Warren Draper (WD): So, this is Bentley Urban Farm. It is a former horticultural training centre that used to be run by the council. So, we are looking at a mixture of apples and pears that were once…
Neil Roberts (NR): This week we are in the company of self-confessed idler and anarchist eco-activist, Warren Draper. He is taking us round what he describes as an upcycled market garden in Doncaster suburb, Bentley.
WD: Doncaster is one of the top 10 poorest regions in the UK. There is major food poverty and food health problems, but we are in the heart of an agricultural area, so we have all the resources we need for healthy, local, affordable and sustainable local food.
NR: It is no secret that having access to fresh, affordable food helps people lead healthier and happier lives. With food poverty at an all-time high and a growing appetite for high-quality, local, seasonal, organically-produced vegetables, our story today is about a community project that is reconnecting people with the land and with each other.
My name is Neil Roberts and this is the Community Business Fix. If you are thinking of setting up a community business or just want to get involved with one in your area, in this show you will find inspiration and hear advice from those who have done it, like Warren Draper. He is director and one of the founders of Bentley Urban Farm, inspired not by altruism but necessity.
WD: I have first-hand experience of breadline poverty: I lost my house in the credit crunch and, before that, we all slept as a young family in one room because it was the only one we could afford to heat. Those choices between food and fuel was something I had had direct experience of. So, I have always been interested, but I also have always been involved with alternative cultures, for want of a better word. I used to be a road protester, so a lot of the permaculture techniques I learnt on protest camps and things like that, and a lot of the people I met who influenced me were from that kind of DIY attitude. It is not altruistic at all. It is really I want to protect the people I know and love, and I think giving people those skills is one way to do it. We live in very uncertain times, and I think the more skills that are seeded in an area, the more resilience that area will have.
NR: Permaculture is a term we often hear. Warren says it is at the heart of the Bentley project, but what exactly is it?
WD: Permaculture is a design principle, really. It is about observing natural, ecological systems and using those to design systems that are easier to maintain, take less energy to produce and create greater yield, but also create better ecological systems in the long run. So, it is very much a loop: learning from ecology and applying it to support ecology.
NR: When planning a new community business, it pays to keep your eyes open for any unused land and buildings in your area, as Warren found out on a trip to learn about food and the power of small actions in Todmorden, with an organisation called Incredible Edible. We will be hearing more from them later.
WD: We first wanted to use the site when we saw it about 10 years ago, and we saw the facility of the polytunnel greenhouse, and started making enquiries. Then we found out that the field next to it was available. So, we began an Incredible Edible group, which turned into a group called Growing a Greater Bentley, and started growing locally.
NR: Also, on that Incredible Edible trip to Todmorden, was Rachel Horne. Daughter of a minor, her upbringing has instilled in her the values of community. She had similar ideas to Warren, but, at the time, didn’t realise there was a kindred spirit in Doncaster.
Rachel Horne (RH): I have always been interested in nutrition and health and degenerative disease and what causes that. And my dad had an allotment when I grew up. He was a minor, and all my sisters and my mum always grew up with fresh vegetables. Then, when the pits closed, they took the allotments away. I was eating tinned carrots, and they didn’t taste real. So, on and off, my whole life, I have been interested in food and nutrition, and always wanted to buy organic from that. [To someone else] Hello? Hiya? Sorry.
NR: Rachel breaks off to hand over a copy of Doncopolitan, one of the first projects she and Warren worked on together. Doncopolitan is a free arts and culture magazine they co-created to prove there is no such thing as a cultural desert, a slur often aimed at the town they live in.
Their mission was to shed light on the hidden wonders of Doncaster, and, as they put it in a recent edition, to convince the doubters that a braver, brighter future is truly possible. It is a sister project of the Urban Farm, promoting its ideals as part of its positive view of the town to its 5,000 subscribers. In fact, without it there might not have been a farm project at all.
In its early days, a copy of the magazine fell into the hands of a key figure on the council, which led Rachel and Warren to a collaboration with a body they had always treated with suspicion.
RH: We hadn’t really worked with the council at all and we saw them as a bit of a problem rather than partners or people we could collaborate with.
WD: So, Jo Miller, who is the chief executive of the council, who has recently been described as the third most powerful person in local government in the UK, she started subscribing to the magazine because she liked what we did. She even used the term ‘Doncopolitism’ to describe our forward-looking and positive attitude.
She wanted to meet us and arranged to meet us at our office in Copley Road. While she was there, Rachel told her about the vision we had for this site that we had had for a long time; to create this permaculture market garden.
