Urban Growing

Bristol Community Food Gardens: Lush Greens

By Weien Soh

Weien Soh’s latest Bristol Good Food 2030 story is about Whitchurch-based market garden Lush Greens. Weien met with growers Jimmy Thomson and Olly Jamieson to discuss how, guided by the values of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement, this project straddles the line between commercial trade and community investment.

With summer fading away, the harvest season is upon us. While the Harvest Moon (the full moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox) is later this month, many farmers are busy now gathering in their crops. Traditionally for harvest festivities, the whole community would help the farmers with the harvest work, which would be followed by feasting and reverie as the produce is triumphantly brought in to sustain them through the winter months. However, many people today living in urban environments have lost touch with nature’s cycle of growing and harvesting, especially as supermarket shopping has become the norm.

Photo credit: Henry Kenyon

As it is no longer possible for most people to pop over to a farm to source their weekly shopping, there are urban growing groups in the city proposing alternative food systems that help to bridge the distance between people and farmers. For many of these growers, it is important to reclaim food sovereignty by investing in different avenues of bringing food to market that enables not only people, but also growers, to feel empowered by the resilience that these options can offer. The Bristol Good Food 2030: A One City Framework for Action recognises that a higher standard of procurement should be developed in the city to better promote local suppliers with a focus on shorter supply chains, which will also underpin a stronger local food economy.

In my previous article, I visited Redcatch Community Garden to learn more about their diverse community and urban growing projects, while also enjoying the easy access to food, produce and edible plants that they had on offer. For this month’s piece, I spent an afternoon at Lush Greens to gain insight into a model of food growing that focuses on connecting farmer-producers and customers to address common issues in food production and distribution.

Lush greens

Wearing my bright orange raincoat, I looked up at the menacing clouds and prayed it wouldn’t rain as I walked down an unassuming track towards Lush Greens’ (LG) urban farm. Positioned (rather ironically) opposite a giant supermarket, the fields that led to the farm had an untamed wildness that could have been quite charming if not for the giant pile of rubbish juxtaposing against the greenery. Discovering later that the land belongs to the council, I could not help but wonder whether the space could be cleaned up and better utilised for food production, especially as allotment waiting lists in the city are staggeringly long and food insecurity is at an all-time high. Following the track along, the overgrown pastures gave way to an abundance of symmetrical crop rows and old polytunnel frames, while the container outbuildings also appeared in front of me as I approached LG’s cultivated plot.

Potting out at Lush Greens (Photo by Henry Kenyon)
Photo credit: Henry Kenyon

With Bristol South constituency home to twenty highly deprived Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs), the Whitchurch neighbourhood where LG is located is ranked as one of the most disadvantaged in the country, in addition to being identified as a ‘food desert’ where residents have little access to fresh food. As food prices continue to soar alongside living costs, LG is part of a radical food movement that provides affordable and sustainable good food for residents in a community that benefits considerably from their non-profit market garden. Meeting with growers Jimmy Thomson and Olly Jamieson gave me an understanding of the ethos behind their growing work, while also offering deeper insights into the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme that LG belongs to.

Photo credit: Henry Kenyon

As we sat down to talk over a cup of coffee, they told me that the one-acre plot had previously been rented by a social enterprise farm that was dissolved in early 2019. In late 2020, LG was born when Dan (who has since left) and family and friends, including Olly, took on the responsibility of transforming the neglected parcel of land, with Jimmy joining a couple of years later. Looking around at the contrast between LG’s neat plot and the overgrown fields bordering the farm, it’s inspiring that a small group of people saw a pocket of green brimming with possibilities in what was an overlooked space. With a vision for change, they went about creating the productive garden that LG is today. Jimmy and Olly reveal that neither takes home a full (pro-rata) salary for the work they do – the project has been a labour of love from the beginning.

