Growing Together: – the story of how a vegetable box scheme in Kippax, West Yorkshire, inspired the design of a community growing project in West Wales.
Guest blog post by Louise Cartwright, Egin Peer Mentor.
I found out too late that horticulture would have been the better option for me to study. I had an epiphany of sorts during my studies, when I realised that growing food for sale locally, not manufacturing yet more products in an already saturated market could, in some small way, help to mitigate the effects of climate change. During my final year instead of studying for my finals, I spent every weekend apprenticing at a local market garden, learning some of the basics.
The idea was Kippax Community Supported Agriculture, or ‘CSA’: a vegetable box scheme inspired by the North American farming model, where communities support their local farmer to grow fruit and vegetables. ‘Members’, pay up front for their produce, sharing the gluts, crop failures and some of the workload, although there are variations to this model. The idea for Kippax CSA was based on a farm I visited whilst studying in Ottawa, which was on the edge of a village literally in the ‘middle of nowhere’.
Each week the growers cropped the veg, took it to market, and members collected their ‘share’. The farm was a hive of activity, with members helping out with various farm jobs, and some leading on their own projects. It’s a radically different way of consuming compared to the current paradigm. Members have a direct relationship with the people growing their food. This engenders trust, regarding paying up front for produce, which supports growers during the lean times. It’s quite a hard sell. You’re not only asking people to part with their money before you’ve grown anything, you’re asking for another valuable resource, their time.
In 2008 I was 22, a newly graduated product designer, who was desperate to be a market gardener. With the bit firmly between my teeth, I went about finding an acre to rent, and applying for a small grant to cover setting up costs. I wrote to farmers in and around Leeds and settled on an acre adjacent to the village of Ledston Luck. Ledston Luck is a village of 50+ households in West Yorkshire, enough people to make the box scheme viable, or so I thought. Many leaflet-drops and a public meeting later, several members from the village were engaged but the majority of members were from Kippax or Leeds.
I found out about the tensions in the village by accident. I was planting potatoes when one of the local dog walkers stopped for a chat, recalling his experiences during the miners’ strike, mentioning rifts between the locals who broke it. This conversation, and others like it, made me realise that pushing leaflets through doors and talking about veg at local WI meetings wasn’t enough to engage this community. My community engagement experience was sadly lacking and caused further alienation from the locals I was trying to connect with.
Before I rented the field, the farmer’s fence was patchy and broken in places. It was these areas that locals were using to access the field to walk their dogs. When we took over the lease, we patched up some of the holes and left the gate open for people to continue to walk through. This worked well for a time, until we had an issue with feral dogs damaging crops, dodging their resultant mess and the theft of tools from our storage shed, which was broken into, twice. Our insurers wouldn’t pay out for our stolen equipment with no lock on the gate. Our bank balance couldn’t afford another hit with the possibility of a third break in, and it was with trepidation that we put a combination lock on the gate. We made a point of letting the local dog walkers know what we had to do, but as you can imagine they took it badly. Try as we might, we weren’t able to reconcile them to our point of view.
I learnt many valuable lessons over the four-year period growing food for the CSA. The most useful lesson for me now is, ‘just because you think something’s a great idea, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s right for the community’. This lesson coupled with the importance of providing a forum, where people can share ideas, voice any concerns and make suggestions, has been very useful throughout my career in community development.
15 years on, I’m still heavily involved with community growing and I’m currently managing the ‘Feeding Our Community Project’, part of Cwm Arian Renewable Energy. The project aims to teach communities in northwest Carmarthenshire to grow, store and prepare food in publicly accessible spaces. Hosting ‘pay if you can’ community meals is the way we’re reaching out to people and getting them involved with the design process.
The meals provide opportunities for locals to break bread with neighbours, have their say about their green spaces, and eat good food sourced from the surrounding area. There’s something indescribable about the power of eating together. The act of breaking bread, somehow makes it easier for those difficult conversations about land use to be heard and debated.
With the benefit of hindsight, I believe that if we’d held community meals at Kippax CSA, using all of our produce, it would have helped people to understand what we were trying to achieve and provided opportunities for us to take on board their ideas. We might not have gained many more village members, but I believe that we would have been one step closer to being part of their community, working together to mitigate the effects of climate change.
As well as being an Egin Peer Mentor and working for Cwm Arian Renewable Energy, Louise is a freelance horticultural trainer and facilitator. Louise works with various community groups and organisations, delivering courses in organic horticulture, land management, biodynamic gardening, as well as helping groups solve design challenges. Email or call (07394130976) Louise if you’re interested in running a course or workshop for your group/organisation, or for design advice.