Growing together: Communal growing, harvesting and eating
- Credit: Archant
Debbie Kingsley discovers a project in Cornwall which is all about communal growing, harvesting… and eating
Andy Virgin and Sally Gostick are the brains and inspiration behind the delightfully named Good Mud Growing Project near Bude in Cornwall. The couple, who have two sons, Jake, 3, and Samuel, 3 months, run their project in an eight acre field plus half an acre of garden. Four acres were planted with 2,000 native woodland trees and there are three acres of pasture. The rest has growing beds, a greenhouse and polytunnels, fruit, a barn, a fire pit and outdoor cooking area.
The project is all about growing, learning and eating food in the most sustainable way possible. “We aim to offer a growing space that not only helps stock the local food bank with fresh, healthy produce and offers employment opportunities, it also educates parents and children so that they can better understand the origins of real food,” said Andy and Sally.
Sally explains: “We focus on natural, chemical free, sustainable growing methods to create an outstanding diverse environment to visit and work in. Our volunteers take a share of the harvest and we supply surplus food to community groups such as Bude Food Bank as a way of spreading the love of fresh produce.”
So what got them started on this ambitious project to give more people the knowledge to make good food choices and be in charge of what they put on their table?
“For most of my working life I was an administrator or bookkeeper, a jack of all trades,” says Sally. “I wanted to work outside but had no formal knowledge or experience. “
Sally gained experience volunteering and then worked for three years at a market garden in Somerset, finally going into partnership to expand the operation and run a farmers’ market stall. “I loved it and, when I met Andy, we moved to Cornwall and looked for a place that had some land with it.
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“The Good Mud Growing Project came from a desire to use the land for something other than just grazing and for it to have a purpose and be more sustainable. I initially wanted to grow commercially, but found that it wasn’t what really motivated me. I wanted to involve people and get them together, loving veg, eating healthily and learning together. Andy really wants the land to become a special place to visit, full of biodiversity and a natural legacy so it all ties in nicely. We’ve had a great response so far, from friends and local people such as teachers, enthusing about the need for a project that connects kids with food and supporting the local food bank receiving fresh, rather than non-perishable, produce. The food bank has told us that the response from people receiving the veg and fruit is often disbelief that it comes with their food box, and the businesses or chefs that we supply say that the quality is amazing and it lasts much longer than shop bought or wholesale supplies. Generally we take a sample and offer an establishment to try it free of charge, then pop in or call them and see if they’d like to buy some. So far no one has said no!
“We’ve also had some great outside help; Kevin Johnson from Friends of the Earth became our mentor and along with Rob Meredith, a local grower, have been supporters with project management and technical knowledge. Friends of the Earth will be helping us with advice on planting and managing the land to increase our biodiversity and attract more wildlife, in particular encouraging more pollinating insects. The Job Centre contacted us to link employers and potential employees in the area, for training and work experience. People trying to get back into work do an eight-week placement to gain experience in a vocation before committing to a permanent position. This means they can increase their skills and confidence and should be more likely to remain employed when starting a job. It works particularly well for those that have been off work due to ill health or for a long period of time. Paul and Sue joined us over two months ago and have been a real asset to the project.
“Our own growing expertise still needs to be increased, particularly to get our soil right on new field beds so we can up the production. We found that the compost was too alkaline and by employing a no dig method our plants have not been very happy outside. We hope that with a little digging to incorporate the compost with a few inches of clay top soil, which is quite acidic, that it will balance out over time, especially with more manure and other organic matter being added.”
Andy said: “We need to champion the traditional methods of growing that are in balance with nature and involve people. So many children don’t know where their food comes from or how it arrives on their plate so the more local community projects there are nationally the more people can share the knowledge, skills and enjoyment. Children want to be involved; they love sowing, getting their hands dirty and especially being able to pick the food. They love running, jumping, climbing and having the space and freedom to do it. The social, mental and emotional benefits are well documented as well as physical development such as motor skills and fitness. I think you can teach and learn pretty much anything in the garden and from being outdoors. Yogurt pots, a bit of soil and seeds are all you need to get started.
And what are their upcoming plans? “We want to offer accredited training for volunteers and the wider community. We plan to up our production to sell more in the summer months. The aim is to have a community veg stall in town where anyone growing food can buy or sell produce. We want more community groups to come along and get involved. Extra produce will also enable us to hold more Growing Days where people can visit and share a lunch, and demonstrate processing, preserving and storing food.”
The key themes
Growing veg, fruit and plants as naturally and sustainably as possible. “We aim for a variety of high quality produce, not forgetting our love of odd shapes and sizes.,” said Sally. “The benefits of the outdoors and nature are immense for our wellbeing.”
Learning as much as possible in the most fun way. “We’re trying to educate ourselves and others. The beauty of growing is that there are so many ways of doing it so we’re keen to have everyone’s input. We want to encourage anyone and everyone, especially our children, to get outdoors and grow a bit at home to have their own free food.”
Eating fresh, healthy and tasty food. “Shared lunches, cooked by our community chef, Fran, the children or ourselves, are a very common theme.”