Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

Food reframed: reflections on urban growing from Alice Brown

Robert Williams
Sep 3 · 5 min read

As an On Purpose Associate, sustainability and systems change are two of the key social and environmental topics that arise frequently in debate and discussion with my cohort and in our wider community.

I believe the way we build food and farming systems has a major impact on the health of people and planet. In the second of a short series of interviews delving deeper into these ideas, I speak to On Purpose Fellow Alice Brown, Business Manager at Sutton Community Farm in South London, about the farm’s impact and the role that small producers can play in creating food systems change.

I start our conversation by asking Alice to talk about how the farm was founded and to describe its current business model.

In 2010 sustainable place-making charity Bioregional carried out a consultation in the local area and found people wanted greater access to fresh food. They also had a desire to learn agricultural skills, build social connection and be physically active. Armed with these findings, the idea of a community farm was born and a group of volunteers was recruited to bring the idea to life. The site chosen for the farm, the Little Woodcote Estate, already had a long connection with urban growing dating back to the 1920s when veterans of the first world war cultivated plots of land here.

Today Sutton Community Farm is a community benefit society with a permanent staff of 10 and our core business and the main financial driver is the cultivation of seasonal produce. We provide a weekly vegetable bag delivery service to 300 homes across south London. Much of the food in those bags come from our own land, some from other organic farms in the UK and a small percentage from Europe (bananas are the only item sourced outside Europe). We also provide a wholesale service to restaurants and retailers. We rely on a small amount of grant finance to fund the farm, currently around 25% of our income, but our aim is to get this below 10% and to increase the scale of the revenue-generating home delivery business.

What are the main activities of the farm?

Of course, the primary activity is food production with a focus on profitable and desirable crops that our customers want to buy and consume. To give you a sense of scale, we grew 17 tonnes of food last year following sustainable and organic standards. In doing this, we created a meaningful input into the local food system across south London.

We also have a number of other objectives related to engaging the community and building social engagement and cohesion against which we measure our impact. Education, for example, is a key part of our work. We regularly host school trips and work experience placements. Over 500 young people visited the farm last year and we hosted 16 teenagers on work experience placements.

Crucially, we also provide farm apprenticeships which support new entrants into the agriculture sector. It’s important for us to try and support new farmers as we recognise the difficulty they have in gaining practical experience in this area. We also view the apprenticeships as helping to support the farming sector to develop more broadly. The average age of British farmers is currently 60 years old so there’s a massive need for younger people to come into the sector and to get the hands-on farm experience that then allows them to go on and build a livelihood for themselves.

We’re also involved in creating an engaged local community through volunteering activities. We have a core of 25 to 30 volunteers who regularly help on the farm doing everything from planting and harvesting to packing the weekly vegetable bags. Many of these volunteers are retired and seeking a new sense of purpose in their lives now their careers have finished. They talk about wanting to feel valued and to build a community. There are huge social benefits to this kind of regular volunteering and we’re happy to be able to support people to build the personal connections they value so much.

A final goal for us is around demonstrating leadership within the food system. We’re always keen to demonstrate how we work and to share our experience with other food producers and food system actors. In pursuit of this goal, we collaborate with researchers to let them know what we’re doing. We also talk about our work at conferences and events such as at the Oxford Real Farming Conference and the Sustainable Food Cities Conference.

How do you see the work of the farm relating to ideas of systems change in food and agriculture?

We’re demonstrating systems change in a number of ways. The access we provide to the farming sector and having land available on which to practise agricultural skills through our apprenticeship programme are key ways of activating demonstrable change. Our apprentices can go on and use their training to start or support other growing projects which are all helping to build this alternative food movement.

We also feel that London’s green belt is in many ways an untapped resource when thinking about how to provide food for local people. In doing what we do we’re trying to show how land can be used productively in a way that’s useful to the city and supports its health and community spirit. Also, by collaborating with other small farms and giving them access to our market through the vegetable bag scheme, we’re able to grow a larger network of food producers who share our values.

Thinking about the cost of growing fruit and vegetables and potential changes to make it more sustainable, it’s important to talk about the system of government subsidies. To be eligible for state support a farm has to be above 20 hectares (49.4 acres) in size. Most horticulture (i.e. the growing of plants for food) is practised on a much smaller scale, especially organic growing, so we miss out on financial support that larger farms can rely on.

What are your future ambitions for the farm?

Our main objective is to scale the vegetable home delivery scheme to 500 customers. Reaching that figure will give us the financial resilience and independence we need to focus on other projects. We’ve recently completed fundraising to build a new barn on the farm site. This development is really driven by the need for more physical space which will allow us to accommodate our business expansion. It also cements our presence in the community and sends a signal about our intentions. Once building work is completed early next year we can start to look further towards the future.

Find out about more about Sutton Community Farm here.

Twitter: @_Rob_Williams

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