OrganicLea stands out as an inspiring urban food project that grows everything: food and communities. While many sustainable and food-focused programs are limited by the fact they only have volunteer staff, Organic Lea’s vision to create jobs provides a practical transition from hobby radicals to “professional radicals”. If the food sector and organics are not automatically a promotion of equality, inclusion, mutual aid, and cooperation, then OrganicLea definitely is.
How It All Began
The project’s growth has been compared to that of an apple tree: maiden, formative and productive years.
In 2001, agreement was given for us to take on an acre of once-derelict allotment land situated on the edge of Epping Forest in the Lea River Valley. At the allotment site volunteers could come and share in a day’s work and take a share of the harvest. Some of the surplus produce was sold on to occasional market stalls and through North Leyton Surestart. Training courses gave other growers a chance to increase their organic growing knowledge and skills. Social events and food celebrations also marked the season’s turn.
While the allotment site remained at the heart of OrganicLea for many years, there was clearly scope for developing something more than just our small harvest contribution. A stronger local food economy – where production and distribution remain within a small geographical area – would bring benefits in social, environmental, health, economic and cultural spheres. The notion of a local food scheme, which would facilitate the production and distribution of local food within the borough, was born and in 2003 we published a report exploring the desirability and possibility of creating such a scheme in Waltham Forest.
This idea and the burgeoning local activity, enthusiasm and interest in food issues gradually coalesced into a proposal for a ‘local food hub’: a place where local people can get quality local organic produce, find out about food issues and develop their own food growing skills. The Hornbeam Centre, a community café based in Walthamstow, provided a physical base for this hub: a weekly market stall was set up on its street corner from September 2006 and was supplied by small-scale organic farmers from East Anglia and their European partners.
With a grant from the Big Lottery’s Making Local Food Work programme, the Centre was refurbished in 2008, and food hub activity was increased to include a weekly box scheme, support for the Hornbeam Café, and support for local gardeners and allotment holders to sell their surplus to these outlets through the Cropshare scheme. And of course events and workshops to share skills and celebrate local food also continued.
In 2007 Waltham Forest Council closed its plant nursery, located just around the corner from OrganicLea’s allotment site, providing the tantalising possibility of significant space outdoors and under glass to increase our own local production and develop a community plant nursery, offering opportunities for all to get involved. The next two years involved lease negotiations, funding applications, and developing permaculture designs for the land, the social elements of the project and the co-op’s own organisational structure. The site was renamed the Hawkwood Community Plant Nursery.
In 2009 the Hawkwood steering group planted the first seedlings in the glasshouses, already supplying a significant harvest of salad, tomatoes, chillis and squash to the market stall and box scheme at the Hornbeam, as well as a wide range of plant seedlings to help other community growing projects and individuals who don’t have access to protected growing space.
In early 2010 a ten year lease for the site was signed, and with Local Food funding in place until 2013, the Hawkwood Nursery work could shift to a new phase of major indoor and outdoor vegetable and plant production, as well as orchard and vineyard development for future fruit harvests. The site’s work was planned to include regular volunteering opportunities for those, with or without previous growing experience, as well as both formal and informal training and skillsharing workshops involving practical work on the site.
OrganicLea finds support from being part of a wide network of like-minded growers, and from its early days has always tried to support others to develop their growing skills, recognising the social, economic, health, environmental and community benefits achieved when people grow food in the spaces around them. As well as offering training and providing seedlings and resources like compost, this support takes the form of specific tailored support to local community groups and organisations that want to start or develop their own food growing projects.
The Common Sense Growers initiative, begun in 2007, aims to bring the benefits of food growing to as wide a range of people as possible, including excluded or vulnerable groups, providing support which ranges from project planning and design to regular practical training sessions with users.
THE PRACTICALITIES OF SETTING UP A COOP – BECOMING ‘PROFESSIONAL RADICALS!’
OrganicLea is a workers cooperative. This means we all give time to running the organisation and adopt a framework of organising rooted in transparent governance, mutual aid and collectivism. We manage ourselves and give time to support and manage our peers. Our approach to the organisation design that has developed the cooperative’s resilience was shaped by vital input from Cooperatives UK.
