Me and My Initiative - In conversion
Looking over 12 acres of land on the Sheffield Organic Growers site that is 'in conversion' to organic standards has started me thinking about the work we are doing here as a symbol of the transition that still remains to be done across the city.
About four years ago, when the Transition Sheffield hub group was in its first glow of enthusiasm, a small group of us aspiring transitionistas were busy setting up local Transition Initiatives in our own neighbourhoods around the city – in Heeley, Crookes, Sharrow, Burngreave and the Porter Valley. Over several pints of locally-brewed beer in the Sheaf View pub, a few of us came up with the idea of exploring a Community Supporting Agriculture scheme, which quickly led to a series of enthusiastically supported community meetings, including advice from invited speakers such as Kirstin Glendinning from the Soil Association.
A beautiful piece of south-facing land was soon found for sale on the outskirts of Sheffield in the Moss Valley, and Huw Evans, a Sheffield Quaker and ethical property developer, decided to buy it for the use of the project. In November 2010 I moved away from Sheffield with my family to work at a rural skills training centre in Zimbabwe. When I left, the site was 12 acres of rye grass, which a local farmer had been growing for many years for cattle fodder, using 'conventional' artificial fertilisers. When I returned to Sheffield in March this year, the site had been transformed. There is now a 3-acre orchard, with 50 varieties of apple as well as pears, plums and soft fruit. Polytunnels have been erected, a borehole and water pipes installed, as well as a composting toilet, camping area, equipment lock-ups, portacabin and beehives, and the main area divided up by new hedgerows for windbreaks.
I'm now working with Huw on the site two days a week, managing the orchard and a one-acre plot of organic vegetables. The original CSA group, now Hazelhurst CSA Co-operative, is leasing another similar-size plot, and employs a part-time professional grower as well as a team of regular volunteers. Two other plots have been leased by other local organic growers. On some days there are up to 15 of us around the site in a gentle atmosphere of quiet, productive activity. Now in its second year in conversion to organic standards, the land is returning to health, with a rapid build-up of topsoil, worms and wildlife.
Starting to work seriously on the land for the first time also feels like being 'in conversion' myself. Working an 8-hour day outside in all weathers, shovelling wet woodchip, spreading manure or planting out thousands of seedlings by hand, is a very different experience from a couple of hours of leisurely pottering in the allotment. I get home too exhausted to move, and ache everywhere for the rest of the week until it is time to do it again. But after three months of this, I am also starting to feel fitter and stronger than I have ever been, and to be slightly more confident with some basic skills such as tying knots and knocking in fenceposts. From September I am also enrolled on a distance learning Masters degree course in Organic Farming with the Scottish Agricultural College, but I expect the practical work I am doing on the land to be by far the more important learning experience for my own 'conversion of life'.
After an initial burst of enthusiastic activity, including lively public meetings, film-showings, and some spectacular Zero Carbon Cabarets, the original Transition groups around Sheffield have now gone fairly quiet, although there are still regular social and networking events organised by the Transition Sheffield hub. This is partly a result of some of the most active people getting more involved in a range of practical projects across the city (most of them not 'branded' as Transition groups) including Grow Sheffield and Sheffield Renewables. When Transition Sheffield first formed we had many discussions about the daunting challenge of trying to initiate or support a process of transition throughout a city of half a million people. We still haven't developed a local Transition movement that is capable of multiplying local resilience projects to meet the needs of a whole city. The Sheffield Organic Growers site is, though, at least a working demonstration of what can be done by collaborating with other community groups and local businesses, when people get motivated enough to put in the enormous amount of work needed to make it happen.
Craig Barnett, founder member of the Sheffield Transition initiative, is the newest blogger to join the Transition Social Reporter team.