My first stop in England was to work with a group of cooperatives in Manchester. Some of the world’s earliest cooperatives were started in Manchester in the mid. 19th century as a way to combat the new, large industrial mechanization of labor. It was a way for producers to come together and set fair wages, prices and decent working conditions. The cooperative movement is still running strong in Manchester and the area surrounding. By definition a cooperative business or farm is one in which all members have equal say in the operation as well as equal profit and benefits.
I worked with several cooperatives in Manchester that both produce and distribute food. For this first post on the area I’d like to talk about 2 of the farms that I visited, as well as The Manchester Veg People (MVP); who sell and distribute their produce.
First I spent time with the Moss Brook Growers. This cooperative farm is made up of 3 members; Rob, Stuart and Carl. They are tenants on the 21 acre property located in Wigan Borough in Greater Manchester. The land is owned by Unicorn Grocery (more on Unicorn in the next post) and Moss Brook has a 10 year tenancy. Moss Brook is not only certified organic but also a “stock free” farm. This means that they input zero fertility from animal products. So, no manure, composted or otherwise. This makes the farm and the vegetables grown there completely vegan. Many small organic farms not only use animal manure to add fertility but also other animal products such as blood, bone, feather and fish meal. These products are used because they are extremely high in Nitrogen, an essential element to ensure healthy and productive crops. Moss Brook spreads composted vegetable material from Manchester’s city compost program to add Nitrogen and other vital nutrients. They also use green manure. Stock free farming means that they need to manage their fields with strict crop rotation to ensure fertility for subsequent seasons. They plant mixtures of legumes and grasses in between vegetable rotations and they rotate fields out of production quickly. These green manures can fix Nitrogen in the soil through symbiotic relationships with soil bacteria, making it available to the crop in the following seasons.
Moss Brook also has a long term plan towards establishing habitats for local wildlife and increasing the biodiversity of their property. They are planting native hedgerows and orchards. When they first arrived on the property it was a barren field, windy and inhospitable to the vegetables. Since arriving the land has really blossomed. By planting the hedgerows and trees strategically, they have minimized wind burn issues as well as establishing habitat for native wildlife.
The farm is on a semi large scale. I say semi because 21 acres is not quite enough land to financially justify going fully mechanical, but it is way too large to farm by hand. The guys seem to have found a nice balance by limiting their crop list.
While in Manchester I also spent 4 days with The Glebelands City Growers. This cooperative is owned and run by Charlotte, Adam and Alan. Glebelands was started by one of the founders of Unicorn Grocery. He saw a gap in Unicorn’s supply that needed to be filled, mostly a lack of green leafy vegetables. The plot for Glebelands was a market garden over a century ago, but the land hadn’t been worked in a long time and was quite derelict. He leased the land from the city council and over the following 10 years he and his wife worked hard to turn the place around. They built poly tunnels, an irrigation system, tool sheds, rehabilitated the existing glass house and got organic certification. They grew swiss chard, summer squash, cucumbers and herbs but the main bread and butter of the farm has always been salad mix. The land is located within the city of Manchester and they pride themselves on the fact that all of the produce is sold within a 5 mile radius. The food miles generated by their produce is an important aspect of sustainability to the growers and brings new meaning to the “eat local” movement.
Adam came to Glebelands 8 years ago and worked for a few seasons before taking over management. Charlotte came about 1 year later and the year after that the original couple that started the farm left to move down south and buy a new farm. Adam and Charlotte have been managing the farm together for the past 6 years. Alan came on later and is now in the middle of his second season though he had been involved in the farm as a volunteer as well as a produce buyer before that. The three of them took over management of the property and were essentially given the keys, they pay the rent and all of the yearly bills but came into the farm debt free, a remarkable feat in any business. Glebelands has had help from various funders and supporters over the years and that combined with their hard work and dedication, they have put themselves in a position to complete their second profitable season this year, though they still only pay themselves minimum wage.
Now the crop list is almost the same as the original but they have also added microgreens and they are experimenting with tomatoes and chili peppers in the glass house. The timing of my visit was perfect since they are just getting into growing for high end restaurants. We talked a lot about the differences growing for chefs, their needs and how they expect the produce to look upon arrival. In my 4 days there we did a bit of everything, seeding, cultivation, weeding and harvest. It was a great exchange of ideas. Their produce is beautiful and the vibe of the place is really great. They are a cooperative in the true sense of the word. Each of them seems to have their strong points that they play to but they are all responsible for the health of the farm, the land and each other. It is an idyllic situation.
Both of these farms sell their produce to Unicorn Grocery, but they are also part of the Manchester Veg People cooperative. MVP is a cooperative of farmers, restaurants, caterers and public sector organizations such as community halls and Manchester University. MVP started small 5 years ago with the help of The Kindling Trust. They were originally 2 growers and a few restaurants. They have grown a lot over the years and are currently made up of 7 farms and over 20 buyers all working together to ensure that the buyers not only get the best quality fresh produce but that the farmers get a good price for their produce as well as a consistent and reliable revenue stream. All of the food is certified organic and grown within 50 miles of the city. Katie and Simon are heading up MVP for the moment and Zoey is helping them part time with orders and organization. Katie takes care of making new contacts and communication while Simon picks up all of the produce from the various farms and gets it to where it needs to be.
It is an enormous task. I spent 2 days with Simon in the truck. He picks up the produce in bulk and then repackages it for each individual delivery. He is also the best line for feedback on the produce between the buyers and the growers. I got to see the farms of many of the growers that they work with as well as speak to some of the chefs. These types of cooperatives are so important to farms. As I wrote in my last post farmers often don’t have time for deliveries and taking orders. That type of work is just one more thing to take them out of the field and away from what is really important. These types of cooperatives are better than commercial distributors because they have both the growers and the buyers in mind and the prices are fair to everyone. MVP is a great model of how this type of cooperative can work.
