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A farm beyond food

Sutton Community Farm in London, England is the city’s largest arable community farm. From the seven-acre plot, London’s skyline can be seen shining through the distant haze, a constant reminder of the city this farm is attempting to feed.

The Sutton Community farm was set up in 2010 as an experimental food solution to compliment a nearby sustainable housing project. BioRegional, the charity responsible for the housing development, wanted to create an efficient and effective way of providing the residents with fresh, locally grown, organic produce (i.e., sustainable food). However, once the farm took flight, it soon set its sights on a wider audience.

Plants in outdoor gardenWith 29 percent of the area’s primary school children overweight, a quarter of its adults obese, and increasing levels of numerous preventable illnesses, it is not hard to imagine why Sutton Community Farm wanted to do more. Today, the farm prides itself on being more than a farm, and its mission is to inspire and educate young people and adults to simply make food matter.

As a community farm, the doors are always open and over one thousand volunteers have lent a helping hand since its inception. Whether it is the annual harvest festival or a corporate away day, the farm makes sure it is an accessible place to every cross-section of the community to join with and learn from.

Planting seedlings

Joris Gunawardena, 28, the farms Production Manager and one of three Directors, elaborates, “as a farm we hope that people will come face to face with many of the issues that surround food production in our society.” Joris wants to achieve a lot with his seven acres: grow vegetables, improve soil quality, and create a space that sets an example to other farms by demonstrating the potential of a peri-urban plot. It is a tall order.

Plants in greenhouse“Even such a simple thing as growing vegetables can be continually contentious and compromises are constantly being made. For example, do we rotavate or leave the soil alone, use drip irrigation or overhead sprinklers, mypex or straw mulch, it’s endless.” When trying to achieve so much it is no wonder that these decisions seem like heavy ones, but it is counteracted by his upbeat attitude and a well-placed confidence in what he can achieve. “Like a lot of decisions on the farm, it’s about getting the balance right.”

Since the farm exists for the community, it introduced a not-for-profit vegetable box scheme providing Londoner’s with easy access to purchasing locally grown, organic food- not always easy in a city littered with express versions of conglomerate supermarket chains offering ‘British Grown’ produce year round.

Tomato plantThe scheme buys what it does not grow from other local farms to make up the weekly vegetable box, but it has inevitably found itself losing out on seasonal produce as farmers are tied up in supermarket contracts. When customers ask “how come I can get British carrots in Tesco, but you don’t have any?” there is no quick answer. So the farm takes it as an opportunity to open a dialogue and get people engaged with the issues openly and honestly.

This is reflected whole-heartedly on their website, where they reveal their network of suppliers and invite viewers to follow their own growing calendar to see what to expect as the year progresses. There is even a breakdown of every ingredient in their locally sourced bread, from seeds to yeast.

GreenhouseWhile the farm needs to become financially self-sufficient by running a successful vegetable box scheme, they also have the support of local restaurants who have agreed to purchase excess produce when the season is rife. For example, their salad has recently found its way into some of London’s top establishments with restaurateur Mark Hix creating his own ‘Hix Mix’ of leaves including the unusual Minutina, a salty flavored member of the plantain family. Hix is a fan of the farm, stating “This is an important project for London… a local urban food growing initiative and a farm that teaches and inspires its community and surrounding areas to create a real, life long relationship with the food they eat.”

PlantHaving been set up with funding from The National Lottery and Esmee Fairbairn, the Sutton County Farm has some way to go before becoming financially self-sufficient, with the vegetable box scheme needing to at least double its customer base. To help move the farm forward at this pivotal stage of its development, they aim to engage the community on a new level and are set to launch a crowd-funding campaign later this month. A cash injection now could help the farm increase its exposure and its customer base to continue providing vegetables, as well as so much more to London’s residents for the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, Joris says, […] what comes out of our farm is better skilled, better educated, and better informed people that are happier and healthier. We want people to think about food, to take a mindful approach to their purchasing for the good of themselves, their community, and their planet.”

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