climate friendly ways of living which may help address climate change (adaptation, and mitigation).  That’s us, then, as the guidance specifically mentions urban agriculture as an example.

This was followed by a meeting on the new site, which is a forlorn mess of old allotment junk and fly tipped rubbish, all comprehensively overgrown for the last 15 or so years.  It does not look too bad to the eye, but it is unsafe to use until cleared. This meeting was with Sandwell Council’s drainage genius, and together with the knowledge of some of the allotment old timers, so we now have a sound grasp of glamorous things related to installing drainage systems that will not let us down five years down the line.  The (ex) chair of the developing allotments association briefed us about its progress and how the members were taking the news that a major scheme was coming to the adjacent land – a mixed response of excitement and anxieties, one that we are familiar with from previous schemes. She spoke of digging up pig bones and a fridge-freezer on her plot, so goodness knows what we will find.

We then led a seminar for Trustees and Board members of Ideal for All, the charitable organisation of which we are a part, to inform them, and address any questions, about the new scheme.  It went very well, we (being Veronica (pictured) and Helen, development managers, and myself) presented the case as made to the funders, and responding to questions and comments. The excitement was shared, such a scheme being an overwhelmingly positive thing for all concerned, but afterwards the traffic jam in my head built up as the stress hormones were in full flow by then.

So, a brisk walk, and gulps of cool if not fresh air, helped to clear the jam, and by the end of the day, after a recap with Veronica and Helen which included discussions about coping with technical and procurement issues, I had cleared my desk, and my brain, of several important tasks, mailed home those that I had not managed to get to, and left others not completed neatly on top of my computer keyboard for next week. Then I drove 86 miles home dodging the spray from the big trucks on the M5, M42, and M40.

I have been thinking about whether to let on in this blog about my long-term illness, but as each week, each day, is variously dominated by my state of health, which fluctuates wildly and unpredictably, it is inevitable that this will be woven into my experiences as recorded on this blog.  I have a disabling illness called fibromyalgia, which is one of the ME/CFS family of conditions affecting the central nervous system. about which medical science is learning, along with its sufferers.  It causes widespread and often untreatable pain (unless you resort to opiates, which I do from time to time, but sometimes even these don’t work unless you take enough to put you in a coma), chronic fatigue, brain ‘fog’ and memory problems.  I am the queen of lists and visual memory aids, being a strongly visual thinker in the first place.  But sometimes I forget to look at the lists and memory aids, indeed I sometimes forget I have made them, which all adds to the fun and stress of managing a significant workflow, topped off by a major new initiative, in 25 hours each week.

The constant challenge of evaluation

It being the last quarter of the financial year, our thoughts are turning towards reporting to our various funders, and the putting into place new contracts and funding agreements with those organisations that generously support us.  There are too many of them to name here, but Sandwell Primary Care Trust deserves a special mention.  The director of public health there, and numerous others, including members of the public health team, and the food team, have been essential to our development. We have for many years enjoyed being part of, and supported by, a configuration of extremely talented people with vision about the regeneration of public health and the urban environment going hand-in-hand – so demonstrating the principles of sustainable development. Sandwell is a very challenging, de-industrialising, poor quality urban environment, with some pretty poor indices of deprivation and ill health, so it needs all the talented people with vision it can get.

Reporting to funders and supporters is itself a challenge, as they are many and various, often requiring very different methods of reporting, from a simple report on a small project with a specific outcome, such as purchasing a new Kederhouse ( a kind of polytunnel), to reporting on a significant contract such as a service level agreement with many different types of activity and potential outcomes.  We can count and record data about many things – who uses our services and all the standard monitoring data such as age, ethnicity, gender, etc, and keep track of all our processes, such as dates, places and types of activity – using databases which can be interrogated in multiple ways.  That is relatively easy due to the skills of our database developer in Ideal for All, the charity of which we are a part.  And we work hard to record evidence of positive outcomes for the people we work with, who are members of Sandwell’s diverse communities through capturing qualitative feedback, and tracking the benefits expressed by individuals and groups. We use some validated tools such as the Short Warwick Edinburgh Mental Health Scale, and wish to extend the use of validated approaches, and methods we can use over time.

