Len Grant takes a look at the Gorton allotment project that’s keeping rural skills alive in the city
Growing your own has never been so popular. For many allotment holders it’s all about producing fresh, tasty organic food, with an eye on self-sufficiency and reducing their own carbon footprint.
Rev David Gray: "You don't need an allotment to keep hens."
At the Faith in the Community allotments in Gorton, they’ve taken it a step further. Here local people are being encouraged to not only use whatever space they have – back yard or window box – to grow vegetables and herbs, but they can now learn how to keep ex-battery hens.
“We’ve got 14 chickens, six ducks and five geese at the moment,” says Rev David Gray, whose wife Elaine, runs the allotment. “And all the chickens have been rescued from battery farms.” Apparently Britain’s 20 million battery hens only have an 18-month productive life before they are slaughtered. Increasing numbers are now being rescued by the Battery Hen Welfare Trust (they’re either given away or sold for up to 50p each) and found new homes. With a little ‘TLC’ the hens recover physically from their ordeal and reward their new owners with fresh eggs.
“Almost anyone can keep chickens,” explains Rev David, “you don’t need an allotment like this. It would be great to see people across the city building pens and keeping rescued birds.”
It’s a popular prospect for many. Already David and Elaine are offering workshops in ethical poultry care and fox-proof pen construction. “Over a generation we’ve lost many of our basic skills,” explains Rev David, “looking after animals and growing and preparing fresh food would have been second nature, but fewer people now know how to do it. We’re trying to pass on some of those skills before they are lost forever.”
Over the last twelve months Elaine has hosted sessions with local volunteers, schoolchildren and young people on probation, demonstrating how to grow fruit and vegetables from seed, and most of all, how to prepare food for the dinner table.
As part of this month’s Food and Drink Festival Open Day, one visitor, Pushpa Lad, has come along to see what’s what amongst the leeks and marrows. “I’ve never been on an allotment before,” she confesses. “My husband is very interested in starting one up and I’ve come to take a look. I can imagine we’d grow coriander, spinach, aubergines, all sorts.”
Pushpa Lad, centre, with allotment volunteer, Elaine Gray and John Steadman of Gorton Horticultural Society
“What we’re striving towards,” says Rev David, “is a whole network of local producers who can not only satisfy their own needs but have sufficient surplus to feed vulnerable people across the city. We’re making connections between different groups to achieve this, and the community allotment here is just a small part of that broader picture.”
To find out more about the network of producers helping to feed the vulnerable, visit the “Pharoahs Barn” group on Facebook or email Rev David Gray on firstname.lastname@example.org
The Battery Hen Welfare Trust is at www.bhwt.org.uk
Len Grant reports on the fall and rise of an allotment society where there are plans to grow more than just carrots and turnips.
“My dad had been coming down here for 30 years. It was the only thing he ever did, the only thing left. Then developers decided they wanted the site for houses. A compulsory purchase order was slapped on the allotments and everyone seemed to just give up. Dad told me to sell his tools.”
This is when Patrick Maher decided to get involved and help to save the Edge Lane Allotments Society in Openshaw. He took over one of the derelict plots and began working with the remaining plot-holders to fight for the 4-acre site.
“We had to prove the community wanted to keep the site, which of course they did, and finally, by bringing in new members and working with the council’s allotment staff, we fought off the closure threat. Now, nearly two years on, it’s gone from being a wasteland to a thriving community resource.”
Sharron Comer tried unsuccessfully to find a plot on other sites before taking a look at Edge Lane.
Sharon: "Home grown tastes so much better."
“It was just a patch of barren land, full of weeds when I first saw it,” she recalls. “There was no fencing, no sheds, nothing. That was over two years ago and for the first year I had to weed the plot top to bottom.”
Since then Sharron has laid paths, installed new glass in a derelict greenhouse, planted fruit trees, dug a pond and constructed a summerhouse for her daughter. “It’s great for the kids, they love coming down and helping out. And they will eat all the vegetables because they are the ones who’ve grown them.”
Now Sharron grows all the regular allotment fare: carrots, cabbage, broccoli, turnips swedes, potatoes, parsnips, cucumber, tomatoes, as well as melons, grapes, apples, pears, raspberries, red, black and white currants, blueberries, and gooseberries. Her plot hardly seems large enough to fit it all in. But, not only does she grow enough produce for her own family, but there’s always extra to swap with others.
“Apart from a couple of months in the winter, I never buy anything from the supermarket,” she says. “Home grown tastes so much better. Our carrots are sweeter, our cabbages softer. Supermarket food has travelled for four weeks before it reaches the shelves, so it’s hardly fresh.”
Not since the second world war, when growing you own was pretty much mandatory, has the demand for allotments been so great. Back then there were 1.4 million plots but, through the 60s and 70s, as food became cheaper and the lure of the supermarket stronger, allotment sites were sold off because there was no one to work them.
Edge Lane Allotments
Now, with a shift towards environmentally-friendly food, the allotment is popular again. It is estimated that 330,000 people have allotments in the UK with another 100,000 on waiting lists.
“We’ve got 88 plots here,” says Patrick, “and at least another 20 families waiting to get one.”
But Patrick and his green-fingered colleagues are not content with merely reaping the fruits of their labour for themselves. They have their own big plans for development.
“There’s an area by the entrance that needs clearing,” he says enthusiastically. “That can be used for any number of community groups or schools for project work on healthy eating or sustainability. We’ve got a classroom facility too, so there can be a more formal setting if that’s needed.”
The allotment society has already made links with Discus, a youth project in nearby Beswick. “We’re not all bright academics but when you see the sense of achievement on those young people’s faces when they have cleared a site, that’s very rewarding.”
Patrick with his dad, Billy
Patrick would like to see more disenfranchised young people working the land learning the ropes from older horticulturalists. There’s a funding application pending for a carpentry workshop for young people to make bird boxes and hanging baskets. And, with some of the plots home to donkeys, poultry and even racing pigeons, there’s even potential for husbandry skills to be passed to a younger generation. “If a young person is coming on here every day to look after the animals, then they’re not on the streets getting into trouble.
“This is not the old school allotment,” says Patrick. “This year, we’re going to offer as many different services as possible to as many groups as possible. The more people we can get involved, the better.
Seventy year-old Billy Maher is back on his plot, just as Patrick remembers. “Dad has somewhere to come now. He swears that working on the land has kept him going.”
If your school or community group would like to find out more about the Edge Lane Allotment Society then contact Patrick Maher at email@example.com