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June 13, 2018

Urban farmers

It’s odd, how little we seem to care about where food comes from.  For those of us who are urban dwellers, our relationship with the food system is largely defined by the distorting lens of the supermarket. But change could be afoot. A collective of small-scale urban based food growers Propagate, have launched a campaign calling on urban local authorities to be much more imaginative in their disposal of vacant sites.  A whole new generation of urban farmers are ready and waiting. Their ambitious new report – Roots to Market – sets out the vision.



A GROUP of local food producers is aiming to transform Scotland’s cities, and overhaul the country’s food landscape, by creating urban farms on vacant land and in empty buildings.

Their vision for the city includes market gardens selling unusual and high-end vegetables, based in vacant plots in deprived areas, and vertical growing projects in which salad and veg can be produced commercially, or fish farmed, in stacked “towers” in abandoned warehouses.

Last week, campaigning growers’ collective Propagate launched a new report – Roots to Market – calling on local authorities to help urban farm projects by making suitable vacant land more readily available under the Community Empowerment Act.

Report authors Abi Mordin and Kristina Nitsolova claim there is potential for more small-scale urban farmers to supply local businesses such as shops, cafes and restaurants, bringing environmental, social and economic benefits.

Projects in development or already under way in Glasgow include market gardens, vertical growing of micro-greens (nutrient-rich shoots used as side salad in some restaurants) and indoor aquaponics in which fish are farmed alongside vegetables growing in water without soil. The plants are fed by the waste products from the fish and in turn purify the water while the fish grow to an edible size. Other would-be market gardeners are looking to supply eggs, honey and fruit on a commercial scale, or create herbal teas, jams or pickles from market garden ingredients.

Glasgow city council is broadly supportive of plans. Work in Dundee, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, where several projects are in progress, is also being supported locally.

Abi Mordin, Propagate director, said: “We need to fix our food culture in Scotland. The Roots to Market report is a big step towards creating a sustainable local food economy in Glasgow. We’ve talked to lots of people in every part of the chain and we’ve laid out some clear steps for all of us to take. We have a lot of vacant land in cities like Glasgow and we are aiming to identify where there might be potential for growing.”

Propogate’s report called for the council to undertake contamination studies and create a searchable database to be used by potential market gardeners. The organisation is also supporting the establishment of the Glasgow Growers Association, which will take on leases from the council on behalf of small businesses.

Dr Roy Neilson, a scientist at Dundee’s James Hutton Institute, said there was “real potential” for urban growers to supply city cafes and other businesses. “Scale could be achieved through the adoption of vertical growing facilities, an innovative solution to growing food with a minimal footprint,” he added. “Local growing also provides provenance and reduces food miles and so has environmental benefits. Urban growers have the potential to complement, though not directly replace, existing food supply chains for mainstream consumers.”

Pete Ritchie, director of Nourish, an NGO campaigning on food justice in Scotland, said creating short supply chains – such as local growers selling to small businesses – had many benefits. Money stays in the local economy, food is fresher and both city growers and their customers felt more connected to the land.

“Sustainable food is vital to our city’s health, environment and local economy, as well as improving our resilience,” he said. “The issue is that there is still a skills gap – someone who knows what they are doing can get 10 times more out of the land than someone who doesn’t.”

He said a grassroots approach was needed to teach everyone how to grow food, but he would also like to see a college of urban agriculture. “It would look to the best projects in the world for inspiration,” he added. “It should have a hi-tech vertical growing unit – ideally that would be powered off renewable energy. Maybe we could have a turbine in the Clyde? It’s about thinking creatively.”

Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform – who earlier this week visited Locavore, a Glasgow-based social enterprise growing veg on its city-based market garden plots and selling local produce in its new ethical “supermarket”– said: “Our programme for government sets out a firm commitment to promote and develop demand for locally sourced and produced food and drink.

“Under the Community Empowerment Act, local authorities are also required to prepare food growing strategies which include the identification of land suitable for allotment sites and community growing, and how they intend to increase provision where required.”

A hidden market garden

ON the bustling Tollcross Road in Glasgow’s east end it would be easy to miss the alleyway that leads to Max Johston and Andy McGovern’s new market garden. It’s on the site of Parkhead Housing Association’s community garden, which is recent years has become overgrown and rundown.

