Roots To Work: The Urban Grower
The 'Eel sits down with OrganicLea’s Danielle Ahmet, the cover star of our latest mag, to explore the impact that farming has had on her family and career to date.
Danielle is part of the growers team at OrganicLea, a community food project based in north-east London. They grow and distribute food and plants locally as well as training others to do the same. Here, she explains how she got there after a diverse 20-year career spanning both banking and fitness.
What was your life like before farming?
I am a, soon to be, 40-year-old mother of four children and I have always been the primary carer so chasing an ambitious career has never been an option, even though I have the ability to hold my own and be very driven. I joined a high street bank and progressed from cashier through to branch manager (at 23 I was the youngest in the country). Then one day I walked away. The culture of the establishment, the workplace... it was all giving me anxiety. I then worked my way through long hours in beauty therapy, lonely days of sports massage and the ‘beach body’ fixated fitness industry into management at a local charity – which was great but I had to leave to focus on my family.
And how did you get into urban farming?
Eight years ago I discovered OrganicLea. Marlene, one of the co-founders, was the first person I spoke to. I was blown away by the unmistakable energy you are struck by as you enter Hawkwood Nursery so I asked her ‘how can I make this place my children’s second home?’ I didn't believe that I was worthy but I thought if I exposed my children to the magic I instinctively knew was there, I could save them and they could take a different path to me.
So, in honesty I knew not, at that stage, of the journey I was about to embark upon. Every time I was putting their wellies on, dragging them out in all weathers for this 'exposure' I was being informed and transformed. Somehow I began to understand the implications of the large scale commercialised global farming. I started to understand why I was able to fill my fridge with whatever we wanted, at any time of the year with such a relatively small percentage of our income.
What skills from previous experiences have you used on the farm?
When I found myself free to start something new at a stage of my life when I was more aware of how I wanted to spend my energy, I knew it was time to explore farming. My lawned garden was transformed into a growing space and I began volunteering at OrganicLea. That was 18 months ago and I am now part of the growers team at OrganicLea, as well as part of the Adult Education team as a garden maintenance tutor and I also spend one day dealing with admin/compliance (banking background!). You see, my past experience has not gone to waste. OrganicLea gives me the opportunity to use it all- it feels like I did a 20-year training course to prepare myself!
What role can urban farming play in London?
I see the value in working to bring awareness and change in whichever small way we can and for me, that is spreading awareness within my own community. I share my farming journey with them in a way that is gentle, accessible, non-judgemental and put trust in the trickle effect. For me farming is so much more than just the growing of the food (in itself a perpetual miracle) it is about the benefits to wellbeing, the way in which it can pull together a community to look after our bodies as well as the environment. By joining a co-op led farm, I can feel comfortable that my sweat is for the benefit of us all and not lining the pocket of power hungry, ego driven, greedy, selfish individuals.
So what are your hopes for the future?
Increasing awareness, empowering people with skills to do their bit, making locally grown organic food easily available and find a way to meet consumers who have become accustomed to supermarket style availability... slow and steady. I want my legacy to be that I was part of that movement. I am of mixed ethnicity so I am living the freedom created for me by those who were willing to be part of a movement after all.
What advice would you give to aspiring urban farmers?
I’d say, take advantage of opportunities to develop your wider range of natural skills, even if they don’t appear to be farming related. In order to have more employment options or to make a self-employed living, you will benefit from having a variety of transferable skills.
And your favourite London eating place?
For a special occasion I do like a trip to Mildreds, however I still get a real buzz being served our complimentary lunch at Hawkwood. Each day, Chris Manahan, our resident chef, is joined by another guest cook and together they always create the most wonderful meals from our own produce.
Find out more about OrganicLea opportunities on their website.
Danielle is the cover star of our latest Jellied Eel 63 print magazine