Morgan Parry on how a new Welsh Community Land Advisory Service is aiming to make us more resilient
If my neighbours are typical of the population at large – and if my own experience reflects a wider trend – there are more people growing food this summer than for many years. This increased interest in ‘growing your own’ has been reflected in surveys for at least ten years, as we’ve responded to messages about healthy eating and the value of local seasonal food. For many people it’s a practical way to cut food bills. For others it’s a way of reconnecting with nature, doing their bit to reduce food miles, or simply a healthy hobby as part of a simpler lifestyle.
Recently the weather has been dispiriting for most amateur growers, with unpredictable seasons and wet summers reducing productivity. By early June last year I’d given up on my garden, abandoning the wind-blown cabbages, the rotten potatoes and barren fruit trees to the weeds and the wild creatures. Not this year. After a late spring helped keep the pests in check, everything I’ve planted has grown in profusion, and dry weekends have allowed me to keep on top of the weeds and the watering. If you are battling slugs and cabbage whites, please forgive my smugness because I haven’t seen any this year!
The Sunday supplements are packed with ‘back to the land’ features, news of action groups being set up to defend allotments and top tips for turning home grown food into gourmet dinners. But it’s more than just leisure and lifestyle – there’s hard politics behind this resurgence. Growing our own makes us more resilient in the face of climate change and increasing global pressures on land and resources.
Recreating local networks and markets helps us push back against the influence of the supermarkets. It also reactivates debates about who owns the land and how communities can take action to protect their interests. For rural as well as urban dwellers, it is another reason to protect accessible green space.
Interestingly, growing brings together differing political perspectives. The co-operative and mutual traditions of the Left meet the self-reliance and localism of the Right and the environmentalism of the Greens. Climatically and culturally, reasserting control over our land should strengthen our economic and political independence. The trend is global. It stretches from Cuba’s urban farming in response to economic embargos to Community Supported Agriculture in the US, and France’s ‘Terre de liens’ support for peasant farming. It is a diverse movement that shares a common aim of engaging more people with the land, with the production of food and with each other.
The growth of growing takes several forms. For the individual, an allotment can be an idyllic escape from the world. Keeping local authority allotments out of the hands of property developers is a battle in which many are engaged. Others favour community growing, championed by the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, which runs a programme in Wales called Tyfu Pobl (Growing People).
If you’re looking for companionship, exercise and want to create something that enhances the local community, as well as increasing social action and volunteering opportunities, this is the way to go. For more experienced growers, forming a community group also allows resources to be shared and activities to be scaled up.
Meanwhile, for farmers looking to improve their public image and diversify their business, community supported agriculture helps reconnect them to their communities through volunteer schemes or farmers markets.
In Wales, the five-year Tyfu Pobl Programme has been providing support and advice for community growing projects in Wales, thanks to a Rural Development Plan Project funded through the Welsh Government. It has enabled the sharing of best practice and the transfer of knowledge through different models of community growing, such as community farms and gardens, allotments, community orchards, community supported agriculture and market gardens. This work has helped engage more people in growing and has raised awareness of local food and sustainability issues through networking and training.
Tyfu Pobl continues to be successful, but obstacles remain. One of the main hurdles is a lack of available land. Demand for land from the community sector for food growing and horticulture has outstripped supply, leading to a range of new initiatives emerging. Research by the City Farms Federation found that, despite some reservations or lack of knowledge, there was widespread goodwill from landowners to turn unused land over for cultivation. Equally, there was plenty of enthusiasm from local communities to find land, not just for food growing, but also for therapy, education and conservation.
Despite the demand and accompanying evidence, many local authorities are not providing enough new allotments or maintaining existing ones. Community gardens have uncertain legal status and landowners are unsure of the opportunities, benefits and obligations.
To address these issues, a new initiative has been set up called the Community Land Advisory Service (CLAS Cymru). A five-year Big Lottery Funded programme, managed by the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, it aims to increase the amount of land available and accessible to community growing groups for food production and environmental purposes. In doing so, the programme will be helping communities to become more sustainable and resilient in the face of a changing climate and changing times.
The service, launched at this week’s Welsh Show by Culture Minister John Griffiths, will act as an intermediary and broker service between landowners and community groups and will complement, support and enhance existing, local and regional initiatives.
Three CLAS Cymru advisors will work locally and regionally, providing direct, expert advice and support for landowners and community groups, in order to secure land access on fair terms and meet the needs of both parties. It will operate across Wales and offer a fully bi-lingual service. CLAS Cymru is intended to help smooth progress through those sticking points of land access – including finding suitable sites, negotiations around leases and land agreements and navigating the planning system. Information resources useful to landowners and community growers will be available at www.communitylandadvice.og.uk
CLAS Cymru is part of a wider Community Land Advisory Service in the UK, which is working with decision makers at a country and UK-wide level, operating as a centre of expertise, guidance and support that accommodates the different contexts and legal structures in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, influencing future policy and legislation to help communities access land.
In doing so, it will help us understand how land, the ultimate resource and the basis of wealth and power down the ages, can once again be made accessible to everyone. And how enabling participation in growing food can restore one of the links in our relationship with nature that is being lost in our increasingly virtual and globalised world. Food for thought for Natural Resources and Food Minister Alun Davies when he reviews the Food Strategy for Wales and when he proposes a new Environment Bill….