Last week, I took a rare trip away from Sutton Community Farm with growing apprentice Charlotte to visit “Incredible Edible” Todmordon (IET), a town famous for starting an urban food growing movement that has spread into towns all over the world.
As we arrived into the train station, we were in competition to spot the first edible bed. It didn’t take long – in the corner of the station car park was a raised bed growing a mixture of edible herbs and leafy greens. Beds like this are all over the town, managed by a dynamic local community of growing enthusiasts. Estelle, one of the incredible edible organisers says that they don’t call it guerrilla gardening, “that sounds too militant, we prefer to call them little accidents”.
These little accidents have now engaged the council to want to grow edible food in every available space. As I stood outside the town market, I glimpsed an older couple with a pair of scissors chopping some chives from a bed. People really harvest the food! It’s very inspiring.
Importantly, IET is still a volunteer-led movement. This supports the interests of it being community-led and I imagine it also keeps the project fairly diverse with less restrictions on its actions and direction. Mary, one of the founders explained that IET’s aims are to support the community, business, and learning.
Along with the growing sites all over the town, there are now cooking projects, food growing in all schools, many festivities and a new, unexpected business of vegetable tourism. There are also two spin-off social enterprises creating new jobs in the town. One is the Incredible Edible Farm and the other is the Incredible Aqua Garden.
The Incredible Edible Farm
The Incredible Farm is a one acre site donated by a local garden centre. The farm trains young people in the skills of growing and marketing food, increases local food supply, creates employment and demonstrate sustainable growing methods for our environment. Beth, the site manager showed us around. For such a small site, they are being very creative and productive. The land is fairly marshy and they have several ponds – creating a fantastic range of biodiversity. As well as growing salads and veg, they are generating income with a fruit tree nursery, a venue for courses, and providing activities for children. Like Sutton Community Farm, some diversification is necessary to be economically viable. With such a small site, economic viability through crop production would be very challenging to support the two apprentices. Luckily, they have the freedom to diversify their activities – much more than we do at the Farm as we suffer from restrictions due to our lease agreement with Surrey County Council.
I was really impressed with the Incredible Farm’s application of permaculture design. Certainly, it seemed every element had at least three functions. For example, the polytunnels were not just providing shelter, they were also collecting rainwater. This rainwater was collected in storage containers. These storage containers didn’t just store irrigation water, they provided a structure to provide height for the raised beds and acted as a heat source to promote growth.
The Incredible Aqua Garden
Another spin-off from IET is the Incredible Aqua Garden. This is a construction that will house a giant aquaponics and hyroponics project – I imagine it will be one of the largest in the UK. Here’s roughly how it each system works:
Aquaponics uses a recirculating process to grow plants and farm fish. It’s like a mini-nitrogen cycle: the fish excrete an ammonia-like substance into the water which is then passed through a bacteria filter converting the ammonia into nitrate form. This nitrogen rich water is then passed over the roots of plants that sit in a non-organic substrate. The water is then circulated back into the tank housing the fish.
In this process, no soil is required and the only inputs are light and fish feed. The process needs to be designed to ensure the right temperature and pH is maintained for the fish and plants. It seems that tilapia or carp are typically used aquaponics systems – in fact, in Kenya, I saw a demonstration that used tilapia. In the small demonstration the Incredible Aqua Garden have set up, it was goldfish – and they are still selecting the species for the full-scale building – which is still under construction.
It’s an exciting project however I do sometimes wonder why there is so much interest in aquaponics. I believe it’s because the idea of a controlled system, where you can watch the waste stream of one process benefit another, is beautiful. Everything can be balanced, and we can feel in control. Being inside, the plants are less vulnerable to the risks of unpredictable weather. The opportunity to yield fish is also exciting. However there’s another interesting aspect – aquaponics can also support vertical farming, which may be an interesting application for achieving high yields in small areas.
Aquaponics does have its limitations though. It’s expensive to set up. And whereas soil contains billions of living organisms that can provide all sorts of nutrients to plants, aquaponics has a much more limited range as the cycle must always be balanced with the conditions required by the monoculture of fish. Therefore only certain leafy green plants grow well. Fruiting plants appear disfigured from a lack of key nutrients. Although evidence shows aquaponics is an ancient practice, our understand of it’s potential for meeting today’s needs is very young. If you’re interested in yields, you’re be better off investing in a polytunnel and some compost. Despite this, it’s really exciting to see this project happening – and the interesting outcomes will be how it fairs against traditional growing in soil, and hydroponics – both of which will be housed inside this new building.
Hyrdroponics is aquaponics without the fish. Instead, you need create a nutrient-rich water that is suitable for the roots of plants which again, are not growing with soil. This technique may provide Incredible Aqua Garden with a greater diversity of plant, providing they get the nutrient balances right. Again, the exciting application for hydroponics is the vertical opportunity. The risks are that any failure to the hydroponic system will lead to rapid plant death – whereas soil dynamic diversity changes more slowly over time.
What I admired about the Mary, Estelle and all the others I met in Tod was their just do it, common-sense attitude. Knowing their actions were positive, they haven’t worried too much about bureaucracy and planning permissions – they just get on with taking practical action to make their town a better place.
The community is also fantastic. Food really has brought people together. We were hosted by an IET volunteer and passionate vegan chef called Hilary, who moved to Tod because of the food! It’s worth mentioning that our wonderful guide Melvin (treasurer of IET) also took us to visit a dairy and pig farm up in the hills. This farm has set up a food co-operative that helps local food producers sell. Likewise, the town’s market makes a big fuss over promoting local produce.
Importantly, Incredible Edible Todmorden started with simple actions – nothing was particularly designed. Mary, one of Incredible’s founders explained how it started with a simple rule: “If you eat, you’re in”. Very simple and wonderfully inclusive. In dealing with climate change, the death of the high street, the decline of churches and independent pubs that were once the heart of the community, the rise in obesity and the loss of biodiversity – Todmorden has found that food is a glue that can connect people together, and help them tackle many of these issues. It’s inspiring for us at the Farm to take lessons from IET about how we can outreach into our surrounding community.