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.

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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).

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 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.

Ready, steady, grow!

This is my story of the development of a new community agriculture resource close to Junction 9 of the M6, in Wednesbury, one of the six towns of Sandwell.  It’s a personal blog – a record – of the insights, questions, frustrations and triumphs of putting together a successful urban agriculture programme,  What is posted here does not necessarily represent the views if my employers or other members of our 11 strong team.  Only one has been on this journey with me before – the others don’t know what they are in for but they are willing and able

I am a lifelong farmer and grower, starting as a kid in my Mum’s garden ( once we had one), progressing to a first ramshackle site in Devon, to a 30 acre organic farm and market garden, then into urban agriculture.  Most of my work has been in Sandwell, West Midlands, UK, although I’ve also travelled a lot and seen many other wonderful examples of people just getting on with it, and finding ways to grow food, flowers and lovely things in all sorts of spaces.

Officially, the new initiative starts January 9th, the day of my return to work in 2012, but the story starts many years before, spotting the site and then working to bring a project forward and to get funding for it.  We finally got enough money (about £230,000) at the very end of 2011, for two years of painstaking regeneration of the 1.2 hectares of land, and the gradual ‘build of the infrastructure, together with a staged process of engagement with local people and organisations.

This is my way of keeping a record and sharing the story.  There will be tears, colourful language, desperation, mud, bullozers and holes in the ground, regulations, regulations, regulations; and delights and happy smiles as a once eyesore derelict piece of land, is transformed into a health promoting community resource.

ladybirdathome