Saturday, November 17, 2012

Fork & Dig It: A community veg-growing scheme

One sunny Tuesday a few weeks ago, I headed up to the Fork and Dig It site at Stanmer Park. Fork and Dig It is a veg-box scheme with a difference. (Or several differences, which I'll get to.) But I joined it when it started because I found the idea fascinating - a volunteer-driven local organic food scheme.

As Phil pointed out recently, new forms of money (and power, politics, technology, etc) only have "real" power if you can survive physically at the end of the day. While most movements organise against something, it seems rare to find a scheme which addresses one of the most important basics of life - food. Finding new models to produce food is, I believe, a key piece of retaining a survivable future.

So while my son was peacefully asleep, Paulette took me on a tour of the site, which I'll try to re-enact badly with some photos:

Protection to help with the "no dig" policy - the ground is covered and left to recover by itself

Looking down one of the polytunnels

Chillies waiting to be harvested

Crop of pumpkins and squashes (now mostly eaten)

New seedlings waiting their turn

Hard at work outside

Protection for the crops

Lettucey Christmas trees

Paulette in front of HQ

Handy pizza oven

More people hard at work 
Ready to get shipped out

The main differences to a normal veg box scheme are actually pretty fundamental. Importantly:

  1. You buy a share of the crops under Fork and Dig It, which means that some weeks you get less and some you get more. Shares are also limited (but can increase each year if needed).
  2. Growing the food is just as important as eating it - everyone is encouraged to go along to the site and help out.
  3. Also, members are welcome to join the administrative board and help out with the running of the scheme.

Over the year-and-a-half I've been getting the veg, I've noticed some intriguing changes in my approaches to food in general:

  1. Heavy rain has become a question of whether there will be food this week, rather than whether I should drive to a shop in 5 minutes.
    The unpredictability of each week's share has made me a lot more aware - aware of what the weather is doing, of what the growers are doing, of what the seasons are doing. Convenience food (the "want something, buy it" approach) is pretty good at removing our link to our environments, both geographical and social.

    This awareness also extends to a more cyclical perspective: there are the berry seasons, for example, and the squash seasons, and the pea shoots season. When something new arrives there is an air of excitement. When you feel it running out, there is a sense of satisfied loss.

  2. Funny Food is no longer spurned.

    It's not until you use all of the available produce that you start to see just how varied fruit and veg is. Supermarkets thrive on the "photogenic" nature of the ideal food "product" - a carrot must fit within the accepted colour and shape of a "generic carrot", for instance. Under mass-produced, normalised food shopping, anything "different" is effectively a social outcast.

    In reality, there are many other shapes, colours and sizes which are equally "food", strangely enough. Food does not have to fit a particular look, or even taste. This year is the first time I've ever even seen actual "egg"plants.

  3. Growing space is a technological problem.

    Or, rather, a technological-style problem that requires thinking similar to setting out any technology. There are rules to growing food - soil type, sunlight, etc. - just as winemakers and whisky distillers understand the importance of terroir. The location of polytunnels, for instance, needed to be changed due to their "unsightly" appearance - impacting on their effectiveness. Similarly, shade from nearby trees cause certain areas of the plot to be less useful.

    The knowledge base for growing food on this (relatively small) scale is massive. Knowledge sharing is massively important. Finding people with the skills and experience is just as important as distributing that knowledge to people willing to learn.

That's not to even start on anything around the social potential of the scheme (from the potential for members to share recipes and unneeded food, through to involvement with schools and charities).

This is a bit of a biased blogpost. There are, of course, lots of questions around how to improve the scheme which will be addressed in time. (Feel free to ask any in the comments below.)

But how we think about our food is likely going to be the big challenge over the next 20 years as food prices go up, and expectations of what we "should" be able to get become increasingly rigid. We need a solid platform for more sustainable, more equitable access to decent food, and Fork and Dig It is definitely a scheme to watch.

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