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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.

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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!