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Creating resilient food systems

Mark Walton

We’ve been researching how community food enterprises contribute to local economic resilience. Here Simon Platten from Tamar Grow Local describes their model, based on sharing resources such as land, equipment and people power.

In October 2017 Tamar Grow Local (TGL) celebrated its 10 year anniversary of creating a lively and sustainable local food system that includes educational, community and commercial projects such as orchards, allotments, farm-start and food hubs in the Tamar Valley between Devon and Cornwall.

So what is it that makes TGL unique? TGL clusters different groups and food projects to make them more resilient by sharing resources such as land, equipment and people power. This is a way of working drawn from Systems Theory approaches that we have developed into what is now a three-tier model where TGL acts as a supportive umbrella.

The first phase of our development concentrated on community engagement in local food production such as allotments, community orchards and community growing schemes – essentially projects designed to build grass-roots engagement in food production. The second phase involved the development of initiatives that support both community groups and local food businesses such as TGL’s honey co-op and apple juice co-op that bridges both community and emerging commercial activity. The third phase activity involves scaling up these second phase projects and businesses to enable the system as a whole to become financially self-supporting. What in turn is created is a local food system which gets people interested and involved in food production at different levels and provides help and support along the way for those who want to scale-up their activity, or move into commercial production.

Harrowbarrow and Metherell Community Orchard is a great example of how this clustering works in practice. In addition to a fruit orchard, the site is home to a community apiary and a pig-keeping co-op called The Pig Society! The orchard provides land free of charge to the pig co-op, the pig co-op provide labour for erecting livestock fencing, and their pigs clear the scrub before new orchard trees are planted. The community apiary is a sub-group of orchard members who supported the development of the apiary in return for honey once it was up and running. Future surplus honey will be sold locally to create income for the orchard, and the bees improve the pollination of the orchard trees.

When another community orchard under TGL’s ‘umbrella’ unfortunately folded, TGL negotiated for Harrowbarrow & Metherell Community Orchard to take over tools and remaining finance owned by the other orchard, ensuring that those resources were not lost, but instead were ploughed back into another linked project. It is a fact that many community and small commercial projects have a short timescale, or come to an end. What TGL can offer is that precious finances that have been fundraised, or funded by grant providers; tools and resources can be recycled to create new community projects or passed on to other projects within the network, thereby increasing the chances of another project to succeed and make the system more sustainable.

TGL have created a continuum between recreational engagement in local food through to commercial production. Our farmstart, Mill Lane Acres, is a good example. Those looking to scale up from an allotment or to start a horticultural business can join our Farmstart to access land and infrastructure. Should Farmstart growers scale up and move on to larger premises the start-up equipment such as polytunnels and water tank stays with the starter plot and therefore ready for the next new farmer to move in and use those resources. TGL recycles resources where possible, or links them with other projects to ensure they are fully utilised.

Having different ways to support growers and producers to be more productive is all very well but having routes for growers and community groups to sell or use their produce is equally as important. TGL offers different routes to market for different produce, all the time offering a fair price to the primary producer to incentivise scaling up or further development. The food hub currently supports over 50 local producers, including community projects, small and large producers, farmers and growers. It is hoped that Harrowbarrow & Metherell Community Orchard will be selling any surplus fruit through the hub within a few years to help build income to further develop the orchard.

So where are we heading in the next 10 years of TGL – we certainly want to build on what we are doing and encourage more new starters into horticultural production again in the valley, but in a way that makes it profitable and realistic as a livelihood strategy. Brexit will certainly bring about challenges in the food sector as well as opportunities for regrowth in British horticulture and food production. What we must not lose sight of is the need for realistic pricing for food that is reflective of the labour that goes into producing it; that incentivises small producers to scale up and encourages sustainable land management. Perhaps we could see our model replicated elsewhere within the next 10 years, creating more sustainable food networks throughout the country, as nothing here is specific to the Tamar Valley. So here’s handing over to you Brighton Grow Local, Liverpool Grow Local, Leith Grow Local, Bradford Grow Local, Suffolk Grow Local………..

If you want to find more about Tamar Grow Local’s model of resilient local food systems read this more detailed case study.

If you want to find out more about how community food enterprises and local food systems support local economic resilience, check out our new suite of resources here.

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