Scaling up Urban Agriculture: report from Nicole Vosper

From Nicole Vosper of Somerset Community Food:

On Wednesday October 3rd, I joined a group of others to focus on answering the question, “How can we scale up urban agriculture in Bristol?”. Organised by Bristol Food Policy Council, the event took place at Co-exist in Bristol and brought together urban growers, community organisers and local foodies in Bristol who all care about how the city gets fed.

I went with interest as a rural grower that is soon to be feeding into the city and also to raise awareness that if Somerset was to feed itself that would impact on Bristol’s chances! Unfortunately cities aren’t the best model of human habitat patterns and would ultimately need to be fed by counties like Somerset that surround the city.

However urban agriculture will certainly play a role in keeping the city fed and help people to re-connect with the land, learn skills and building community.

The night started with five speakers to inspire with different perspectives and experiences in urban agriculture. Misty Tunks of Knowle West Media Centre and the Elm project started the ball rolling and introduced the Edible Landscapes Movement’s use of smart phones to link producers and retailers, where people can upload what they are planting, harvesting and more. They also have things like virtual fruit tree maps of the Knowle West. It was a really interesting concept and one that made me think about what more we could do in Somerset to link up retailers and producers.

Keith Cowling then spoke. Keith was from the Ashley Vale Allotment Association and told us about the 4000 allotments in Bristol distributed over 100 sites across the city. However he reminded us that allotments are not generally designed to produce a surplus – not more so than for one family and their friends and so if we think we can feed a city on allotments alone this is unlikely indeed. He said that we will need a strategic approach if lots of different small sites are to feed people e.g. transport systems, ways to move soil, nutrients, a shared marketing system and so forth. He talked about recent developments near Bristol Temple Meads and that that the vision of a temporary growing project became unfeasible when they costed out how much organic matter would be needed to grow, so Keith’s call to action was about a soil building social enterprise. A challenge for all your designers out there.

Tim Lawrence from Sims Hill Shared Harvest then spoke passionately about the historical agricultural and social changes experienced through industrialisation, such as mechanisation and the decline of market gardens and smallholdings. He also talked about issues such as access to land and ownership.

Support for start up costs and the challenges of finding the people with the skills and experience to get a project going were also identified. Another challenge highlighted are the community organising and project management skills needed by growers, such as building that community interaction into projects and recruiting and communicating with volunteers. Tim also talked about the impacts of climate change and the need for more design support due to our changing climate and weather that presents challenges to any grower, which will need more resilience than perhaps traditional market gardens of the past.

Another point raised was that of power, where do we get our power from? People? Machines? How do we meet these needs in the descent of oil? Tim also talked about fertility in the city – where does our fertility come from? The climate has presented challenges even for green manures and so how we meet our needs is really important.

Finally Tim’s calls to action where that opportunities need to be created for young people to learn all the skills necessary to genuinely manage land, like the apprenticeships starting at Sims Hill in the coming year. His second call to action was infrastructure, detailing all the above and the relationships between them.

Mike Lloyd-Jones then introduced the Bristol Pound, the complementary currency for the city that aims to strengthen the local economy and keep money within the city. He talked about the Farm Link Initiative that offers a 0% redemption rate (its basically like getting paid in traditional currency) for primary producers based within 50 miles of Bristol. That includes you, Somerset growers! Check it out here:

Finally, Rebecca Marshall from the Community Land Advisory Service talked about the lack of technical expertise to negotiate access to land and how CLAS had been developed to meet that community need. She reminded everyone that the support is there and this aspect of getting started should not put anyone off!

After the speakers was an open space type session to harvest the collective experiences and ideas from the room.

Overall it was an interesting evening and I continue to be inspired by everything happening in our local city. My favourite quote of the night was Joy Carey, who said, “Scaling up is about smartening up”.

October 19, 2012 by Nicole Vosper, Somerset Community Food