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.