Posted by: Jon | 02/12/2009

A grassroots army marches on its stomach.

It’s the first of December, our first crisp frosty day after a week of rain, and I’ve just picked the last raspberries from our postage-stamp size garden. We put in two plants when we first arrived here in March and had a first crop in July. The plants died back but new stems have shot up since and have been fruiting for the past month. There’s something funny going on with the seasons!

It’s been a bountiful year for fruit, at least where we are living. We’ve enjoyed plentiful plums and damsons from a couple of old trees across the road and blackcurrants and gooseberries from our own baby bushes, again planted only in the spring.

From beneath our new fruit trees, we’ve also grown broccoli, leeks, carrots and spinach and, up against the yard wall,  French beans. Together with the various pot grown herbs and the chamomile flowers and lemon balm leaves that we’ve dried out for tea, Louise and I are feeling quite satisfied with our year’s harvest. It may have only reduced our annual supermarket bill by a fraction of one percent, but it tastes nice when we’ve grown it ourselves…

Up to now Louise and I have always lived in places with more land available to us and we’ve had various stabs over the years at growing our own food. In Scotland, as well as our fruit and vegetable plots, we also kept pigs – although not profitably as we lived with no electricity and, without a chest freezer or knowledge of salt preserving, we ended up giving much of the meat away.

Over time it dawned on us that we were overly ambitious, especially as absolute beginners, when we attempted too much ‘self-sufficiency’ all at once. Which left us easily discouraged as other commitments meant we neglected our plots and the neighbouring rabbits and birds harvested most of our produce for us. We realised that self-reliant and self-sufficient living is much more possible when undertaken as a communal rather than an individual venture.


Since then we’ve learnt about Permaculture, an approach to human living systems that harmonises with natural eco-systems rather than working against them. The little garden that we started this year is designed as a low-maintenance forest garden to maximise our yield from the plants we are growing in layers from ground level to the ‘canopy’ of our miniature fruit trees.

Conceived in the 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as a perma-nent system of agri-culture, Permaculture has since evolved into a holistic design approach that may be applied to all aspects of human living. Permaculture principles are as relevant to the design of a housing scheme, a town or even a city as they are to a small backyard garden such as ours. They have been used to underpin the founding of a grassroots social movement and even as a solution based approach to engaging with planetary crisis.

Regardless of its wide ranging applications, the Permaculture movement has grown up in Britain and the US with ‘West Coast’ or ‘alternative’ associations attached. For those in the UK who have heard of it, Permaculture is probably still mostly regarded as an untidy approach to organic food growing by people with ponytails and brightly coloured clothing about whom the allotment committee is a bit uncertain. In modern Britain, where we have no recent experience of sustained food shortages, growing food has been a hobby rather than a necessity and Permaculture is easily discounted as a fringe activity in this. But in parts of Africa and India and Brazil and Cuba, Permaculture has been better appreciated as the difference between achieving a yield and famine.

But despite our national tendency to take our food supply for granted, more and more people in Britain are becoming interested in growing at least some of their own food. Waiting lists for council allotments have rocketed, titles on food and food-growing are regular Amazon bestsellers, and local food production is far and away the most popular focus of activity in the grassroots Transitions network.

Doubtless the desire to save money in times of recession has helped to seed this new interest. But as we have become more aware of the poor nutritional value of the processed foods we eat and the toxic residues and additives they contain, so our interest in home-grown organic food has begun to take root. Similarly, realisation of the severe environmental problems we are all facing has caused many of us to want to reduce dependency on the long ‘food miles’ and ‘just-in-time’ delivery systems of the supermarkets. Growing our own food locally has begun to seem like ‘down-to-earth’ good sense.


The Transition Towns initiative has played a vital role in raising awareness of our food vulnerability as a result of climate change and depleting energy reserves. Launched only in 2006 by Permaculture teacher Rob Hopkins, Transitions has spread rapidly to number over 120 local initiatives across the UK (and the same again in the wider world), its core intent being to support communities in re-localising the systems, skills, services and supplies that we all depend on daily.

But a limitation to the spread of Transitions has proved to be its mainly ‘middle class’ demographic. In the UK at least, Transitions Initiatives are mostly to be found in affluent market towns or amongst ‘educated white activist’ communities in cities. Whilst widespread nationally, the movement has not yet rolled out to be broadly representative of the population as a whole. You won’t yet find Transitions North Shields or Easterhouse, nor will you find a proportional cross-section of the local community at Transition Brixton meetings.