Guided by the values of the CSA movement, LG straddles the line between commercial trade and community investment as it is a business that produces and sells food but is also committed to a model of farming that shares the risks, rewards and responsibilities of the farmer-producers with the end-consumers. For people to buy directly from LG, Jimmy tells me, they need to sign up with LG in cooperation with CSA principles by committing to regularly buying a weekly veg box during the growing season, for better and for worse. Even if a member is away, as Jimmy notes, they could donate or give away their weekly box to ensure that the growers have continuity and stability in their weekly income. With benefits like tiered pricing on a sliding scale (‘pay what you want as long as it is viable, it will happen’) and produce grown in a nature-friendly way, the members pledge to support the farmers by sharing great perks along with the occasional bad.

Photo credit: Weien Soh

It’s also about reconnecting people with the reality of farming and to the process of growing with the seasons, notes Jimmy and Olly, which can sometimes be unpredictable and harsh. The biggest challenge is subverting the expectation that all food should be available all year round as LG is on a mission to introduce people to a different way of consuming food, while also establishing familiarity with the seasonal element of vegetables. While the cost of produce may be cheaper at supermarkets, Olly says, the true costs are hidden beneath the depths, like an iceberg, as farmers and the environment often pay the price with low profit margins and ecological decline.

A core process for LG in addressing these hidden costs is hyper-local distribution as members are encouraged to pick up their boxes from the farm or delivery can be made locally by Jimmy or Olly to designated pick-up locations on a bike, rather than delivering door-to-door. With the farm using no fossil fuels for its upkeep and maintenance on-site, Jimmy notes that environmental sustainability plays a pivotal role in the way they choose to develop the farm as they avoid mechanised machinery. Instead, they manage the land using an integrated approach using manual no-dig methods, along with supporting agroecological principles that apply ecological and social concepts to the way food systems are managed.

Photo credit: Henry Kenyon

Walking around the farm, Jimmy shows me LG’s mature vegetable beds, stooping down every few metres to pull up netting to reveal rows of carrots, kale and leeks, nestled amongst tall canes of broad beans and French beans. Taking me inside the polytunnel, he shows me where the young tender seedlings are being propagated in seed trays. As I admire the different varieties of multicoloured salad, fennel, spring onions and chicory lined up in neat rows, Jimmy explains that they don’t spray artificial fertilisers, herbicides, or pesticides on any of the crops, which all look incredibly strong and healthy without the chemical interventions. While organic, no-dig methods may require more dedicated time from the growers, it ensures that soil health remains at optimal levels meaning water and nutrients can be retained in the soil, and wildlife are able to thrive alongside the plants.

By ‘trying to get better, not bigger’, Olly highlights they will stay true to the values that birthed the LG project by striking a balance between trade and charitable work. Currently, around 50% of the produce they grow is donated to four food banks that help people across the city who are combating food poverty, with any surplus going to food clubs close to the patch that offer subsidised food to people who may not need a food bank. The produce that LG donate is a small contribution to social issues, Olly tells me. However, the quality of nutritious fresh food is a necessary inclusion to the long-life shelf food that often makes up the bulk of products at food banks and clubs. For the other half of the produce, LG focuses on commercial trade with member veg boxes and selling to local organisations, like Redcatch Community Garden, making up the volume behind this side of the business.

Photo credit: Henry Kenyon

With fewer than two full-time staff members  managing the ins and outs of LG, they both reveal it’s been a steady journey figuring out the next steps for the project as they are ‘really just getting on their feet’. For most of the year they rarely have time to sit down to reassess and reflect, as Olly notes, but they would like to one day steer the direction of LG to be a registered CIC. Currently the priority is accessing more funding and resources to enable their work to continue. While recognising that they could certainly do more in the long-term, they are content with building LG’s profile in the community so that more people are aware of their work. For those interested in signing up to the veg box scheme or volunteering on the farm, they highly encourage people to express interest as the core mission is to grow the CSA membership, so people know that an alternative food system does exist. Where most businesses look to grow trade exponentially, LG’s social- and ecological-centric approach brings a complete breath of fresh air as they seek to connect people to their food and bring more people onto the land.

Express your interest in becoming a member of Lush Green’s CSA scheme on their website.

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