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Sustain / City Harvest / About / Growing Food for London conference

Report of Growing Food For London Conference - June 2008

Session 1 Setting the scene

Edible Cities: A report on visits to US Urban Agriculture projects Colin Buttery, Royal Parks & Tony Leach, London Parks and Green Spaces Forum

Colin, the first speaker of the day, introduced Sustain's most recent publication Edible Cities: A report of a visit to urban agriculture projects in the U.S.A.  He presented an account of a US fact-finding tour to projects such as Growing Power (Milwaukee) -  a highly developed and successful project providing solutions for recycling large scale commercial organic waste, lo-tech community-based growing, fertilizer and compost production and public education in organic methods. Unlike in the UK, it is common practice for American urban growing projects to sell their produce and reinvest the profits back in the project. Colin also mentioned the high profile of demonstration projects in St. James's Park, where there is now an allotment site/ Dig for Victory edible garden. This pilot project has led to many local people inquiring about community growing. 

Following, Tony argued that we should challenge people to overcome the institutionalized split between parks and farms and questioned why there aren't more community gardens in London's parks. He stated the main issues as being land ownership uncertainty and a schism in horticulture as to what parks and farms mean and their objectives. (ie. that farms are for food, parks are for people). Horticulture professionals also have to decide at some point during their studies whether they concentrate on production or design which is another of the underlying problems (parks v. farms). He stated that public access in parks is paramount when considering food growing plots, whereas allotments are traditionally closed sites. The London Parks and Green Spaces Forum aims to facilitate and encourage provision of community gardens in parks. He suggested that we need to share knowledge between horticulture professionals, to break down barriers between parks and farms and to mobilise the burgeoning number of growers.

Overview on urban agriculture - Dr Joe Nasr and Dr June Komisar, Ryerson University.

Joe, who is coordinating the North American Urban and peri-Urban agricultural Alliance for which there is a symposium in May, and June presented a number of Canadian projects with an architectural emphasis. They proposed six different models for developing urban agriculture:

  1. Re-inventing residential yards and streets, eg. City Farmer in Vancouver, Mole Hill in Vancouver, Spin Farming in Saskatoon
  2. Neighbourhood initiatives
  3. Collaboration, eg. Produce auction to the public and restaurants
  4. Multi-purpose designs, eg. Green Arts Barn and Brickworks in Toronto
  5. Underutilised spaces, eg. Making the Edible Campus in Montreal, Commercial developments to enable lightweight rooftop gardens
  6. Large scale projects, eg. South East False Creek in Vancouver, Parc Downsview Park in Toronto.

Overview of urban agriculture issues in London's urban fringe - Mark Holmes, ADAS.

Mark presented the results of a 2005 research project amplified with the findings of consultations with farmers, concerning the current state of agriculture within the M25. He pointed out a variety of hurdles for current green-belt farmers: there has been a significant decline in horticultural production in London since 1970 and the contribution to the London economy of horticultural production is minor; vandalism and crime are a major issue; very few farmers own the land they manage; many farmers want to diversify (2005 survey), but they often see legislation as a barrier to this; many also want to release land for community use, but there is a need to balance the risks to the stakeholders; ageing is an issue as there are no young, skilled newcomers joining the industry. It was concluded that although economically insignificant, farming can make a valuable contribution to local London communities.

Mark also argued that there is a lot of work to be done in terms of communication between farmers/producers and the markets that sell the produce. It will require expert facilitation to revitalise local food supply chains and it is essential that the private sector, including farmers, is involved in leadership. Other requirements include technical advice and concerted efforts to reduce crime.

Mark finished by warning that these changes will take a significant amount of time.

Training talk - Jonathan Pettit, LANTRA- The Sector Skills Council for Agriculture

Jonathan picked up where the previous speaker left off by presenting an analysis of what were the opportunities for and obstacles to skills development for London agriculture. He noted that two thirds of London consisted of greenspace or water and that the 2012 Olympics would provide a huge opportunity to prompt local delivery of locally-grown produce to caterers. Food production could engage a wide range of London's diverse communities.