Evaluation, and especially meaningful evaluation, which reliably captures and demonstrates data, in ways suited to both an intervention itself, and to funders and commissioners of services, in a constantly shifting configuration of exepctations, is a constant challenge. And we are in the white waters of a major reconfiguration of local governance, what with huge cuts, the seismic changes to the NHS, Primary Care Trusts and the public health function, which will bring big changes to the way services are commissioned and evaluated.  Again, but this time with gigantic bells on.

But for now, it’s time to talk the commisioners of our main contract, in the PCT, to agree the best way to produce an annual report that draws together the monitoring and qualitative data in a way that demonstrates the outcomes of a year of intense activity, including significant success in securing additional funding to add value to the commissioned services. It’s a time of huge upheaval in the voluntary sector, but thanks to the brilliant work of a dedicated team, we have had one of our best years, if not the best, in 11 years of being Growing Opportunities.

One more thing to add to the growing ‘To Do’ list when I return to work tomorrow, that now includes a major new project in a new part of the borough with an already growing list of funders, and meetings with other public, private and third sector organisations to try to unlock more funding to develop it.  Oh, and I’m part time, as are the two development managers!

The first week in – so far, so good

My return to the workplace after the seasonal break, back to the office and to team mates, and to the detailed tasks to begin to piece together what is, for us, a major undertaking, felt pretty good.  First up was rethinking the list of tasks, meetings, staff head-to-heads, legal agreements, leasing arrangements….it’s long list and for the next two years it will never get any shorter.

Achievements of the first days included a convivial meeting with members of Sandwell Council’s legal and other teams for leases and other legal ins and outs for all three of our project sites, a good team get together, and a packed meeting of our user-led Health and Well Being Service Committee.

We have two well established community farms and gardens, both of which were built from scratch on variously derelict land: Malthouse Garden, on a parcel of land formerly occupied by a 20 storey tower block, and Salop Drive Market Garden, on a derelict allotment site.  Now, we are about to start the lengthy process of developing a third community agriculture resource on a similarly derelict former allotment site, adjacent to the part now occupied by a thriving allotments community.  The leases, granted by the Council, and originally for 25 and 20 years respectively, are now 14 and 9 years, which makes fundraising for significant capital investment impossible.  Add to that picture the securing of sufficient funding to invest in a third major scheme, and the opportunity arose to deal with long leases on all three sites of 25 years, subject to Secretary of State approval, which we have already obtained for the new site.

The team get together was an opportunity to reconnect after the seasonal break, and to talk about the new project and its implications for key team members.  Everyone (11 of us, variously full and part time, or sessional) is quietly excited about the new scheme despite already working small daily miracles in delivering a complex service to many of the most vulnerable people in society, living in areas of significant deprivation in the post industrial scene of the six Black Country towns that form the borough of Sandwell.  In future blogs I will undoubtedly speak more of the conditions of the Black Country urban folk, and what they have to endure, the chief ingredients in the mix being in a low (or no) wage economy, poor health, and a poor quality urban environment.

Our Committee, which has been in existence for a long decade, is at the heart of our user-led, social model.  People from all walks of life, many with multiple and complex disabilities, health, economic and social problems dedicate their time to guiding and shaping the services and activities we deliver.  The buzz of enthusiasm apparent among staff was reflected among the members of the committee.

I hope as time goes by people reading this blog will form a picture of what our community agriculture initiative is, does, and is all about.  Rather than launch into long and boring descriptions of this and that, the story will be interwoven into these blogs over time. If you want to find out more, our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Growing-Opportunities-Ideal-For-All/ is pretty lively, and we have a website (much in need of a makeover) at http://www.sandwellfoodnetwork.org

So I reach the end of the first week in an upbeat state of mind, pleased by the first small achievements and the positivity of people.  I’m tempted to say it won’t last, but that isn’t strictly true.  The upbeat, positive side will come in fits and starts, and will be mirrored by times of absolute desperation and seething frustration.  I know.  I’m close to old trout status and I’ve been around several blocks, and have been round this one before.  It requires a mixture of vision, clarity, passion, flexibility, adaptability, staying power and true, true grit, and sometimes it all gets just too much. So I am quietly savouring this small moment, including writing this blog, which will form a narrative that I hope is worth sharing.