RH: We pitched a brilliant project to Jo Miller about what we wanted to do at the site, and managed to tap into some funding that was available at that time. Yes, we made it happen.
WD: For the first year, we were funded by the mayor’s department. Mayor Ros Jones has a fund for community enterprise, and that was going in the first place. It had been empty for four years. It was all three-foot weeds outside, six-foot thistles inside the greenhouse and the polytunnel, and quite a bit of damage. The first winter was really hard labour and we didn’t want people to think that that is what they were getting involved with when they came down. But, come the spring, we had the first plants through and we got the first beds ready.
NR: That first winter was constant hard labour, as they cleared and prepared the site. They also installed an off-grid water supply using containers donated by a local vinegar importer. Ever resourceful, they used the five or so litres of vinegar left at the bottom of each container as weed killer. But, with the arrival of spring, the site made safe and the beds prepared, it was time for Bentley Urban Farm to invite more people onto the project.
WD: We are a consortium cooperative, which means it is made up of members who, rather than being a workers cooperative that work directly for Bentley Urban Farm, the members are self-employed and they use their own skills for the benefit of the farm, and, in return, they can use the farm in their own practice. For instance, Dave is a horticultural therapist; Suzie is a shaman and therapist. So, it is people with various different skills to offer and then use the site to help with their own activities, but also to support the ultimate goals of Bentley Urban Farm.
NR: The consortium membership of Bentley Urban Farm are taking matters into their own hands; a local community approach to a growing national issue. Some of their funding came from Power to Change. Jenny Sansom is one of their programme managers.
Jenny Sansom (JS): Over eight million people in the UK struggle to get enough food, and the use of food banks has quadrupled over the last 10 years. There are a number of reasons for that including the general rising cost of living is one of them, the higher cost of housing and fuel, and also, coupled with that, people on low and unstable incomes often. The healthier, fresher foods are those that are generally more expensive. It is cheaper to buy processed foods, tinned foods, etc. So, the general cost of living is an issue.
Vox Pop: It is not just about finding healthy food, but it is so expensive as well. So, whenever you try and eat organically or, especially in the shops, it seems to be so much harder and more expensive.
JS: If, for example, in your neighbourhood all there is, is possibly a chip shop and an expensive corner shop, but it involves a long journey to the supermarket or a greengrocer, it is difficult for some people, especially people who don’t have a car or people who are elderly or disabled, for example. It is difficult for people to access good food if there is no place to get it in the local area.
More and more, as a society, people are under pressure with working very hard, perhaps with kids to look after, and it is often easiest to go for ready-made foods – for example, pasta sauce from a jar or pizza. But those are the foods that often contain hidden sugar and salt and are high in fat.
I guess knowledge and skills is a part of it as well, and just what we are used to. I mean, if you are not used to cooking with fresh fruit and vegetables or maybe don’t know how to, at the end of a hard day’s work, it can just seem too challenging. There is a whole range of different issues there that all influence each other.
NR: As local resident, Sayeed, as we heard there, confirms distance to source decent produce is an issue for many people. Jenny Sansom points to other pressures too, on time, cooking skills and, inevitably, budget, which influences the food choices people make. Staggeringly, in Bentley, 94% of residents live within walking distance of a takeaway, but there is not a single greengrocer in the area. Here is Rachel Horne again.
RH: We use the words ‘food desert’ to describe an area that doesn’t have any fresh fruit or veg for sale, really, which is Bentley, which is an ex-mining town. So, that is what we are trying to just highlight. It might sound a bit shocking, but I think it is the reality. And people are working all the time, both parents are working, and I am from that generation where both parents went out to work and you were put in front of the telly with a bag crisps and a Pot Noodle. That is what they did because it was convenience food and it is convenient, and that is what everyone was marketing and branding in the 90s during that time. My mum would have wanted to stay and cook fresh veg from the allotment, but she couldn’t have that world.
So, that was the new world, and we are in that now, but we are recognising that is not good and we don’t want to be there. That is kind of what we are trying to tackle, really. We don’t want to do it in a top-down, ‘This is what you should be doing,’ we are just like, ‘Come and get involved in this.’
NR: There is a broad range of people involved in Bentley Urban Farm, from a wide age spectrum. One of the first groups to work on the site was the Primary Learning Centre – 8-12 year olds who are, for various reasons, in danger of being permanently excluded from school. There is a Muslim Scout group. And, when we were there, a group arrived from Ridge Employability College, which specialises in developing young people with learning difficulties and disabilities. They changed into their boots, grabbed wheelbarrows and spades, and enthusiastically started digging.
