Small Revolutions

I’m sure there’s a deep-rooted human desire for full circles.

It’s one of the fundamental pleasures of this work. It can be tough. Monday afternoon was set aside for pottering around nurturing the crops: instead, I became aware that the blight had made its unwelcome annual visit,  and it was spent in a frenzy of scything, mowing down a field of  potato foliage in time for the evening co-op meeting, with only a grim satisfaction. Circles can be vicious,sure, but mostly they are restorative: the melons are ripe again, and the celery becomes ready.

Celery, as you may know, is a “cult classic” at Hawkwood Community Plant Nursery. This means it has a hardcore following and grows brilliantly here; so brilliantly that, last year, even the hardcore tired of seeing it in their vegeboxes, let alone the larger constituency of detractors. This year, a further plan was needed. Operation Shift Celery was born.

Growing Communities are a social enterprise in Hackney, who run an organic box scheme, THE organic farmers market, and urban market gardens supplying splendid salad to the former. Once upon a time I was a grower there: when push hoe came to shovel, I deemed that the next challenge for me personally, and the community food movement at large, was to develop broader scale urban edge growing to back up the intensive pockets of production amongst the high dense. I vowed one day I’d return with a cartload of fringe vegetables.

When you leave something you love, promises of return, some sunny day, are a means of coping, hoping with the grief. Sometimes though, the wheel does run true.

This week we have had our second annual  Soil Association inspection, which means we are officially “in organic conversion”. And Growing Communities’ buying policy allows for “in conversion” produce. Tuesday, for the first time, we picked, cleaned and packed in situ in the damp of the Entrance Field, the harvest being too big to haul through to the packing section of the warehouse. Nicole, an OrganicLea co-op member and Growing Communities employee, fittingly masterminded the Operation.

As the drawing summer’s evening drew in, Nicole and I pulled up at the Old Fire Station, GC’s office and packing yard. There was some appreciation: this was their first delivery of  “peri-urban” vegetables, a vital piece in their jigsaw of a community-controlled food system. A team of seven was packing the Hackney salad as we hauled out the Hawkwood specialities: the popular hit, our Bull’s Blood beetroot, glowering crimson in the crates; and close to four hundred  crisp clumps of a certain cult classic, virtually our whole bed’s worth. Controversial celery, an ideal bring-back for a prodigal son.

A perfect circle.

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Summer Break

Time was when I would look forward to a summer punctuated by a long cycling holiday: an aimless road trip over hills and dales; or carefree, car-free adventures in the Paradise region of France. Latterly, the demands and joys of the growing site have reduced such escapades to the odd day trip and TV coverage of the Tour de France. But this week I brought the garden and the cycling break together in doing our weekly delivery “into London town”.

Realising this year that we needed to look beyond our small beautiful box scheme and stall for homes for our urban market garden abundance, Clare, our intrepid Promotion and Distribution Worker, set out to find a few ideal partners. Idealists that we are, we weren’t interested in flogging veg to any Tom, Dick or Harrods. We wanted people who were independent (for political and practical reasons: chainstores tend to bully small producers); we wanted people who rivalled our passion , shared our vision, and were ready to enter a long-term relationship. Ideally, they’d also be solvent, GSOH, and have a liking for late ‘80s indie pop, but there’s only so much room in a lonely artichoke heart column.

Cutting to the happy ending, we found each other: Table 7 restaurant in Chingford, our lowest energy customer, courtesy of Ian’s feet; Pizza East in Shoreditch, whom Deli Station, our Slow Food neighbours in the Lea Valley, deliver to on their capital rounds; and a convenient cluster of Camden cafes: The Sandwich Barge on the Regents Canal; Friends’ Centre on the Euston Road; Nice Green Van at the English Folk Song & Dance Society; and finally Manna, the “oldest vegetarian restaurant in London”, purveyors of exquisite and ethical vegan cuisine.

For this “zero food miles” run, we focus on salad – a blend of leaves we’re proud of and which has the advantage of being quite light – plus enough seasonal items to fill the trailer. The trailer is a Christiania, fabricated in the autonomous community of that name in Copenhagen: another practolitical choice: theirs is a car-free zone, so they’ve developed human powered cargo carriers of utmost elegance and functionality.

Empty polystyrene boxes are even lighter than salad, so there’s a spring in my pedal as I leave Manna and journey east, retracing the historic cartwheels of so many growers and grocers. Squeezing through Islington traffic is not the same as spinning through fields and vineyards, it’s true: but back then, I’d pass delightful vegetable patches , and leave them behind. Now, I’m carrying them with me, at every turn.

Onto The Streets!

There’s no stopping the stall: whatever the claims of  supermarkets and internet shopping, every week millions clamour to rough and ready markets and car boot sales.

For over five years now, when Saturday comes we’re selling and chatting by the busy roadside outside the Hornbeam Centre. It’s a key “shopfront” for OrganicLea, and a key distribution outlet for Hawkwood produce, and that of others: the Cropshare gardeners who bring their baskets of allotment surpluses from around the borough, and for Hughes Organics. The Hugheses, Grahame and Lizzie, have an organic holding in Norfolk, and pool their veg with that of a five other East Anglian growers to supply independent and community outlets in London. The stall then,  is weighed down, and supported, by food from alliances: rural/urban; commercial/ subsistence. Recently we’ve started a second stall on the Leytonstone High Road, in alliance with Transition Leytonstone.

Market stalls certainly aren’t as “efficient” a method of shifting our produce as box shemes and direct sales to restaurants, yet there is something spiritually and socially vital about taking it to the streets. The streets remain a vibrant democratic space of free activity and exchange : if we don’t continuously claim this surviving commons, the privatising profiteers will.

Since June, we have also been at Walthamstow Farmers Market once a month, where, due to the spirit and rules of true farmers’ markets, we can only sell our own stuff. So the first week of each month I’m careful to hold back a decent volume and range of everything we have. On Thursday and Friday we’re rewardede by a warehouse turned exotic with the rich blend of odours of twelve different living plants, exhaling and being trimmed.

Footballers talk of “setting out our stall” at the start of a game or a season: indeed, a prompt, purposeful display is what a good food market is all about. For us, this extends beyond the fresh items for sale, to include bountiful photos and flyers that tell the story of our attempt to create an alternative food system: “propaganda amongst the pumpkins”, as we sometimes call it.

As the social dis-eases errupt into burning disturbances on the streets of NorthEast London this last couple of days, it’s good to be out there, weather blowing from cold wind to blazing sunshine to showers, on Naomi and I, amongst the vegetables we’ve sown and grown: transplanted from the forest edge to Walthamstow High Street. It feels like what urban market gardening is all about.