Me: Why did you chose the path of sustainable agriculture and what was your journey to get here?
Adam: It all started when I was traveling in New Zealand when I was 21. I had planned to do all sorts of things in the country but then I discovered WWOOFing and I started working on farms. I loved it and I ended up spending the whole 8 months working on different farms. When I got back home I started seeking out opportunities to continue and took any and all that I could find. I was WWOOFing here in the UK and ended up back here in Manchester volunteering with Glebelands.
Charlotte: When I was 21 I was starting a career in music but I was finding that even though I loved it, it may not have been the best job for me. I started reading about community gardens and got interested in that. I started volunteering at a local community garden in London and really loved it. The more I learned and the more I read the more involved I wanted to become, especially in urban farming. I went and did a Royal Horticultural Society qualification to learn the basics and then went WWOOFing in different places in Europe for 2 years. I then came to Glebelands and started volunteering here.
Me: What do you think of the current food system in your country?
Adam: I think it is definitely changing, I’ve noticed in the last 10 years that there is more of an interest in good food, more people interested in cooking. But there also seems to be a big movement the other way as well. There are people really into the “real food” movement but then there are also those getting more into the processed foods. There seems to be more of a split.
Charlotte: I’m not really sure how optimistic I am about it. I sometimes feel like I’m really unaware because I’m so engulfed in my little organic world. I feel like I don’t really understand. When I step out onto the main road in Manchester I start to feel like what I’m doing has so little relevance to what the majority of people are doing and buying each day. In some ways I think that organic is still perceived as something luxurious and special. Of course I do think it is special but I want it to be more mainstream. There is a lot of trendy interest in local and organic but I wonder how many people have genuine concern for the issues.
Me: What do you see as the future of food in your country?
Adam: The government here seems to be pushing GM and conventionally grown food. I don’t think they are on board with the organic movement. I think there is less support for Organic growers in the UK in comparison with other European countries.
I do try to stay optimistic for the future. As a grower you have to be. I have been farming here for 8 years and nothing has changed, there aren’t any other new growers in the city of Manchester. It’s hard going but I do think that things have improved. We have a great group of people here that are interested and are working hard at creating a local movement.
Charlotte: There are other bubbles like ours scattered around the country, little organic worlds but it is bridging the gaps between them that’s the problem. If that was possible somehow for all of us to join together... I will say that when we have school groups coming here and being engaged and interested in what we are doing it gives me hope. I sometimes worry that we are unnecessarily pessimistic and it may sound cliché but the young people do give me hope.
Me: Are you worried about how climate change will affect your business in the future?
Adam: I think that for this business and this site the climate has become really unpredictable. There are some larger growers that have lost their businesses. Our small and diverse farm has fared a bit better than others and we were still able to produce enough to support ourselves. When you are small, diverse and low impact you can be more flexible and react quicker. This scale is better. If you are using big machinery and large scale planting you can lose the whole lot to a bad storm or prolonged wet weather.
Charlotte: I’m not really sure what to expect. We have already seen some pretty extreme weather conditions. I don’t know what is to come, though I think that I am more concerned about the larger picture for climate change. The global impact than I am for ourselves. It all seems incredibly unpredictable. The world is so set up with large scale agriculture and those are the farms that will be the most affected.
Me: Who do you hope will inherit your enterprise?
Adam: We see Glebelands as a revolving door. Other growers will come in. There are 3 of us at the moment but there may be more next year. It’s unlikely that all of us will leave at the same time. I see more people joining, getting trained and becoming involved.
Charlotte: Yes, I agree that’s how I would like to see it go along.
Adam: We were so blessed to be given this land and opportunity and we had a great introduction to running it. It would be nice to be able to do that for the next person. To see it grow and move that way into the future. I might be here when I’m 60 but who knows.
Last but not least: I had the opportunity to go to Parlour, one of the restaurants that MVP is working with and they shared a recipe. Chef Paul also served Katie and I a 3 course dinner featuring all MVP produce. Parlour is a rustic British Pub that has won several local awards for their food and has been a proud member of MVP since 2011. So without further ado, here is the recipe:
What you will need:
2 medium beets
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 small bunch curly kale
Your preferred oil for deep frying
1 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon tamarind paste
A large lemon wedge
1/8 cup whole milk
1/4 cup of a strong soft cheese. (For this recipe the chef used a Lancashire crumbly)
Clean the beetroot and roast with the skin on at 350 degrees until tender (about 30 mins)
Remove from the oven and put it into ice water for a few minutes and remove the skin. When cool and skinned cut the beets into 4 equal wedges.
Wash the kale and remove the large parts of the stem from the base of the leaf. Pat it dry with a towel to remove all of the water
Get your frying oil hot but not smoking. The temperature will depend on the type of oil you are using.
Place the kale into the hot oil for 30 seconds or until it is crisp but still green.
Set the leaves aside on some kitchen paper to drain and sprinkle with a coarse salt.
For the dressing: Mix the mayonnaise and the tamarind paste in a blender or Cuisinart. Season with salt and pepper to taste and squeeze in the lemon. When everything is mixed thoroughly, add the milk to help loosen the dressing.
Assemble the salad as follows: put the dressing onto the plate and place the wedges on top. Add the kale and the cheese on top of the wedges and that’s it!
**If you don’t want to fry the kale, you could substitute a baked kale chip.
Shew! That was a long one. This concludes part one of my trip to Manchester. Up next week: a farm incubator program and more about The Kindling Trust and Unicorn grocery.
For more information about the farms and MVP, please check out their websites: