Joel Rodker is farm manager and grower at Norwich FarmShare, an eco award-winning, not-for-profit co-operative. Here, in advance of the AGM on Sunday, he talks of how members have been grateful for the healthy food and the meaningful outdoor exercise over this past year
The seeds of Norwich FarmShare were sown about 10 years ago when a group of people from Transition Norwich got talking about whether they could start up a network of small horticultural projects around Norwich to grow food for Norwich residents. This would increase the amount of locally grown food, cutting the pollution from air miles as well as helping to build a stronger community network. It has existed on two sites and seen hundreds of people involved as members, trustees and volunteers. While it has struggled financially at many points in its history it is currently going from strength to strength.
At the start of 2020 we were focusing on maintaining a good service for existing members and improving our operating systems to make things more efficient and provide a better customer service. We were continuing to make improvements to our growing site in Trowse and drawing up plans for increasing our vegetable yields.
Our whole operation from growing and harvesting to packing and veg collection relies on a lot of social interaction. With news of the virus spreading across the world in January and February 2020 we realised we were going to have to make some big changes to continue operating. However, we never considered stopping as we knew how important it was to keep providing fresh, nutritious veg to our members and to maintain the employment of our staff. We changed our packing system so that all veg bags were packed by a dedicated team of volunteers with appropriate PPE and social distancing in place. We introduced strict guidelines at the farm to deal with the unprecedented number of enquiries about volunteering and to keep the farm safer for volunteers and staff. All members were moved to either delivery or a limited number of collections. This was very different from previously when everyone arrived during a two-hour slot to weigh out their veg and mix with other members. We saw a big increase in new members though that has dropped off.
We took on quite a few new members in spring 2020 but that has decreased as the year has gone on. Given that many people have lost their income and delivery became obligatory during the first lockdown the cost was prohibitive for some people. But we have maintained a higher number of volunteers for a longer period of time than in recent years. We have also welcomed many new volunteers, many who have become regular helpers on the farm or with packing at Wensum Sports Centre. In line with national and international trends there has been a big surge of interest in locally grown food and how to grow veg. Hopefully this will continue.
We have a lot of new volunteers, some of whom have taken on more coordinating jobs within the organisation. A lot of our members have expressed gratitude that we have carried on during the pandemic as both a source of healthy food and meaningful outdoor exercise with social engagement.
I think in many ways the pandemic and human response has shown that in times of great stress and challenge, human connection, nature and mutual support are essential. The importance of short supply chains as opposed to complex, international trading relations, has been highlighted, especially in the context of food. We’ve been able to provide a really important network for people, some stability amidst all the chaos and hope that small scale ecological farming has a future and a valuable place in our communities.
We want to keep producing high quality food while sharing the skills of how to grow vegetables. We would like to cultivate more land so we can grow food all year round and increase our membership. We would like to showcase our farming model so that others can set up similar projects. We would like to get a secure tenancy or purchase land so that we are not operating under the shadow of potential eviction or disagreements with a landlord. We want to invest in the farm so that we can have the tools, infrastructure and systems that make it as pleasurable a place to work as possible and is attractive to young people who might be considering going into horticulture.
THE NEW LAND GIRLS
Whilst Joel has noticed that Norwich FarmShare has been continuing to get a good turn-out of volunteers on the farm (while practising strict limits on numbers and social distancing), he’s also noticed that the vast majority of volunteers are women! He asked for contributions from the female volunteers to write about anything to do with women and farming, volunteering, community and the food system. And this was the response: https://www.norwichfarmshare.co.uk/news