He pointed out the significance of volunteers in supporting urban agriculture but stated that building skills (e.g. technical knowledge, customer services) was essential. He also considered that London's diverse and significant small business sector has a lot of potential to become involved in urban food growing. Jonathan thought that the age profile of food growers needs to be brought down (average age currently around 50) and funding for skills needs to be flexible but targeted.

He concluded by stating: 'Right people, right skills, right time'

Panel with Ben Reynolds, London Food Link

Ben: There is an opportunity to promote food growing in social housing estates and to incorporate urban agriculture in the Mayor's London food strategy.

Tony: The changes will take time; it will require that people talk to each other (eg. planners, landowners and growers) and there is no forum for this at the present time. The allotment system is normally the point of access for growers. There ought to be someone to incorporate food growing into the objectives for the Olympics the Canadian Downsview park might be a good model to replicate. There is an issue with allotment legislation about growing food for sale.

June: We need incentives to promote the creation of green roofs on new and old buildings and the issue of an ageing food-growing population necessitates incorporation of urban agriculture/ food growing skills being taught in schools.
Jonathan: We need to give Olympic park residents the skills to get them involved in growing food in the park.

Tony: Some boroughs are getting green roofs into the planning policy; however it will take time as you need to change the training of the designers.

Colin: We need to put locals in touch with land that is in their immediate vicinity as this will make them much more likely to get involved.

Mark: We need to access good planning advice, perhaps using some of the local food funding to do this.

Ben: The LDA is doing a consultation on the Olympic park at the moment which is an opportunity for us to promote food growing. Another opportunity is Growing Spaces 2010.

Point from the audience (Brian, Organic Lea): OrganicLea have carried out research into potential for selling allotment produce (available on their website).

Joe: (In response to a question on running food councils) There are issues around the boundaries between terminology of 'farmers' and 'growers' which need to be clarified. Further research on urban agriculture needs to be carried out, looking specifically at models producing commercial quantities of food.

Session 2 Making growing economically viable

Overview on issues for farms in the green belt; recommendations to support fringe farmers - Terry Jones, NFU.

Terry reported that there are 400 farms in the GLA area, occupying 30,000 acres (15% of territory).  They are mostly smallholdings averaging 70 acres. Key issues for green belt farmers are finding opportunities for diversification and direct marketing. All farmers share similar problems as: competing demands, crime & antisocial behaviour such as flytipping and vandalism, labour problems, fragmentation of land, complaints from neighbours for example over pig farming, planning hold-ups, trespassing.

Terry's recommendations were: better, joined-up policy; better training for urban planners, to take rural issues into account; solutions for mixed land use; crime reduction targets for rural crime; markets farmer involvement with the London Food Strategy, link up London Emissions Zone with food policy.

Experiences of a fringe farmer - Peter Clarke, Kingcup Farm 

Peter defined himself as an endangered species: the commercial urban farmer. He gave a vivid insight into the life of a working farmer. The problems as outlined above were very real, but there were also big opportunities for farming on the doorstep of millions of potential customers.  80% of his produce is sold at Farmers' Markets, the rest to specialist wholesalers. He detailed the problems of labour shortage, vandalism, road congestion, water supply, and the age profile of farmers.  He concluded saying that basic food production does not pay well; although it's difficult to quantify, he reckons his costs are 15% higher than his rural counterparts'.

He stated that it's hard to be competitive in basic commodity production, but that there are good opportunities in value added/niche products, especially in the top end of market foodservice, farmers markets, farm shop though there are good opportunities in value added/niche products.

Peter recommended in particular the revival of the County Council Smallholders' Scheme and its extension to London boroughs; a derelict land to give incentive to use land partly for food production; and a Fair Trade scheme for London farmers so that customers could be compelled to pay fair price (and not be tempted by price promotions, which are paid for not by supermarkets but by farmers).

Social enterprise as a way forward - Julie Brown, Growing Communities.

Julie runs two trading schemes: a box scheme and a Farmers' Market in Walthamstow. Both are run according to set of principles: ecological organic, wild, chemical-free; as local as possible; mainly plant based; largely small scale operations; supporting Fair Trade; transparent and promoting trust.

