While in Manchester, along with the cooperative farms, I also worked with The Kindling Trust. Kindling has its hands in a lot of pots with the sustainable food game in Manchester. They helped to start the Manchester Veg People (they were highlighted in the last post) as well as many other initiatives around the city to help people to gain access to local food, help train the next generation of farmers, get volunteer labor onto local farms and to help young farmers with land access, mentoring programs and startup costs. Kindling was started in 2007 by Chris Walsh and Helen Woodcock. They are both environmental activists and in the beginning I think their aim was more environmental. Over time they recognized that the production, distribution and consumption of food is key to environmental and social issues large and small. The program has grown to encompass many aspects of “good food”, and they have gathered a great team with which to do it, there are now four core managing directors, a large support staff and many volunteers working in both the Manchester and Stockport area.
A few years ago they started a program called The Land Army. The name is not new, the project was inspired by The Woman’s Land Army that was created by the British Board of Agriculture during WWI. The young men had gone off to war and at the time agriculture was still very labor based, skilled workers such as carters and draft horse trainers were exempt from going to war but more than 3 million men were conscripted. The Woman’s Land Army trained women and put them to work in the field, giving them an opportunity to contribute to the war effort by feeding the men abroad as well as the folks back home. They also worked the fields producing flax and cotton that was used for uniforms and airplane parts. In the beginning there was quite a lot of back lash from the land owners, claiming that women weren’t up to the task of field labor but they were quickly proven wrong.
Women were the backbone of British agriculture during WWI and The Women’s Land Army came back into effect during WWII. Manchester’s current Land Army is open to any and all volunteers and currently organized by Corrina Low. Every Saturday morning folks gather at the Kindling headquarters to be transported to various farms. They are given snacks and lunch and work to do. It’s an enormous help to the farmers as it allows them to tackle large tasks that require a lot of labor. It is also a great opportunity for the volunteers to learn a new skill and become directly involved in the local food movement.
I spent a few days working with Kindling’s latest project called FarmStart (FS). FS is an incubator program for young farmers and the first of its kind in the UK. It has been modeled after several successful programs in North America. The land is located about 15 miles outside of the city and was donated to the program by a local egg farm called Abbey Leys. An extra bonus; the land is already certified organic. Wanna-be farmers sign up each season and are given a ¼ acre plot to start their own enterprise. FS gives them mentoring, some shared equipment and tools, and infrastructure such as a polytunnel, a washing / packing shed and irrigation. The budding farmers work up to 3 days per week on the property. They are encouraged to treat their plot as a part time job to earn a part time income. They grow a business for themselves slowly while they learn how to produce food in a comparably low risk environment when looking at the cost of purchasing land and installing infrastructure. The idea is that when they are ready, they can move off the land and start something larger. It is a program that not only teaches people how to grow food and manage a business but also helps them to find out if they are really cut out for farming. All the folks that want to get a plot at FS are encouraged to volunteer with The Land Army on a regular basis to see if they enjoy the work.
Kindling also hosts a day a few times a year called “so you want to be a farmer?” where people are shown the reality of farm life and put to work in the fields. These types of incubator programs are a great introduction to agriculture and important now more than ever. We need more programs that teach people how to farm, help to get them started and help them to access affordable land. As we all know the population of farmers globally is ageing out of the game. We need to find more ways to encourage young people to grow food and to show them that agriculture is a viable career option. I met several of the new farmers while visiting FS. They all seemed to be having their own trials and successes (as even experienced growers have each season) but overall everyone is very proud of what they have accomplished. Lindsey and her father George are on their second season and plan to go for a third, concentrating on herbs and edible flowers. Caroline is growing a lot of beautiful lettuces and seemed excited about next season, already thinking about things that she would like to do differently. Olivia, Axel (who also works at Moss Brook Growers) and Owen are sharing a plot and are doing really well. They are growing beans and squashes, onions and chard. Their plot is probably the most well kept, but they also have the most labor hours invested. Chris, Helen and Corrina also share a plot as a model. As Helen put it, “we are telling people that they can treat their plot as a part time job, we just want to set the example that is feasible to do it.” They are growing shelling beans, carrots, onions and they have a pretty sizable strawberry patch. The farmers are selling their produce through various avenues. Some folks have set up box schemes (CSA’s), they sell to restaurants through MVP and there is a monthly farmers market held at Abbey Leys Farm.
