CASE STUDY: growing fruit and veg in the city

A host of communal vegetable gardens are springing up in the concrete heart of East London. Ben Willis meets the woman coaxing life from the urban jungle

Tucked away behind a brick wall in a quiet corner of an East London park, the seeds of a food revolution are being sown. Walking through a small gate, visitors will encounter none of the normal clutter of an urban park; no swings, no benches, no ice-cream vans. Instead, they will find neat rows of raised vegetable beds containing a rich, fertile soil. In a small greenhouse, pots of new seedlings gather strength in preparation for their time in the ground. Down the middle of the site stands a line of well-pruned fruit trees awaiting the first touches of spring to coax them into life.

This scene of ordered cultivation is a far cry from four years ago, when Growing Communities, the organisation behind the garden, took it on as little more than a piece of urban wasteland. ‘It was an overgrown dog toilet,’ recalls Julie Brown, Growing Communities’ founder director. ‘There were burned-out litter bins and a metal container in the middle where people used to come and smoke crack. A lot of love and energy has gone into getting it like this.’

Today, the transformation could not be more complete. The site is now organically certified. The vegetable beds are in year-round production and yield a colourful spectrum of leafy salad plants: curly endive, giant red mustard, mizuna, Cornet de Bordeaux, rouge d’hiver. In total, the garden can’t cover more than a couple of hundred square metres, but it is the nerve centre of Growing Communities’ burgeoning operation.

Since the mid-1990s, when the organisation began life as an organic box scheme for a few committed friends, it has flourished and now keeps more than 400 homes around Hackney stocked with a weekly supply of organic fruit and vegetables. Only a small proportion of this is grown in the organisation’s own gardens, but everything else is brought in from small farms within a 100-mile radius. Some of these same farmers turn up once a week to sell their produce at the organic farmers’ market launched five years ago by Growing Communities, the first of its kind in the country.

For Julie, however, this is just the beginning. With climate change now accepted by all but the most die- hard deniers, and resource depletion continuing apace, she wants Growing Communities’ pioneering work to become a blueprint for other parts of the country. With its emphasis on organic, local, unmechanised food production and distribution, Brown believes the organisation has come up with a sustainable food system that will be able to withstand the twin threats of climate change and pending fuel shortages.

‘We’ve got a model that works, and we want to see it replicated,’ she says. ‘We want more communities to come together to take back the food system from the supermarkets and from agribusiness. I still believe we have the time to create something better than what we’ve got now, but we really need to act quickly.’

If anyone doubted her ambition, it would be worth noting that Julie Brown and her organisation have conjured up, from nothing, a genuine alternative to supermarket hegemony: a solid, market-driven system for distributing locally grown, organic food that uses none of the resource- intensive production and transit systems of the mainstream grocers. Importantly, the organisation has also proved it can make the economics of a local food system stack up: since 2006, Growing Communities has been financially self-sufficient and now turns over around £280,000 a year.

Planting the seed

Growing Communities began life when Julie, a young idealist, fresh from a six-year stint with Friends of the Earth, became inspired by the philosophy of social ecology – the idea that ecological and social problems are intertwined, and both the product of flawed political and economic systems. She and a group of friends began taking an interest in community-supported agriculture, an emergent movement seeking to address the concerns of social ecology by creating small-scale, organic food networks serving localised areas.

‘We’d have big theoretical discussions about setting up alternatives to the current oppressive and dominating systems of capitalism,’ Julie says. ‘One of the things going on in the US was this idea of community- supported agriculture (CSA). I thought: "We can do that". At the time organic wasn’t really heard of – CSA certainly wasn’t – but the idea of being able to change the way we and other people were fed felt very appealing.’

Fundamental to CSA was the concept of reforging the link between people and their food, so the first objective was to find a farm near London willing to give her theories a go. ‘The aim was to make it viable for that farm to be able to farm how it wanted to, and also for us to be able to get hold of the food we wanted at an affordable price,’ she explains. ‘It was also about reconnecting an urban community with where its food comes from.’

Eventually, after scouring Soil Association lists, Julie found an organic farm on the Oxfordshire border that agreed to her proposals. She encouraged a group of friends to stump up £70 each to pay the farm to start growing her vegetables and arranged for working groups to spend weekends at the farm, growing the produce they would eventually eat.

The scheme was soon supplying around 40 people with produce and Julie began to contemplate ways of building and formalising the operation. In 1996, Growing Communities was officially launched. The organisation’s primary objectives were to expand the box scheme and use it as a mechanism to support local organic farmers. ‘We wanted to direct the buying power of our community towards farming systems that needed our support,’ she explains.

