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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.

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.

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).

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