According to Julie, working together, can help farmers and consumers to extract themselves from the conventional food system. She is now in charge of three market gardens all Soil Association certified, two employees, a team of volunteers and two apprentice urban growers. The social enterprise that she set up, Growing Communities, specialises in salads and leafy greens because salad leaves are: highly perishable thus should be as local as possible to preserve micronutrients; they are often air freighted and sprayed with chemicals; they are highly labour intensive and require hand labour; and they have a high value thus they help to achieve economic viability for the grower.

Currently Growing Communities is making just over 7k but they need to make 16k to pay direct costs. 

Julie's plans for the future are: (1) setting up a Patchwork Farm, linking urban apprentices with microsites - bits of land in back gardens etc. and then offer to buy produce from apprentice growers; (2) setting up a Starter Farms offer 1 acre sited to urban/Soil Association apprentices, and commit to buy produce

Panel with Tully Wakeman, EAFL, Cheryl Cohen, LFM and Marielle Dubelling, RUAF

Q: How can we encourage more urban food growing in London?

A: Peter - regeneration of County Council Smallholding Scheme, for tenants that want to market their food locally.
A: Terry - we can't underestimate the effect of planning. Currently there are huge differences in interpretation by councils.
Q: How can we create a market to support urban food growing in London?

A: Tully - We ought to work on brokering food supply chains at the moment it's almost impossible with retail, public sector, most restaurants. Opportunities with work like Growing Communities is doing, or wholesale markets
A: Cheryl - Try to find farms as close as possible to markets e.g. Walthamstow, lots of farmers from Essex. Lots of opportunities.

Q: Agrarian Renaissance developing model for mixed, low fossil fuel farming.  Needs to be more of a debate re private investment, dispersal of capital?

A: Terry - From an economic perspective: higher prices and hopefully increased profitability will hopefully encourage more private investment. 

Q: Potential for and mechanisms needed for linking fringe farming with community growers (and market)?

A: Terry - Fresh Start mentoring scheme aims to link new farmers with existing producers, possibly with a view to partnership/taking over farm.
A: Julie - Growing Communities provides markets for farmers that grow sustainably. It is necessary to explore possible replications in other parts of London/cities.
A: Tully - At the moment we're trying to go against the market market wants more consolidation, bigger profit.  We need to link producers that want to do the right thing with consumers that want to do the right thing.  Can't just fund private businesses with public money, but NGOs can contract farmers

Q: Farmers need to be paid per hour and get same return on investment as though they'd put money in Post Office.  Let's think of a big project we can put our weight behind.

Q: Should all urban agriculture be organic?

A: Marielle -  
Yes because:

  • Location/health risks 
  • Consumer demand study by Coventry University on reasons for people's desire for direct relationships with producers health one of top 4 reasons

BUT: conversion expensive and time-consumer
Experimenting with participatory certification scheme from Uruguay farmers and consumers certify produce from other farmers and consumers, criteria agreed on jointly

A: Julie - Sustainable production; Growing Communities requires farmers to be certified organic, we do want it to be grown sustainably i.e. without artificial fertilizers and pesticides
A: Terry We need to develop smart solutions, good safe food, protect environment whether organic or not. Pesticide levels in UK come under MRL levels.

Session 3 Expanding growing to new spaces

Growing food in parks - Ian Collingwood, Councils Regeneration Consultant on the Urban Farming project in Middlesborough

Ian is a consultant for the Regional Development Agency for the North East. His project aim was for Middlesborough to become a self-sustainable town by growing its own produce. This has received the highest level endorsement from the local council.

Ian touched upon these issues: contamination can be overcome by using containers and raised beds; there were only two occurrences of vandalism during the project; community meals were very successful often included other activities (punch & judy show, etc.); involving young people through consultation and as part of the solution worked in creating ownership.

Ian's plans for the future include: (1) a food policy council being set up in Middlesbrough; (2) a Fifteen-style restaurant serving local produce; (3) food co-ops to help supply the town; (4) credit unions; and (5) a new corporate vehicle called Tees Up to develop the project's legacy.

