New agri-culture springs to life by the motorway

by Richard Spalding, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, University of the West of England

I scraped the leaves away to discover that the rhubarb crowns had survived the cold to begin their journey into the light and unknowingly towards our kitchen. I was on my way to join the first work party organised by Sims Hill Shared Harvest, a new community supported agriculture project close to the M32 motorway on the north Bristol fringe. This was an emotional moment for me as I walked down the icy track which still forms the access point to and across the finger of largely derelict market garden land which once helped feed the city. I had been envisioning such a moment for years now in my quest to try and support a revitalisation which might see our cities beginning to think about feeding themselves once again.

Plans are afoot here to develop a vegetable growing initiative which regenerates some of the high quality agricultural land which has tumbled down to rough grazing uses as horsiculture has replaced horticulture. Such initiatives are to be welcomed as Bristol begins to wrestle with its future foodscapes. It seems that a number of community groups interested in getting involved in food-related activities are taking the opportunity to negotiate leases of land from the local authority. There is clearly an upsurge of interest from a younger generation of people wanting to re-engage with food growing in this part of the city and their projects are beginning to shape up.

Last week (just a couple of miles away at Frenchay Chapel) I gave an illustrated lecture on Market Gardens on the north Bristol – presents, pasts and futures to the Frenchay Tuckett Society. I reported on my ongoing scholarship to an audience which contained several members of market gardening families who used to produce vegetables from this fertile strip. They provided me with yet more information to keep me going for another year. However, I was stopped in my tracks by one gentleman who suggested that I was wearing a pair of rose tinted spectacles through which to view what he saw as the impossibility of fighting the economic logic of the currently dominant global food system which has rendered this land derelict. “Rhubarb” he said in defending his bottom line accountant’s position on my lack of economic understanding.

I agreed with him in part, but only in part. I countered his assertions by suggesting that what I was doing here was to think beyond current obsessions with global food provisioning to consider what a relocalised foodscape for the 21st century might look like and what part a fertile land resource on our doorsteps might play in it. He was unmoved. I went home chastened, yet still deeply involved with ideas for creating new agri-cultural landscapes in our own places. My own sense of the part good, well managed soil plays in all of this was summed up beautifully by Thomas C. Chamberlin who suggested that… “when our soils are gone, we too, must go unless we find some way to feed on raw rock.”

In the meantime, I will be suggesting that we commission a piece of vegetable art to sit on the plinth overlooking the M32 into Bristol. One only has to sit at its base for a few minutes to see the global food harvest in motion as food lorry after food lorry moves in and out of the city. Perhaps a giant rhubarb stick proclaiming the beginnings of a re-emergence of Bristol’s food culture would be really appropriate as a symbol of our re-connection between city and countryside at a time of profound concerns over local and global food security.

Originally published in the March-April issue of the Bristol Local Food Update