Unicorn Grocery is also one of Farmstart’s best customers and they are proud to be so. Unicorn is a vegan grocery store cooperative that was started in 1996. It was originally modeled after the Daily Bread Coop that opened in the 1980's in North Hampton. The founders of Unicorn believed that the city of Manchester was lacking a source for locals to purchase reasonably priced and healthy food. It was started as and remains a true cooperative where folks that work an allotted amount of time per month are given a substantial discount on their purchases. They stock local and organic produce, bulk items with very little packaging, bake their own breads and have a selection of delicious prepared foods. Unicorn grew faster and larger than anyone could have predicted in the beginning, moving from a small rental space within a building to owning and filling the entire 10,000 square foot space by 2003. The locals have truly embraced it as their local shopping spot and each time I went, it was certainly bustling. Unicorn has installed solar panels as well as a wildlife garden on the roof top and they are helping some local growers with loans to expand their businesses.
1. Why did you choose sustainable agriculture and what was your path to get there?
We are a group passionate about equality, fairness and democracy. We have been working in inner city Manchester for many years and it became increasingly clear to us that unless we reclaim our food system we can't create a sustainable and fair means of feeding ourselves.
We started out by setting up a volunteer program, supporting volunteers to go out and work with local organic farmers. We have also helped to establish a co-operative of local farmers, growers and crucially buyers.
Recently we have been more involved in supporting a new generation of growers get started. We run a commercial horticulture course and most recently established FarmStart Manchester – the UK's first organic incubator farm.
2. What do you think of the current food system in your country?
There are huge problems with our food system, it is too dominated by unaccountable, large corporations and the environmental, health and social impacts are growing. Having said that, there is huge potential to create a food system of family and smaller-scale farmers, independent businesses and the public sector. The UK has a strong farming heritage and the countryside is loved as a national asset. More and more people are demanding local food in their supermarkets.
In many ways people are just setting out on this journey called 'good food'. We need to ensure people keep moving through the supermarket food aisle, past the local food section and out the back door to the market and the farm gate.
3. What do you see as the future of food in your country?
It is not that positive, I'm afraid if we carry on along this trajectory, all the science points to a greater crisis that will only encourage the approach of bigger farms, greater dependence on technology and more dominant corporations.
We are at a very important moment. A new generation is waking up to sustainable food and they want to get into farming. Whilst an older generation who once farmed the land sustainably are still around. We perhaps have only a decade or so, before this older generation and their knowledge and wisdom is lost.
4. Are you concerned about how climate change may affect your business in the future?
Climate Change is already having an impact on our business and our growers. It is clear to anyone working on the land that the weather has become less predictable and the weather events more extreme.
5. Who do you hope will inherit your enterprise?
What we have started is too important for one group to be doing or to inherit. A federation, a union, a co-op or a local government needs to adopt what we are striving to do.
Last but not least I would like to share a recipe from Deb who works with Unicorn grocery and The Kindling Trust. She made dinner for Chris, Helen and I featuring vegetables from the FarmStart growers.
For the stir fry:
What you will need:
3 large carrots
2 cups shucked fava beans
1 block tofu
And a good handful of green beans
Stir fry these ingredients separately in sesame oil until tender adding the hardest vegetables first. While these are cooking you can make the peanut sauce.
For the sauce:
3 tbsp. sesame oil
2 large cloves of garlic
1 bunch cilantro
1 hot chili (remove the seeds if you want less heat)
1 tbsp. rice wine vinegar
2 tbsp. soy sauce
1 ½ cups peanut natural butter (your choice crunchy or smooth)
1 cup shaved coconut
¾ cups water
Fry the garlic and hot pepper in the sesame oil until fragrant. Add the vinegar, soy sauce, shaved coconut and peanut butter and cook over low heat stirring occasionally for 20 mins. Add the water to thin the sauce and cook for an additional 5 to 10 mins stirring occasionally.
Serve the sauce and the stir fried veggies over rice or noodles.
My trip to Manchester was really eye opening. All of these cooperatives working in tandem with each other and helping to hold one another up when needed was really inspirational. It was a beautiful thing to see. There was an amazing sense of community amongst all of these folks that went far beyond coworkers or buyers and sellers. They are all friends, working together to make their corner of the world a haven for healthy local food. Manchester is a model of what local food in a city can be and I’m so happy I was there to witness it.
Up next, several meat producers in the south of England.