The deal is that Johnson and McGovern get to use half of the plot for their new venture in return for help in restoring the rest for the community and running sessions for volunteers. It’s clear there’s plenty of potential for it to be transformed. Though covered with weeds, herb-like mint pokes through along with flowering strawberry plants and oodles of rhubarb.

The left-hand side of the space, used by for commercial growing, is much more orderly, though it’s still early days. Johnson shows me the neat rows of salad, with which he has contracts to provide for two Glasgow cafes – there’s oak leaf lettuce and lollo rosso, rocket and peppery red mustard. They are also growing herbs, which could be dried to make teas, as well as beetroot, carrots and spinach. It’s a carefully thought through offering, which he feels confident will allow them to make a basic living.

There is also an important belief system at play here. “As a commercial grower the major thing is to produce food in an environmentally sound way that isn’t stripping the soils and polluting the water,” he says. “We want to do that locally so it’s super-fresh and packed with nutrition. It’s also about culturing shifting people’s perceptions of food so they become used to local, healthy food being an easily available, a staple thing in their diet.”

Longer-term the pair, who grew-up in the east end, are hoping to lease a bigger space that will allow them to scale- up and are delighted to working as part of the newly formed Glasgow Growers Association – they claim working with others ensures efficiency. They believe there’s real potential to transform neglected parts of Glasgow. “People see vacant land around here as waste land that no-one wants,” he says. “What better way to turn it around than to create great big beautiful gardens producing food?”

Nurturing plants – and people – in Springburn

ARRIVING at the tired brick building on the edge of the Tesco car park in Springburn, you don’t expect to see anything growing. But pull back the bolt on the plywood gate and you enter another world. Here there is chard, spinach, kale, courgettes, French and broad beans in some of the 65 large beds tended by volunteers at Saheliya, a specialist mental health and support organisation for black, minority ethnic, refugee and migrant women and girls.

Once this land was abandoned, overgrown. Now there are herbs – sage, rosemary, chives – as well as onions and garlic. There are fruit trees – Fiesta and Katie apple varieties – blackberry bushes and strawberry plants flowering. The produce in this urban haven is international too – there are sweet potatoes and Amaranth green leaves, an iron and magnesium-rich vegetable commonly used in many African countries.

Gently bedding up tiny kale plants is 67-year-old Henriette Koubakouenda, who has been volunteering here since it was established three years ago. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo where she headed up the country’s fisheries programme, she has lived in Glasgow with her two grown-up sons for 16 years, working with the community and running African women’s organisation Karibu.

A lot has been achieved here already. This all-women growing team are supplying to a local African shop and selling other veg to staff and service users here. There are plans also to expand their reach supplying more shops or running a veg stall. Money raised can go back into the service – a kilo of sweet potatoes will pay for daily bus fares for two more volunteers. The aspiration is to sell 300 kilos of veg a fortnight this summer.

But it’s more than a garden – it’s providing therapy as well as food. “Women using the service come here with all sorts of problems,” says Koubakouenda. “In the garden we can share experiences as we work, but we also talk about vegetables … we try to talk about good things. It’s like medicine. If someone needs to cry, we let them but then we comfort them. We are here to nurture the plants and to nurture the women.”

Staff and volunteers are also serious about the potential to make it economically viable and are investigating ground source heat pump technology for their polytunnels to expand the growing season. Koubakouenda is also applying for funding to set up an aquaponics system, allowing them to grow indoors all year round. Plants will be grown in water, stacked in towers, and fed by the waste produced from fish kept in tanks. The system is cheap, efficient and does away with time-consuming washing and harvesting.

“When I started reading about it I thought, yes, we can do it. We can transform Scotland,” she beams. “I wanted to inspire other women. If I can do this so can they.”

Box out: city projects across Scotland

Edinburgh: Edinburgh City Council has been working on the Edible Edinburgh project for several years and aims to create “a thriving food economy with greater diversity in local food production and distribution” and make better use of available land suitable for food growing.

Dundee: An increasing number of innovative food growing projects are now happening in Dundee with the backing of the James Hutton Institute. In one, the institute teamed up with Lochee Community Gardeners to take over unused council space and produce fruit for local jam-making on a commercial scale.

Aberdeen: Last September, Aberdeen City Council launched its plans to become a Sustainable Food City along with a new food growing initiative which included £145,000 of funding for a food-growing programme targeting the areas in need of regeneration.