In conclusion, Ian advocated the use of an array of unproductive urban spaces for food growing such as schools, parks, commons, pavements and churchyards.

Growing food in cities and food security - Tim Lang, City University  

Tim endorsed the Middlesborough project as exemplary and warned of the danger if such projects are used by the powers that be in bad times we are entering a most dangerous and interesting period in food policy.  We are confronting the model of post-war unleashing of science and capital onto agriculture to sustain the urban man. This production-oriented model is coming unstuck on the new fundamentals of rocketing food and commodity prices. The green revolution was entirely oil-based and underpinned the production model. There is now an energy crisis and also a water crisis, and climate change alters everything. The demographics of population and urbanization, nutritional transition in China and India, are shifting the ecological footprint.

There are no quick fixes.  This is why the urban agriculture movement is so important.  Technology (including GM) will be important how to get science to deliver the plants we will need in future? Political responses to this challenge so far are pathetic. Danger of food becoming a political weapon.  Leave it to Tescos is now an obsolete policy. 

However, the food industry is now starting to listen, NGOs have a part to play. Entrenched positions are dangerous. It is important to understand that there is no good evidence that small farming can feed people. We must quantify the model being developed, both socially and technically, if it is to attract support. Major tensions in the food system are being exposed eg the debate over conventional vs. organic production.

Urban agriculture must address these issues, must show what it does, can do and what difference it makes. We need more data we must show how these methods affect climate change, reduce the carbon footprint, and improve public health.  Good vibes and good intentions are not enough.

Consumer culture needs to be addressed as household income has moved from 30% to 9% over the last thirty years. We are used to cheap food and this needs to change. Additionally, he pointed out that land ownership and land-use needs to be dealt with as there are many bad land-use practices at the moment (such as for equine facilities around London).
Tim concluded by saying that we need a better understanding of the skills required and the capacity (land and economic) for urban agriculture.

Edible Estates - Fritz Haeg, architect and Carol Wright, Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST)

Two projects one from USA, one locally from Southwark demonstrated imaginative use of land. 

Edible Estates: Attack on the front lawn addressed the iconic American resource, usually a most wasteful and polluting space, and showed with before and after pictures what improvements could be made, transforming unproductive space to edible landscapes. Fritz also proposed that Olympic farms be put in place in time for the 2012 Olympics. They would be spread around London and managed by Olympic farmers (the production infrastructure would include branding and uniforms to make it very visible to the public). He also proposed a celebrity farmer TV-show.

Carole suggested a range of activities (and organisational bodies) to promote food growing in communities, such as park steering groups, consultations, community gardening clubs, harvest days, apple days and other faith-based celebrations. She is involved in a range of gardens in South East London that are growing food.  She stated that a barrier around a growing site often encourages vandalism rather than protecting it, and that her project had also collaborated with Woolworth Gardens for training. In her experience splitting raised beds into personal spaces created arguments and tension, and that before initiating a project it was advisable to knock on local residents' doors to ask them what they thought of the project. She is looking to develop commercial levels of production and a youth training programme.

Panel discussion with Christine Haigh, Women's Environmental Network and Tony Leach, London Parks and Green Spaces Forum

Q: Should we be planting orchards in public spaces rather than unproductive trees, ie. grow fruits and nuts in parks?

Q: How should we get communities involved in the projects?

Q: How should we scale up small projects?

Statement: The opportunity to match unproductive land owners with growers (Land Fit) was raised.

A: Carole - To encourage people to get involved in projects I would suggest residents association meetings, growing clubs, leafleting the area (including a phone number, times for growing and an email address), leafleting schools and getting it announced in assemblies, advertising in local free-sheets, harassing people on the street and door knocking. Keep on at them. If you let up they think it's going to go to ruin (like the other council stuff). People are used to being hand held.

A: Christine - Mapping activities for those who don't speak English as a first language is useful when setting up a project. Ownership by locals leads to less vandalism. [Christine also launched a joint LFL-WEN briefing Growing Round the Houses].

