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.

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.

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.