Growing Ancient Grains in the City

Picture: Students Ella Chaloner and Miles Jones. Photo: Ollie Cem Ayyildiz

Published: 19 May 2020

Ollie Cem Ayyildiz, Edible Campus Coordinator at the University of Roehampton, shares how a group of students are growing ancient grains in the city. 

Emboldened by the climate crisis and biodiversity loss the group of Roehampton students, collectively called ‘Growhampton’, decided to take matters into their own hands. Through a process of reimagining the city and realising that full and nutritious plates were dependent on grains, they’re on a mission to show that the grow-your-own movement is about so much more than carrots and kale.  

Reimagining the Landscape 

After weeks of talking, planning and multiple cups of coffee, the Growhampton team had a plan. We wanted to capture the curiosity of passers-by and encourage them to ask questions about unusual plants. In early spring we began to sow quinoa, amaranth, oats and buckwheatOver the course of the summer – through the Student Union’s weekly ‘Learn to Grow’ volunteer session – students planted out and tended to the crops in front of the 1970s SU building on the university campus in the suburbs of south-west London. 

By attracting people to the beauty of tall, colourful plants thriving in a seemingly alien, concrete environment, we started conversations on the future of urban landscapes and new approaches to feeding the hungry city. The plan seemed to be working; “they are so colourful and I’ve learnt a lot. I didn’t know we could grow quinoa in London”, commented a staff member as they passed by the inviting patch of allotment beds. 

Food Justice 

Motivated by the need to reduce meat consumption and address unjust market economics the students used the volunteer sessions as an opportunity for greater food justiceOver beds brimming with amaranth, quinoa, oats and pollinator-friendly buckwheat, the colourful cultivation opened up conversations about how indigenous communities in the Andes are unable to afford their staple crop of quinoa. This is because of high demand from health and environment conscious citizens in Western economies who can afford to pay higher prices than local consumers in Bolivia and Peru. 

By exploring the potential of a ‘rurban’ space in London, we wanted to show that an edible urban garden can be a viable location to cultivate grain and seed. Such experiments also create opportunities for young people to build key practical and adaptation skills to realise a low-carbon future, and contribute to a positive vision. 

An interesting element to quinoa and amaranth is that these crops can – and already do – thrive in the UK. Rural smallholder farmers in Suffolk, Sussex and Shropshire are already cultivating organic quinoa on a large scale, including the likes of Hodmedod’s and The British Quinoa Company. 

Valuing the Vibrant Edge 

As the current situation with Covid-19 shows, community gardens and allotments in the suburbs are playing a vital role in feeding the hungry city. We believe that fresh, locally grown food from our garden can make a real difference to the health and well being of the most vulnerable in the Roehampton community, especially children and young people. Since early April we have been supplying free organic veg and eggs to more than 100 families as part of a weekly community box scheme coordinated by our partner Regenerate. Student growers and protein-rich grains could play an even more essential role for urban food security in the months ahead. 

Producers like OrganicLea, which describes itself as “a workers’ cooperative growing food on the edge”, is already leading the way in growing on London’s urban fringes. Established in 2001 the project has centered on transforming a once-derelict allotment site on the edge of Epping Forest into a biodiverse green space to grow organic food, provide volunteering and training opportunities, and incubate a new vision for the urban edge. 

Scaling Up in Times of Uncertainty 

In terms of the skills, knowledge and equipment to make peri-urban grain and seed growing a reality, we found amaranth to be the most productive of the four protein-rich plants we grew. In early autumn, students helped to collect, thresh and winnow the grain, and produced 20 meals from four 3-by-1.5-metre allotment beds. This was no mean feat, given the small space and temperamental London weather. 

Surprisingly the plants had few problems adapting to the London climate. Nor were there any problems with pests, mostly due to a system of companion planting. The pollen of buckwheat, for example, encourages beneficial predators such as hoverflies which feast on aphids, a common pest for quinoa plants. The crops also benefitted from a layer of mulch that suppressed pesky weeds early in the season. 

There is certainly potential to scale up on the University of Roehampton’s 54-acre grounds, or even the ‘closed’ golf course nearby. This would be greatly welcomed by our flock of 15 hens living on campus, who enjoyed snacking on the home-grown grain. Beyond the university grounds, there are several other parcels of land which local authorities and city government could make available to support arable and vegetable crops, and take meaningful action to tackle the climate emergency, enhance local nature and improve food security. 

Leeds University Union through its sustainability project ‘Rooted’ have also trialed urban locations for growing seed and grain. During 2019 they produced about 15 portions of quinoa based on a 2.5-metre-squared plot. “I feel very strongly for the production of grain in urban spaces as a way for people to feel connected and part of nature,” says Ben Lawson who helps to coordinate the project. “In that sense it is definitely important for people to understand the wider food production system and how they can change it. I am not sure how viable it would be on a deeper level of production because nobody seems to be in the business of making more green spaces, and what is left is barely enough for recreational use, if we are talking about inner city Leeds.” 

Ancient Futures 

Initiatives are already underway elsewhere in the UK to revive locally grown grains and cereal. The cultivation of oats and barley, which are native to the UK, is being rolled out among smallholder farmers and market gardeners by the likes of the Gaia Foundation and Transition Network. This is an especially important initiative, given that hundreds of varieties of native grain have been lost through corporate industrial farming and the global dominance of wheat.  

Against this backdrop, the remainder of the grain we harvested has been saved to ensure that we have a supply of organic, resilient seed for the coming growing season. We have also shared seed with other organic growers locally through the London Freedom Seed Bank, a network of food growers and gardeners dedicated to saving, storing and distributing open-pollinated seeds. 

Experimentation, art and story are important to pilot new ideas and deliver a constructive response to the challenges brought by industrial agriculture in terms of climate crisis, nutrition and connecting people to where their food comes from.  

The return of the Urban Grain  

If you are wondering whether we cooked any of our grains? The answer is, yes! Ella Chaloner, a volunteer and first year linguistics student, prepared a fantastic porridge dish using the amaranth. Blueberries and chopped nuts were the perfect topping.  

“Initially, I thought the amaranth plants were purely decorative,” said Ella. “It wasn't until we started to harvest them that I learned they were edible and extremely nutritious! It was fun taking a sample home and including it in a porridge recipe. I really enjoy the cultural and creative aspect of cooking, especially with ingredients I was previously oblivious to. This is a real benefit of being part of a community food-growing scheme.” 

The other half kilo of amaranth was used by Growhampton’s sustainability-focused chef, Emily Wright, at The Hive Café, to prepare a banging spiced winter butternut soup using campus-grown ingredients.

“Nothing better than whipping up a recipe with local, seasonal produce,” says Emily. “Not only does it taste better and have less environmental impact, there is definitely a sense of personal satisfaction involved too. Like, wow, I did good! Saving the planet one vegetable at a time.”  

See @easypeasy.lemonsqueezy on Instagram for the full recipe and check out Emily’s food blog for other edible conversations.