VP: Today I am laying a forest path because we are busy wood-chipping the path. We are going to be painting some pots for them to grow seedlings in and things like that.
NR: At Bentley, people get to see the whole cycle from planting to growing to using ingredients in the food they prepare and sell, as mentor, Helen Saunderson explains.
HS: We have a café that we run that the students make food, prepare it, take orders. So, our aim is to actually plant seeds here, to grow the vegetables that we will then be able to take with us to use them at the café.
VP: Sometimes I like KFC and sometimes I like to be healthy and that.
NR: Stephen, like most of us, is tempted by fast food. But, through the things he has learnt at Bentley and from his grandparents, he knows it is important to balance fast food with fresh food. So, what does he grow?
VP: Different things like fruits, vegetables and that.
CJ: What does it feel like when you first see something you have planted sprouting?
VP: It is really good, isn’t it, just to see it coming up in the summer. Sometimes I do some growing in my house, outside.
CJ: And who taught you to do that?
VP: My grandad, and my nan as well. It is good for the environment as well.
NR: Educating people about food production underpins everything they do at Bentley Urban Farm, but there is also experimentation. Here is Rachel again, and first Warren on Seed and Save, one of their practical educational initiatives in which individuals or groups can adopt a bed and learn how to cultivate it.
WD: So, the Seed and Save project, we invite people to come down and they can adopt a raised bed. So, we teach them how to build the bed, we teach them different growing techniques and we take them through the seasons so they can grow veg on site and they can take the veg home and eat it, or we eat it together.
RH: A brilliant way to do that is to get people growing, and that is one of the things that we hope to do at Bentley. It is not a massive farm; we are not growing tons and tons of food to feed thousands and thousands of people, but we are showing that you can do it yourself.
WD: The idea, from the outset, behind Bentley Urban Farm, was that it would just be a place to create the skills to seed more urban farm projects or any kind of growing project – hydroponics, anything. So, a lot of things that we do are seed social enterprises. So, we are experimenting, at the moment, with sunflower sprouts, which are delicious and very healthy and grow very, very quickly. So, we are creating a system which we are testing with Scicluna Deli in Doncaster. Josie, who runs that, is amazing. So, we are growing a few test ones for her.
Once we get the system in place and we have experimented with it long enough to know that we can do it smoothly, then we will hand that over to somebody who comes to the farm for their own microenterprise. And that could be developed on another site that becomes available around Doncaster. So, that is the kind of thinking. It is very much a project to seed other projects.
NR: With projects like Seed and Save, you can obviously learn a practical skill and become more environmentally aware. But Jenny Sansom, from Power to Change, sees some less obvious benefits coming from Bentley Urban Farm.
JS: In terms of the health benefits that people get from taking part in a practical veg growing project, first of all we have evidence that involvement with projects like that actually increases people’s consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables, possibly because of the produce they take home or possibly because it just increases their appetite for consuming what they have produced.
But it is not just that. I mean, working alongside other people in a setting where it is informal, often makes socialising and forming friendships much easier. So, the gardening activities and the food producing activities, it kind of oils the wheels of friendships, if you like. Community projects like that are very important for addressing loneliness.
RH: So, I always say it is all about, ‘The party’s over here, come join us.’ So, hopefully, over the summer, we will be doing lots more pop-up events where people can come down and get inspired. That is obviously a key part of what we do.
JS: Contact with nature is very important. The stress relief and relaxation which comes from being outdoors in a natural green space, we can’t underestimate it. The health promotion has been a big priority for the NHS as it prevents health problems in the long term, like cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer.
WD: We have got a lot of current gooseberries. The one in the toilet is a goji berry. There is absinth, which is the best smelling plant on the planet, just in the wheelbarrow. The planters are made out of shopping trolleys.
VP: Me and my wife are really keen to grow our own fruits and grow our own vegetables, but we know nothing about gardening. So, actually, coming here we are learning about how we can grow our own stuff. So, we are looking into growing our own veg and growing our fruits and stuff as well.
NR: And important revenue-raising venture at Bentley is the Buff Box, a farm box scheme which customers can subscribe to and either have delivered or collect. The produce is, of course, 100% organic, seasonal and, as you might expect from this lot, some of it slightly eccentric, such as Pocket Book tomatoes that look like a brain and Five-leaf ginseng. Pocket Book, incidentally, is an old German variety used by travellers. They would keep a clump in their rucksack or pocket and pull off a piece at a time. The rest of the clump would stay fresh.