Since 2009 we have prioritised building the core functionality of the cooperative – its governance, financial and legal organising mechanisms. This has also meant prioritising work on the organisation’s vision and aims (facilitated by Turning the Tide, August 2010) and strategy and planning (facilitated by Seeds for Change, October 2011). The guidance and support that all this facilitation has provided, combined with co-op members’ commitment to these days, has been a fundamental practicality.
There is a lot of support available regarding the governance aspects of setting up a co-op, and in practical terms OrganicLea would urge any group that is thinking of starting a cooperative enterprise to take advantage of this support. In terms of some of our learning from this process around practicalities, the below stand out as key influencing elements in our development:
o Coming together of a critical mass of people, with shared vision and motivation.
o Ensuring all have sufficient time, human energy and skills for the work that needs to be done.
o Establishing clear roles and responsibilities as the organisaiton and project’s work grows.
o Understanding we are running an enterprise and we want to make our living doing this together. With this realisation comes financial reality and responsibility.
o Growing real friendships which bring work, activity, laughs, struggles and commitment together.
o Establishing dynamic and effective peer management and support processes.
HOW DOES ORGANICLEA DIFFER FROM TRADITIONAL PRODUCERS AND SUPPLIERS?
In all of our distribution work, ‘human relationships’ and ‘shared vision’ remain key. We have a range of promotional activities that are educational in nature, for example in order to interest all in the food we grow we have to change people’s relationship to the food system. For OrganicLea, our marketing work is explicitly linked to education about the real value of food and the essential value of ‘just food systems’.
The story is relayed at the distribution end, with the majority of our produce sold through our own market stalls and box scheme, and the salad going further afield to independent catering partners in North and East London. Unlike many rural producers, it is not an aspiration that our box scheme and stalls be stocked with an ever-growing percentage of our own stuff. The bulk of the goodies we market are supplied by the rural members of the OrganicLea family, Hughes Organics. Coordinated by Grahame and Lizzie Hughes, they are a group of organic growers in East Anglia who succeeded the much-loved Eostre Organics. The Hughes stick to the latter’s policy of not going through multiples but direct into London via independent and community-based outlets.
We also coordinate the Cropshare scheme, affiliated to Wholesome Food Association (WFA), whereby local allotment and garden surpluses can be traded. This makes legal issues around the term ‘organic’ a little complex, but on balance it is worthwhile as a stimulus to the local food economy. The latter is a central aim of Hawkwood; indeed, it’s the reason we exist. Cooperation is better than conflict: We work in close partnership with other small suppliers. These are not competitive relationships.
We also work directly with outlets, and when we have a relationship with another distributor it is of a mutually supportive and non-exploitative nature. We know those who buy our food and plants, whether it is market stall customers in Wathamstow or a restaurant in Camden. We have a direct relationship with those who we supply as well, and we share a vision for food produced with integrity.
Organic, community food producers are inspired by a range of political, economic, ethical … and possibly even spiritual stances. It’s part of the social and ecological resistance movement — not a cunning ruse to sell more. OrganicLea at Hawkwood has been inspired by the desire of these outlets to share in creating a more sustainable, healthy and honest food system that grows people as well as plants.
FROM SMALL TO BIG
Alongside the graft on the land and in communities, OrganicLea is committed to achieving more fundamental social justice through our very small actions. The decision to realise this vision through community-based food work is essential to our being.
Food is of fundamental importance to humans: for our survival, for our enjoyment of life, for our culture. Yet industrial food, drained of vitality, life and soul, is harming us and our planet. So when it comes to improving our lives and our environment, food is a good place to begin.
However, community food projects in themselves are not an inevitable force for radical social change that can emerge from reconnecting with the land, and with each other. For this change they also need to embody a broader and deeper praxis of collectivism, inclusion, cooperation, mutual aid, equality and justice.
Clare Joy and Naomi Glass are members of OrganicLea
The Hawkwood growing site is open for anyone to visit, to participate in project stories, and to join a guided site tour on the last Sunday of every month from 12-4pm. More information at www.organiclea.org.uk. You can also read their Growers Blog.