Today, the box scheme supports 25 organic farms in Kent and Essex, and 80 per cent of its total content comes from the UK. None of the produce is air-freighted or grown in heated greenhouses, and only its Fairtrade bananas come from outside Europe. To further minimise its environmental impact, instead of delivering to homes, the box scheme is run on a pick-up basis: boxes are delivered to a number of distribution points around Hackney in a former Greenpeace campaign milk float called Maisy, from where customers come to collect them.

Similar rules are applied to the weekly organic farmers’ market. ‘The average distance the farmers come is 56 miles,’ Julie says. ‘Most are within 60 miles; some, the dairy producers for instance, are coming from 129 miles away. We really want to look at using the box scheme and market to get some kind of dairy production going on closer than that, however. There isn’t anyone doing that now, so it’s something we’d like to encourage.’

In 2000, she began exploring an idea that had come to her in the early days of the project. ‘When we were going backwards and forwards between Hackney and the farm, we started to think, wouldn’t it be great if we could grow food up here,’ she says.

Big ideas, microsites

Julie began looking around for small sites on which to start growing small quantities of produce to supplement what Growing Communities’ farmers were already providing. Herein lay a problem, though: being an inner-city London borough, land in Hackney was scarce and certainly not readily available for an organic horticulture project. There was nothing for it but for Julie to get on her bike.

‘I cycled around and looked over hedges and under fences, and tried to identify bits of derelict land,’ she recalls. ‘I searched through the land registry; I contacted the council to see who owned bits of land. I followed up loads of leads; I talked again to the council about whether they had any spare land…’

Eventually she succeeded in finding three small parcels of neglected land that collectively covered only some half an acre. The sites were put into organic conversion, and a grant from the National Lottery enabled Julie to pay someone to work the plots full time. Today, Growing Communities’ own-grown produce only accounts for about five per cent of the weekly boxes, but it’s this element of the organisation’s development that excites her the most.

Under an idea she calls ‘patchwork farms’, she wants to develop a network of organic ‘micro-sites’ around Hackney, each of which will produce fruit and veg for the box scheme. Because of the scarcity of land in Hackney, she is hoping members of the community will donate small sites for cultivation – indeed, the first site has already been secured. ‘It’s in the back garden of a vicar who’s incredibly supportive of what we do,’ Julie laughs. ‘He and his wife are letting us put half their back garden into organic certification. Then there are obviously people’s back gardens, housing estates and schools.’

Julie’s aim is to increase Growing Communities’ total growing area from a half to one acre through the patchwork farms idea. And she has a plan to match up the micro-sites around the borough with a team of apprentice growers trained up by the organisation. Growing Communities already runs an apprentice scheme for two growers each year, but Brown wants to expand this and offer ‘graduate’ apprentices one of the micro-sites on which to grow produce.

‘I have a vision of micro-sites dotted around Hackney,’ she says. ‘Each of those sites will have a grower with a bicycle and trailer, and every Tuesday they’ll cycle their produce up to Springfield, one of our sites where the packing goes on. We’d use the box scheme as a mechanism to buy produce from the trained apprentice, meaning they would get paid for whatever they’d grown.’

Coming from anyone else, this idea would sound whimsical, a throwback to a bygone era of peasant farmers bringing their produce to market, but Julie has shown that, even in an unrelentingly urban setting, a localised, low-impact food system is not such a fanciful notion. Even when she reveals that she’d eventually like to have growers bringing in produce on the Tube from larger growing sites on the outskirts of London, it’s hard not to get carried along by the idea.

In the context of the challenges that lie ahead, what Growing Communities has achieved and what it has the potential to achieve hold important lessons for the rest of the country. Already, we are seeing signs of what may be in store, with countries such as Mexico recently experiencing riots over rising food prices and the United Nations predicting dire food shortages in Asia and Africa as demand outstrips supply. A food system that can keep on feeding hungry mouths amid global turmoil is surely one worth exploring.

Last year, Julie had a tantalising glimpse of the resilience of the Growing Communities model. ‘During last summer’s floods, when the price of potatoes was going mad, we had a direct link with one farmer who continued to supply us at the usual price,’ she says. ‘Hopefully, we’ll be similarly insulated as oil prices rise.’

She is already in discussions with the Soil Association over how the model she and her colleagues have developed could be replicated elsewhere. She acknowledges there will be practical problems to overcome, not least the fact that Growing Communities has come very much from the grassroots, so making it work elsewhere will require similarly committed groups of individuals. She believes, however, that such people can be found, possibly through networks such as Transition Towns.

One thing she is sure about is that there is now a pressing imperative for a total rethink of the methods by which we produce and procure food.

‘It’s the most fundamental issue we have,’ she says. “The fact our food and farming systems are unsustainable in terms of climate change gases has become so much clearer over the past few years. Then you’ve got peak oil coming over the hill; our systems are unsustainable because there won’t be enough fuel. We want to be ready here with something that works. And we will be ready.’

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008