The Buff Box is an important source of revenue for the farm, and the scheme received funding from Power to Change’s Bright Ideas fund to get it going.
WD: The project runs on waste materials, so the overheads are quite low. But, obviously, there is always a need for a bit of funding. So, we wanted to identify ways that would satisfy our initial aims and objectives of fighting food poverty, but also create a small revenue.
So, that is when we went to Bright Ideas with the idea for the farm boxes. They gave us mentorship in creating a co-op, which is the structure for the farm boxes, and advice on setting up the farm box scheme.
We have turned it into something a little bit unique in that people we teach to grow on site, if they get good enough and they can grow at home, we will actually buy their produce for the farm boxes as well.
NR: Mark has been a happy Buff Box customer since the scheme began.
Mark: I have never used anything like that before. I have looked at things, other schemes round and about, but there was nothing that I could find in the local area that wasn’t prohibitive in cost, to be quite honest with you. I think Abel & Cole weren’t around at the time, and I think the cheapest organic veg box scheme that I could find a few years ago was a lot more expensive that the one that Bentley Urban Farm produce. So, for the cost of what you are getting down there, you can’t buy that in the supermarket in the organic ranges. So, that was another reason, really, why I decided to go with those guys.
WD: So, this is a workshop space that we use for packing the veg boxes. It is also our office, as you can see, with Kev busy in the corner there.
I: The farm boxes are packed each Thursday and the scheme has been running for just over a year now. Keven Rogers is involved in making it work. He was an advisor to local MP, Ed Miliband, until the job and his sedentary lifestyle led to Type 2 diabetes and inspired the decision to make a big life change. He is now a director at Bentley.
Kevin Rogers (KR): We only have a third of an acre here, so, in terms of trying to service that entirely from what we grow here, we wouldn’t be able to do it. So, we have a partner who is a co-op, who is based up in West Yorkshire. So, we get the bulk of what we have from their organic farm, but then we also, when we have the seasonal things growing here, we like to top the boxes, and that gives a bit of a story about what the project is about and that people know that they are getting both organically-grown and locally-grown food. It comes in fits and starts. People finish Christmas and New Year and feel they have got to be a bit healthier, and so they will get back into it. But we have got a good core of customers now.
RH: We do give away boxes as part of our scheme. So, if you do sign up for it, we do social boxes that we will give out to families and people who may not be able to afford one regularly.
We are aware of how do we make this as accessible to people as possible, but it is a real lifestyle change if you do have a veg box. It is like you are not buying piles of stuff from market; it is like you are getting a small box and you are really cooking with that for the week and being respectful to that food.
KR: What I have noticed is it actually makes you cook a bit more because you don’t want to waste it at all, because it is really good food, good quality and what have you. So, I have found that I have been cooking fresh a lot more. In fact, [0:20:48] pre-packaged sandwich and a bottle of water from the shop when you can come home and make a really good soup or something like that, which will last you two or three days. It is really useful.
WD: The dream for it is to get to a large enough number that we can begin to buy in bulk, create jobs for people to sort the veg and to box it up and to deliver it. We don’t need an awful lot. I think we need about 30 more subscribers to get to that position. So, the ultimate dream is for it to run itself.
NR: As we have mentioned, the Buff Box project was realised partly through support from Power to Change’s Bright Ideas fund. So, how do you go about getting funding and what did Bentley Urban Farm get right in their application? Here is Sarah Buchanan, programme manager on the Bright Ideas fund at Power to Change.
SB: In summary, they had all the key elements of what we consider a community business to be. They were trying to do it in a way that involved the community. So, they wanted to embed community accountability in their model. They had a clear idea for a business model and where the traded income would come from. They were doing it in a very specific area, so they talked about the local area around the piece of land, around Bentley Urban Farm. They also had a very clear idea about the social impact that they wanted to deliver. They are the four key things that Power to Change looks at when we look at applications to any of our programmes. Bright Ideas, because it is an early stage programme, we are interested in how people intend to meet those criteria. So, we don’t expect all the applications to have already met those criteria, but we want people to tell us exactly how they are going to go about meeting those four criteria of a community business.
NR: The community business Bright Ideas fund is open for applications now and up until Tuesday, 9th April 2019. Visit mycommunity.org.uk/bright-ideas-fund or the Power to Change website to find out more.
Another fund is also available to budding green fingers. Here is Jenny Sansom from Power to Change again.