A: Colin - Common Ground established an initiative around community orchards. The Royal Parks are working with Greenwich council to reinstate an orchard in a local park.

Statement from Camden council: Our food growing strategy is coming out (a report) in the near future. We are looking to grow fruit trees, and we have lots of space around social housing with potential to produce food (we are responsible for this land, which is not always the case in other councils).

A: Tony - Parks are not run by the Mayor, they are normally managed by the local authority. Also, social housing land is often run by other bodies.

Q: Do community schemes encourage home growing?

Q: What role can artists play in designing schemes/projects?

A: Fritz - All of my projects are funded by arts institutions. The artist's role is not about producing solutions to problems, it is about envisioning solutions before the general public (there is a precedent for artists leading thought). Nils Norden (artist) is an example for this in the UK.

A: Catherine - The Local Development Framework in Cambridge included food growing space.

Comment from Camden Councillor: Join in local politics it's the fastest way to change things!

Session 4 The future of community gardens, city farms and roof tops

Funding for the Future - Mark Wheddon, Local Food Project Manager

Local Food is a  body funded by the National Lottery which has a budget of 50m. for food growing projects.  Applications must be not for profit the fund is open to new and existing projects all project applications can benefit from advice from Local Food advisers. Small grants from 2000 - 10,000 have an easier application process. Main grants up to 300,000 undergo a more rigorous process.  Beacon grants up to 500,00 have additional criteria and rigour.  Types of project applied for can combine capital and revenue funding.  For further details see the website,

Rooftop Gardens - Dave Richards, RISC

Mixture of fear and trepidation at enormity of task before us, mixed with glimmers of hope at community based solutions that are emerging.

A lot of Canadian schemes incorporated green roofs.  Roof gardens quite sexy whole area at Chelsea Flower Show.

Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC) is an educational charity, its mission is to raise awareness about global issues, and make links with what happens locally e.g. how we shop ? communities in Bangladesh facing loss of livelihoods and homes.

Market researchers go to Reading because it's so average. RISC holds events on WTO, climate change, one of country's biggest Fairtrade shops, world caf, community spaces.

Regarding RISC's roof garden, there was a problem of leaking which was turned into an asset - educational garden (with Lottery funding).  The design is based on permaculture (forest garden) - it took surroundings into account e.g. different plants to take advantage of areas of light and shade, path snaking around skylights and air vents. It has different layers trees (inc cherry), shrubs, permanent groundcover to conserve moisture in soil, suppress weeds, produce a crop. It requires 5 hours/week maintenance in summer, a bit more in spring (organic supplements)and very little in winter. It's a great habitat for wildlife.

Reused/recycled/sustainable materials were used - e.g.:

  • locally milled wind-blown oak 
  • locally coppiced hazel 
  • bits of Reading Abbey 
  • reused brick 
  • reconstituted building waste 

Started in 2002, it has a strong building structure, didn't need any retrospective strengthening to take weight of 30cm of soil plus plants.  Most of work of roots uptake of water & nutrients done in top 30cm. The key to a successful roof-top: waterproofing and rootproofing depends what you want to grow (i.e vegetables or trees?).

Rainwater is harvested and wind power is used. Water is an issue hardest thing about gardening on roofs. RISC plans to increase harvesting of rainwater, use to flush loos and supplement irrigation.

The RISC project raises awareness of global dangers through education, a fairtrade shop, global caf, and community spaces thus linking local issues to global ones.

City Farms as Productive Land - Bryan Lowman, Hackney City Farm

City farms were set up for educational/therapeutic reasons these aims remain but are changing there is a need to move away from reliance on grant funding. City Farms used to be targets for animal rights activists but now there is an increasing number of people who ask to buy meat. As a result, recently Hackney City Farm is moving away from being a petting zoo to raising animals for meat. This is extended to:

  • chickens for eggs 
  • goats for milk and poss cheese 
  • bees for honey 
  • pigs for ham and pork.

