Last Tuesday I attended the spring conference of local grassroots charity Somerset Community Food. The day was a celebration of local food and was organised to facilitate the networking between community groups, growers and landowners, with a focus on South Somerset.
Paul Robathan, from South Somerset Together introduced the day, he talked about the benefits of building partnerships with others – what can be achieved when people work together. We then heard from three success stories from Somerset. The Farm Manager from the Magdalen Project, Martin Biss, talked about the farms diversification strategy and how they have focused on education, which can be financially rewarding as well as emotionally, for example when seeing kids covered in mud and loving every minute of it.
Ian McNab and Cara Naden talked about their experiences of starting Digger’s Field, a new allotment site in Langport, which obviously has brought their community together and has been an enjoyable experience to be part of. Simon Larking from the National Trust then gave a talk on Lytes Cary who have let out land from their estate to develop an impressive allotment site for local use.
Everyone then broke out for the different workshops. I attended one on ‘Looking for Land… who can help?’ Even though I have a wonderful smallholding at present I was hoping to learn where to begin when I may be involved in projects that are needing land to get growing on. Hannah from Somerset Community Food, introduced the options and as a group we used one of my upcoming projects as a case study.
The task was to see who could help in looking for land for a project that is providing the opportunity for young offenders and care leavers in Glastonbury and mid-somerset to learn about growing food. As part of the Transition Towns Glastonbury Food Group we will be organising a ‘Get Set Grow’ course and then if this goes well exploring the options to potentially undertake a shared allotment.
The workshop covered contacting the council, including the area leisure manager who is responsible for knowing where spaces are available for community use. The benefits of potentially partnering with an establish organisation were promoted, in our case study a group such as Groundwork with experience and knowledge could make all the difference. We also looked at the potential of private landlords, including sympathetic farmers, churches, housing associations and others. The workshop certainly made be ‘think outside the box’. Another useful outcome is that Somerset Council apparently have an online map which tells you which council owns what land and so forth, which could be useful in the future.
Soon it was lunch and the food was fantastic, it was all deliciously vegetarian and there was even vegan cake, so needless to say I was happy! After lunch there was a ‘soapbox’ session, where a few of us stood up to speak for one minute only to plug whatever we were there for, I talked about permaculture and shamelessly offered my services and others talked about their community initiatives and businesses.
After lunch attendees heard from BBC Gardener of the Decade, Katherine Crouch. She seemed lovely and had us all laughing at her gardening jaunts, she also gave some useful tips. For example growing cut flowers to compliment a vegetable income, as they just keep coming all season and can make you a tidy little income! We also heard from Beth Prince from the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, who would guess that 5 million bananas are thrown away every day!!! Its intrinsic to permaculture to design to reduce waste, as well as to turn wastes to resources (waste = food for most microorganisms) and so the talk resonated with my approach to gardening.
In the afternoon I attended a workshop on how to sell your excess produce. As a local grower, I am researching what the options are, how can I get the price for my produce but balance the amount of energy needed to sell it? Many ideas came up including the option of selling to Somerset Local Food Direct, who offer local food online, as well as Somerset Country Markets. You can join the market’s cooperative for 50p and then 10% of what you sell they take, this includes them paying for all of the insurance and other essentials! I learnt a lot of useful facts on what I would need in order to sell, for example in relation to trading standards and food hygiene rules. Roger from Local Food Direct emphasised looking at the consumer wants and growing to meet their needs, other sellers there also said that fruit is always in demand in Somerset as well as unusual and early producing varieties. It was an interesting workshop to explore the ins and outs of sourcing local food and the potential challenges for shops.
Other workshops run on the day included a tour of the farm, the social, financial and community benefits to landowners letting their land for community use, as well as workshops on how to plan your space, from a small allotment to a quarter of an acre. Finally, summarising the day was Richard Spalding, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at UWE, who actually taught Transition founder Rob Hopkins back in the day. I really enjoyed his talk because of my interest in food production and how it relates to social change. He showed a picture of Bristol’s market gardeners at the turn of the century – a group of serious-faced men, and he commented on how the dynamic is changing. I looked around the room at the conference and thought like he suggested about what a photo would look like now – the diverse groups of people growing food, from women to working class kids to people with mental health problems, the make up is changing. Like Martin described this is effecting our ‘foodscapes’ too, our use of the soil and how we grow our food. I felt positive at the end of the day that we are moving in the right direction – that we can at a community level reclaim the means of production, the conference being one manifestation of this work.
Thanks again to SCF for organising it!