This is not intended as a negative criticism but is an observation of the emerging movement. Each Transition initiative finds its own level according to who is drawn to become involved. To extend participation more widely into local populations would require deliberate outreach work which the relatively low numbers of active participants in local groups would seem likely at best to find immensely challenging and at worst impossible to achieve.

My own experience of Transitions’ local groups is that the farther removed they are from the movement’s core aims and inspiration, the more diluted and ineffectual their activities might become. It is not hard to be enthusiastically occupied with projects but, as with light bulbs, plastic bags and recycling, these might only be the token gestures towards sustainability that displace our anxieties and fool us into thinking we are ‘doing our bit’. Without a coherent plan and a means of evaluating progress towards it, being busy is not always the same as being effective.

Todmorden’s Incredible Edible….    

Inspired by the Transitions movement but taking a more head-on approach, one small town has deliberately set out to mobilise its community as inclusively as possible.

Two years ago, Todmorden on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border was a small and relatively unknown Pennine former mill-town. It is now ‘Britain’s greenest town’ with 45% of its 15,000 residents growing their own vegetables at home, seven in ten buying local produce on a regular basis and all eight of the town’s schools serving locally produced food for school dinners. Last year, a mere two residents in the town kept chickens; there are now thirty two backyard chicken runs.

Conceived by Pam Warhurst, a former Calderdale Council leader, the Incredible Edible initiative started with an act of civil disobedience. The grounds of a disused but highly visible town centre site were ‘guerrilla’ planted with vegetables without gaining any official permissions. This initial act of ‘propaganda planting’ quickly engaged the attention and the active participation of a good majority of the local population.

Pam Warhurst is forthright in her explanation of the project. “We are working with people who would find Transition Towns hard to identify with. Our project is all about finding the lowest common denominator, which is food, and then speaking in a language that everyone can understand…..We just get on with things; this is all about action.”

And it seems to have worked. Incredible Edible has gained the backing of the council and of the town’s schools and housing association. Calderdale Council is now the first in Britain to begin removing legal obstructions from planting up council and unused land. Officially sanctioned fruit and vegetables now grow in locations all across the town; the housing association is providing cooking, gardening and food foraging classes; 1,000 starter packs of seeds and growing troughs have been distributed to social housing tenants without gardens; a new local cheese business is already up and running; and a fish-farm is being planned next to the high school.

The town will be celebrating Christmas this year with a community dinner in which all the ingredients from the turkey to the fruit in the pudding will be sourced locally. Residents can check daily on the progress of their sprouts and roast potatoes on the piece of public land now known as the ‘Christmas dinner patch’.

This roll-up-your sleeves-and-get-on-with-it approach is a well-known Northern trait. And the aspirations of the town to be self-sufficient in food production by 2018 seem like they could be realised. One school mum who had never grown a vegetable and heard about the project at the school gate has now created a productive garden and says looking after it takes her no more than two hours a week. She also has fifteen chickens and is co-ordinating the local egg production effort. The aim by 2018 is for the town to be producing 30,000 eggs a week. She says “People catch on quick – you often hear people in shops asking for Todmorden eggs”.

One result of Todmorden’s initiative is that people no longer look so blank at the mention of ‘peak oil’ or the dangers of ‘climate change’. There will be reasons for the local enthusiasm for the project related to the town’s size and location, its focus on food, the commitment of its initiators, and the social capital already present in the community. But I suspect that its momentum has largely sprung from the direct action approach that has successfully engaged a majority of the population.

Now other towns like Halifax and Ludlow are planning their own Incredible Edible projects. It remains to be seen whether these will achieve the same unifying outcomes or whether they might become more diluted versions involving only the ‘already converted’ amongst their communities. It would be good to think that Todmorden’s success might be replicated elsewhere.

But even if not, the urgent need to re-localise our lives that Transitions initiatives have so creatively highlighted through inspiring creative community action – and communities like Todmordern’s have adapted so successfully to mobilise their own community – will undoubtedly inspire many more of us to get our fingernails dirty and reconnect with the food that sustains us.

“Having once put his hand in the soil
seeding there what he hopes will outlast him,
a man has made a marriage with his place
and if he leaves it his flesh will ache to go back”.


From The Current by Wendell Berry


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