Some History, Theory and Practice

History of the Market Garden in Sale

weedy fieldWe negotiated with Trafford Metropolitan Council to take over the site in 2001. By the time we took possession a lot of docks and other weeds had gone to seed and there was an air of dereliction. Previous uses include special needs project, recreational field and for several decades market gardening. Newpaper coverage traced several people who either knew or had worked with George Irlam, the last grower on the land. It was less clear at what stages embankment and dredging of the adjacent River Mersey had taken place and that some spoil was in fact tipped onto sections of our lower field.

The light sandy soil appeared fertile with some reasonable organic matter but experience has shown it to be more variable than was at first apparent. We used the services and advice of a local farmer to flail mow and rotavate the vegetation before drilling vetch as a green manure and winter cover crop. Assisted by supporters we got the glasshouse operational removing slabs and concrete and replacing broken panes. We were hampered for several years by the inherited debris on site, largely concrete and masonry rubble, inevitably slow to remove. Getting water and electricity on site proved once again the realities of post Thatcher utilities and one set of hostile neighbours kept us on our toes.

pond and housesWe slowly got to know the site (never big enough), soil (unforgiving…) and climate (much dryer, particularly in the summer, than anyone in the area seems to realise).The time and personal cost of this process is not to be underestimated and partly explains why horticultural start-ups are still scarce. The cropping areas have been enlarged a little after clearing more inherited shrubbery but there is never enough land…. Some hedge planting and wildflower seeding has led to richer flora and fauna with foxes, hedgehogs and rodents seen and many more birds than in 2001. The appearance of Woodpeckers, Buzzards and Cormorants over the Mersey Valley is some compensation for the grind of the M60 eating up the atmosphere.

The economics of UK horticulture in the 1980 onwards have made Glebelands as financially difficult as we expected but our close relationship with Unicorn has made survival possible whereas trading on the open market would not. We have done what many writers and commentators advocated and produced local food supply against fearsome globalised factors. To that end we share at least a few of the experiences of farmers in any country left to the mercy of distorted and short term markets and with little concern for the environment and soil it possesses.

Theory

kath and susanaAside from the golden ager “wouldn’t it be nice to grow some veg and listen to the birds on a sunny afternoon” type view what else did we think our efforts would lead to?

We were inspired by wanting to avoid the crap jobs of much of contemporary Britain (see Oliver James and others for detail and data on how crap) and the opportunity of a feasible market through Unicorn Grocery for local fresh crops. Other market gardeners in the NW were also successfully using the Alan Schofield Growing With Nature box scheme umbrella to make a living. Elliot Coleman in the US with his seminal “New Organic Grower” had identified modern opportunities in a tired sector.The UK was experiencing continued interest in organic production as the extremes of conventional farming troubled even the tabloids. How could we fail?

We hoped to achieve no wastage through unsold crops (20% often suggested for open market growers), best price at all times, no middleman margin to lose and local loyalty to our crops. We also thought that taking Unicorn waste for composting, Wwoof volunteers (knowledge, experience, lodgings for labour) and using domestic transport would minimise costs further.

Experience had shown the Unicorn public would pay around 10-15% more for high quality, pristine regional lines and we hoped this premium would be enough to make us viable despite some diseconomies of scale (less mechanisation, smaller land area). State support and advice we expected to be poor.

Practice

rocket packsOur experience has been challenging. We have certainly received support and goodwill but have had to be extremely determined very often. This has been exhausting from time to time, although not unusual in small businesses and certainly so in farming. This is not widely understood by those on the traditional left, environmental graduates and many consumers. Many of our expectations have proven correct but several points are worth examining.

While having some knowledge of commercial veg production and having done some considerable research, this was not enough. Several months minimum on another holding would be realistic as the technical and logistical issues are considerable. It is easy to underestimated how much knowledge those brought up on farms aquire and possess. While we have gained a lot of this over several years learning this way is expensive in terms of crop failure, lower yields and time used.

Prices are still the biggest issue. Even amidst a sympathetic and relatively aware clientele at Unicorn there is the acute price sensitivity we all share in the UK. For example, none of us wants to pay more than £1 for a Lettuce but the production costs (particularly wages) require it. Conventional Lettuces share some of the same costs but critically they are “fuelled” by chemical nitrates (cheap gas still, just) ,moved by Euro-wide transport (cheap oil, for now) and tend to use cheap labour, particularly in Spain and Italy. Real enforcement by the EU over minimum wages would deal with the latter, geological realities will soon deal with the former.

Unfortunately for the sake of a couple of decades of seriously cheap food we have largely lost much of our soil quality, horticultural skill base, food and cooking culture and severely discouraged new entrants. New Labour laissez-faire/post Thatcherism make immediate change from the state seem unlikely and our £16pa subsidy predictable.

Volunteer labour has been mixed with the whole range experienced. We now screen carefully and rely heavily on paid trained hours. Most voluntary labour schemes costs the host.

teasel and glasshouseSandy soil is indeed unforgiving. The tradition of feeding heavily with organic matter, usually animal manure, is understandable. We have used green manure crops wherever possible, where nitrogen fixing nodules add the vital “N” and plant roots revitalise the soil and associated flora. However to rely on this approach entirely requires perhaps an equivalent area of land out of production in “fertility building/recovery” to that under a crop. With limited land this is a problem. Green waste may prove useful in the future, our own experience was frustrating with far too much “brown” or waste wood in the material.

We have produced some extremely popular crops with only rare moments of excess. Our salad leaves have proved one of the greatest customer pulls Unicorn has experienced and certainly the most lucrative crop to produce. Glebelands in marketing guff almost constitutes a brand, with loyalty and a following, offering a rare public experience of local food. We have used shiny bags, quality labelling and freshness to some effect and increased our protected (plastic covered) and irrigated growing areas. We have a basic rotation of crops in place, experience of feasible crops and yields and have come up with some innovations in the process.

Our “carbon footprint” is tiny and seemingly sustainable, a comment one couldn’t make about any of conventional farming. When oil reaches $150/barrel expect more Glebelands.

More about Glebelands and Unicorn in an article by Andy Jones: The Glebelands - Unicorn Model, a Cooperative Approach to Sustainable Urban Food Supply

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