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.

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.