The farm has 8 acres which supports 1 livestock units, located 2 miles from Liverpool Street. Its location within the city means that it can help city dwellers understand ethical food production.  Recently, it has been asked to set up another City Farm in Haringey.  Just built straw bale house.  Work with Growing Communities on box scheme.  Links with countryside calves come from farm in Kent, grow them up and send back when they get too big. It also runs chicken-keeping/honey making workshops.

The farm is involved in the Healthy Schools programme for pupil Referral Unit. Boys who used to eat only chicken & chips now eat healthy food from the caf, learn to cook 12 meals from scratch which is a very empowering experience.

Training talk - On developing the skills to be sustainable and viable through marketing to the public; cooperative training models; working with housing associations and allotment associations - Stephen Dowbiggen, Capel Manor College

Capel Manor contributes positively to developing skills capacity in London where skills deficits are a major problem. However it remains vital to carefully identify the Capital's training needs. 

The college, which has its own 200 acre farm promoting local food, aims to empower the workforce to produce food, whether community group leaders, commercial enterprises, land maintainers, or volunteers. The college can provide:

  • commercial horticulture courses, including on organic production you can now qualify in organic production and get 75% funded by government 
  • smallholder courses - increasing interest in animals for food production (not just pets) 
  • traditional farming courses e.g. using heavy horses 
  • specialist courses e.g. winemaking (grape and other)

Unfortunately, increasing the population's skills in horticulture is not a priority for Government meaning that funding is quite problematic. Grant schemes are helpful but don't work without people with the necessary skills. Curretnly the public is nervous about food growing, they lack the basic knowledge and think it's more technical than it really is. Training would give them confidence so they could really engage. Politicians need to understand that food production (in London) is a priority. Also it is necessary to create partnerships with others, e.g. Federation of City Farms, housing associations. 

The college supports novel initiatives eg to promote London produce, and offers a range of options from commercial horticultural courses, courses in organic production, courses for smallholders, specialist courses for niche markets (eg viticulture), and apprenticeships. 

Panel with Richard Wiltshire, Kings College London; Andre Viljoen, Bohn & Viljoen Architects; Catherine Miller, FCFCG and Stephen Dowbiggen, Capel Manor College

Q: Is there realistically more room for allotments, or should we be creating more community gardens with opportunity to sell crops?

A: Richard - The opportunity to expand allotments in inner London is rather poor unlike suburbs (right to allotments doesn't apply). There is lots of potential in innovative schemes e.g. sharing back gardens. Fastest growing crop in suburban back gardens is trampolines! Strong upsurge in demand for allotments driven by consumer choice, about to be augmented by economic downturn.  Two shifts:

  • Intensification breaking available plots up into two or three plots 
  • Bring previous allotment land that has been turned over to other green space use back into allotment use?

Q: What would the city be like with more urban agriculture? 

A: Andre - Envisioning and describing a vision, helping people understand why more urban food growing is a positive thing (in line with what the Continuous Picnic is trying to do). Tim Lang is right that we need to quantify the benefits

Q: In terms of yield, could London grow 20-30% of its fruit and veg?  In Thames Gateway could you grow all fruit &vegetable?

A: Catherine - Urban Chef visited several inner city growing projects to see if how much can be sourced from inner city e.g. all eggs from City Farms but quantities not enough. Also ther would be an issue of reliability and a shift of focus for City Farm. Typical city farm/community garden set up in 1970s, different economic climate.  Horror story Catherine's allotment neighbours producing for restaurants on a commercial scale.  Community gardens have very strong ethos of open access.  Food growing important but not everything demonstration value, for people who've never seen a chicken lay an egg or dug a potato up.

Q: What about lack of growing medium in South-East?

A: Andre - Worked out area of square metres available for growing and applied yield figure, haven't gone into that level of detail
A: Stephen - Projects using food waste to produce compost.  Need mixed economy - some people commercial producers - everyone can fit in. Educationally a nightmare, but works fantastically. Task is enormous! Food production is crucial.

City Harvest: The City Harvest website collects information on the wide range of benefits associated with urban agriculture, aiming to strengthen the movement in the UK and across the globe.

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