JS: LEAP is a new funding programme which we set up in partnership with the Real Farming Trust and a number of other cofounders. The aim of it is to support food and farming community businesses which have ecological aims and which involve local people in the production of that food. So, that is where it fits in, really.
So, what LEAP offers is specialist support to those businesses in the form of a mentor who can come and help them with things like business planning. But it also offers unsecured loans of between £25,000 and £100,000 on a very low interest rate, on a five-year term, so that those projects can use the money to invest in infrastructure – for example, polytunnels or buildings or perhaps a tractor.
So, yes, that is the LEAP fund, and, for more information, have a look at the website of the Real Farming Trust.
NR: Another place to get support is from other inspiring projects that have gone through the pain and ups and downs of forming and trying to become sustainable. We have already heard Incredible Edible mentioned as an inspiration early on in the Bentley Urban Farm story. So, we called Mary Clear, founder of Incredible Edible, to get her advice and tips.
Mary Clear (MC): How I get people to do things that maybe they had never done before is to say, ‘How we love mistakes. How we love things going wrong, because, when things go wrong, we’ve got a better clue how to make them go right.’ Also, we really, really emphasise that plants are like kids: they want to be good, so you have just got to give them the things they need to be good. When it comes to growing stuff, it is pretty easy – water and sunshine and a little bit of shite helps.
I believe that people are there just waiting to be asked to help. So, when we need something, we ask people to help us. In a trumped up, made up world where we are wondering what the news will be in the morning, millions of people are desperate to make a change in the world we live in, and they just need to be asked and directed. I have experienced it, so it is not some cranky belief. I have experienced it and experience it every day.
So, if you do want to take action, there is always that feeling that maybe you are a bit weird and you are on your own. Let me tell you, you are not on your own. It doesn’t matter in what field you want to take action. I think it is a question of getting out there and communicating with people, and you will find your tribe. You are never alone. There are so many good people scratching their heads and wondering where to start. I think collaboration and trying to crush the ‘I’ of your idea and make it a ‘we’, you will be guaranteed success.
NR: Straight-talking Mary Clear from Incredible Edible on her belief in how sometimes you need to get it wrong to get it right the next time; that people have power and that power increases if you work together.
Back to that word, community, again. It is a philosophy shared by Warren and Rachel of the Bentley Urban Farm.
WD: Growing and eating together is going to be key, really, to repairing some of the damage and the lack of cohesion in communities. We really need more of it. Again, it is changing that relationship with food; understanding that food doesn’t just appear on a shelf. A leek takes 11 months to grow. It takes longer to grow a leek than it does a baby. People don’t really understand that. In our instant culture, they don’t see the story behind it. When it is kids, especially, when they grow it themselves, they eat it themselves; they don’t turn their noses up at it. Plus, organic and locally-grown tends to be better tasting than the things you find in supermarkets, really.
So, the next phase, really, we are focusing on this year is more opportunities to eat together, such as the pizza oven. We want to do a lot of community eating events around Bentley and around Doncaster in general, really.
RH: It is all about resilience. I mean, I think I used to talk back in 2010 about sustainability, but, obviously, I know that doesn’t exist; we cannot sustain what we have. So, it is all about people being resilient and communities working together to get what we need in order to lead happy lives.
WD: We quite often say that growing relationships is as important as growing the food. We don’t have these kinds of spaces where the rigours of everyday life can be forgotten. Growing is one of those. Being outdoors is like that as well. We have got the wood next door, so we do a lot of wildlife activities. It is just space where people can reflect and think and work together in quite a simple way.
NR: And for those still apprehensive about getting started, a final word from Rachel.
RH: Just do it. Just throw the seeds in and just get a bit of help. I think it just seems like a mysterious art, growing. I think you have just got to do it. Warren always says is that everything wants to live. But, if you just give it what it needs, everything does want to live and thrive.
NR: I hope you have enjoyed our visit to Bentley Urban Farm. Thanks to all of the team there for their hospitality. If you are in the area and want to subscribe to the Buff Box scheme, have a look at their website, bentleyurbanfarm.com.
If this story has inspired you to set up a community business, delve into the rest of our shows and check out powertochange.org.uk where you can find the latest news on events, other grants and support.
We will be adding links and other useful information on the show notes for this episode, and you can also connect with us by following on Twitter @thecbfix. We would love to hear your thoughts and about your experiences that connect with the show.
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Thanks for listening to this Fieldwork production, commissioned by Power to Change. It was presented by me, Neil Roberts; research and production by Curtis James; coproduction, sound and music by Simon James; writing and executive production by Chris Paling.