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Cultivating Change

by Dorienne Robinson MSc

As scientists pore over complicated equations and dissect the very fabric of life to find answers to the global problems we will all face through the inevitable impacts of climate change and post peak oil, and as politicians draft motions and amendments to convoluted policies that lose their way and meaning in the very political process that spawned them; there is, just occasionally, a flash of brilliance that comes from absolute simplicity and which happens on the ground and a million miles away from corridors of power.

One outstanding example of such simple genius is Chyanhall Allotments in Cornwall.

David and Kay Hicks run a small family farm, Chyanhall, at Burnthouse, Treluswell, between Truro and Falmouth, with their daughter Carly. Just over two years ago they decided to look for an alternative income from the land and considered such things as off road biking and quad events. Realising that there was a growing demand for allotments, they decided to research this area instead.

 

David and Kay were greatly assisted by The National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, (NSALG, www.nsalg.org.uk), who were able to give advice on tenancy agreements and the general running of an allotment site.

Eighteen months ago the first allotment was fenced for the first tenant, now there are 120 allotments on 8 acres, which cover three small fields, and a waiting list of another 40 interested people.

There are two sizes of allotment available, 90ft x 30ft, which costs £100 per year and a half size plot, 45ft x 15ft costing £60 per year. It’s worth pointing out the simple maths: a full size allotment costs just £1.92 per week.

Prior to the allotment scheme David and Kay’s eight acres were generating around £700 per year, mostly as grass keep for livestock, or producing a cut of silage or hay. It does not take too much time with a calculator to discover that the income from this ground has risen from £700 per year to £12,000. There are no CAP subsidies operating here, no top down European directives, no skewing of world markets to generate activity, just pure common sense and responding to local demand.

Kay runs the allotment scheme in accordance with NSALG guidelines. Each tenant signs an agreement with the farm to pay the rent on point of renewal each year. Their allotment has to be kept at least 75% cultivated and manured. They are not allowed to grow any illegal substances or put up any permanent buildings. They are, however, allowed one shed which mustn’t exceed 8ft x 10ft; one polytunnel no bigger than 30ft x 10ft and a small greenhouse. Tenants are encouraged to practice rainwater harvesting as the farm would struggle to maintain low allotment rental prices if it supplied all the water. A local water supply company does offer large tanks and a regular delivery of water, but this can become expensive in dry summers.

Each of the three small fields has a hard standing for parking cars and bikes so no vehicles are left on the public highway and the hard standing also means that no soil or mud is dragged onto the main road either.

All new allotment holders are allowed a period of one year to develop their plot, as it comes with no work done apart from a round post at each corner. The tenant puts in the remaining posts and erects the rabbit proof fencing. The ground will just be original pasture, which makes the first year potentially hard work. If after the first year the allotment isn’t sufficiently cultivated and is neglected then the tenant is asked to make improvements within a fortnight. If this is not done they are asked to leave and their allotment is re let.

There is no committee, David and Kay are in sole  charge of the running and managing of the site, however, as expected, the allotment holders naturally form a community with joint activities such as barbecues and celebrations, knowledge sharing, tool sharing etc. Many of the allotment holders said that the community feel was as important as the produce.

Chyanhall allotment holders come mainly from the local towns of Truro, Falmouth and Penryn, all within a ten miles radius. The youngest allotment holder is a lad of fifteen but there are a wide range of ages and backgrounds; students as well as lecturers from the local college; retired folk and shift workers. Many come just to watch the wildlife and to persue hobbies like photography and drawing. One tenant is now a highly successful chrysanthemum grower, winning at many local shows.

The Rudolph family live in Falmouth town and have no room for growing fruit and vegetables. They work their allotment with their three young children. For them it means having wholesome food fresh from the allotment with complete knowledge of what that food has been in contact with.

For David and Kay they have an obvious increase in income for, as Kay puts it,……” hardly any work at all after the initial setting up. I just have a wander around and a chat and keep an eye on things”

What they have also done, though, is create a strong customer base for their other farm produce, pigs and poultry. Allotment holders buy the pork to go with their homegrown vegetables and invariably the Christmas bird comes from Chyanhall as well. There is an obvious market for bags of well-rotted manure.

Kay goes on to say, “ I can’t see anything that is a downside, this really is a win, win situation for everyone and the wildlife”.

So is this something that farmers all around the country could and should be doing?  Is this a key part of feeding the UK population as oil becomes more expensive and climate change affects the food production systems of the countries we currently depend on to feed us?

For people in urban communities with no access to land, being able to provide for ones own needs is empowering, and being able to grow your own food gives a feeling of security. Reducing the food miles of what we eat is essential. Learning to harvest, and store and save seed are all skills that surely must be re-learnt as worldwide food production becomes challenged. Enabling urban populations access to the land immediately surrounding their communities for food production can only make simple and perfect sense. It doesn’t take a scientist or a politician to make this happen and we don’t have to wait for any top down initiatives. We just need to convince the farmers and landowners that it can work and can benefit all.

Thanks to David and Kay Hicks there is now a working, on farm, model to base future farm allotment schemes on. For any farmer owning land close to a large centre of population this must surely be an option worth considering.

During the twenty-year period 1970 to 1990 over 500,000 allotments were lost in the UK. Currently there is a UK wide waiting list for allotments of around 300,000.

Dorienne Robinson is Project Worker for Transition Town Rhayader. Her article first appeared in The Ecologist.

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