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.

Regeneration, regeneration, regeneration

More or less 12 years ago, we were commencing the regeneration of two parcels of land, about as different as it is possible for them to be, as were our approaches to their regeneration.  The first, and smaller of the two, was the footprint of a former 20 storey tower block, a pair of which were brought down at the same time, leaving a scar in the landscape, and an opportunity for new developments.  The tower blocks were being brought down as part of the regeneration of a ‘difficult’ area.  The other land parcel was a former 1.1 ha (3 acre) allotments site, which had gradually fallen into neglect and dereliction over about 15 years or so, save for a stalwart group of first generation immigrant Jamaicans, huddled together on one part of the site.

The tower block land was a mess, as you can imagine – Brownfield with a capital B.  It was contaminated, a mix of all sorts – rubble, live power cables, etc, and far from the kind of land that you would imagine could produce stunning gardens to support a professional standard therapeutic horticulture programme.  Part of the development land had already been dedicated to the development of Sandwell‘s flagship Independent Living Centre, bringing together public authorities and a user led organisation of disabled and disadvantaged people, now known as Ideal for All (IFA), about which I will write more in future posts. The people that made up IFA had put forward a proposal for a garden on the neighbouring brownfield site, and as hard cash for regeneration was flowing into deprived areas under the New Labour government of the day, IFA was able to secure a capital grant to develop the infrastructure of the gardens (later known as Malthouse Gardens) in more or less once lump.

In contrast, the second site was a greenfield site, in the sense that all allotments, along with public parks, cemeteries, etc, are designated as ‘green’.  We had found out in the first round of investigations, in 1999 or thereabouts, that a greenfield site can be badly contaminated, and a brownfield one not necessarily so, harking back to layer upon layer of use through the industrial revolution and beyond.  This site, which became Salop Drive Market Garden, was a mess of abandoned sheds, sofas, bed frames, broken bicycles and supermarket trolleys, all thoroughly overgrown.  We had no money, and had to set about raising the investment we estimated we needed through a focused campaign, trying to convince funders that our ideas for the transformation of this land parcel into a thriving, multifunctional, community resource, through gardening and food growing, were not completely barking mad.  And so we did, but the funding packages for each phase of development were assembled from multiple pots of funding, all stopping and starting at different times.

With this site, our first task was to strip off all the overgrowth, and the understorey of junk.  Which produced us rather large piles of a mixed up mess of green waste liberally interspersed with all sorts of debris. We realised that it would be impossible to separate the waste, so we had it compacted into a ‘bund’ around parts of the site, soiled it over, and planted a mixed native species hedgerow on top, which is now fully fledged, and rather lovely. Following this was a topographical survey to map the lie of the land.  The soil was ‘riddled’, to separate out some of the sticks, stones, broken glass, and other sundry junk.  All the while we were fundraising madly for the different elements of an urban market garden, alongside a fully inclusive community development process, within which the masterplan for the project was developed by members of the local community.

Incredibly, it all more or less came together, and a properly managed ‘build’ began.  Not so luckily, in the few weeks before the autumn sun shone daily, and the land was relatively dry, but the day the plant and machinery went on site, the heavens opened, it rained for weeks, and the combination of heavy machinery and heavy rain turned parts of the site to porridge.  As a former farmer and grower, this was horrifying to watch, as I knew we would have problems further down the line restoring the (once good) land to productivity, but I could not pull the machinery off site as funding agreements and financial year ends meant we had to carry on.  We put in drains, water supplies, a pressurised irrigation system, power, polytunnels, a large greenhouse, built roads and pathways, and craned in prefabricated buildings, which gently settled down onto all of their service connections, and were connected up, just like that.  Amazing.

But then we had to reclaim the poor, battered soil.  In the first year, we did no growing on outdoor land at all, while focusing attention on the soil structure in the tunnels, getting them cropping.  Outdoors, we allowed the weeds to grow, and sprayed them off, once.  From that moment, we used organic methods.  We used green waste compost, deep rooting green manures (rye and vetch), and careful cultivations to nurse the compacted land back into life.  I’d guess it took about 18 months, much quicker than I had imagined, before productivity was starting to build, as the soil was a quite decent medium loam before the bulldozers got to it.

And now we have to do it all over again on the new 1.2 ha site.  This last week we tracked down and met up with the civil engineer (whom colleague Veronica describes as ‘unflappable’) who helped us put Salop Drive Market Garden together, as we are now beginning again to consider the many and intersecting parts of developing a robust new community agriculture project, most of which have to be thought through in painstaking detail, as you don’t get a second chance to get some things right.

It’s not glamorous, and it keeps you awake at night.  I’m entering into that phase where I eat, drink, and sleep drains, mud, easements, leasing, fencelines, and much more, knowing full well that all sorts of things can crawl out of the woodwork to stop you in your tracks.  Being able to think yourself out of all sorts of boxes, and deal with multiple problems, continually, becomes normality.  But this time, my hair is already white, having given up to the ghost last time around.  And I’ve given up trying to fight it, finding it somehow rather cool to be a silver surfer, so that’s one less thing to worry about.

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.