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.

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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.

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).