Page last updated at 07:09 GMT, Tuesday, 24 June 2008 08:09 UK

Sowing the seeds of urban farming

By Victoria Bone
BBC News

Market garden in Hackney (pic: Growing Communities)
Even small spaces can be fruitful if properly managed
Is agriculture a purely rural activity? Not any more, if a new breed of urban farmers get their way.

Across the country, roof-top honey farms, window-box herb gardens and parkland vegetable patches are taking root.

And as food prices rise and the economic downturn bites, ways to grow your own, on your doorstep, are likely to become increasingly popular.

Food campaigner and television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recently helped five Bristol families turn a derelict patch of land on their housing estate into a smallholding.

And several green groups have come up with a hugely ambitious proposal called the Feed the Olympics.

They want to see 6,000 acres of land in the capital used to grow enough food for the 14 million meals that will be needed during the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

'Real passion'

This, they say, would require 2,012 new food-growing spaces, including community gardens, allotments and roof gardens.

The allotment is certainly nothing new. For those who lived through World War II - and remember Dig for Victory - the idea of urban farming will be familiar.

More people want to do, and sooner or later, more people will to have to do it as food prices start rising
Ben Reynolds, Sustain

For younger generations, however, it is a novel concept, but given that in London alone about 60% of all land is green space and at least half of households have gardens, many say it makes sense.

Green campaign group Sustain network director Ben Reynolds told BBC Radio 4's Farming Today: "What we're seeing at the moment is a real passion for growing more, which is slightly different to situations in the past where urban agriculture has really come through crisis, like Dig for Victory.

"It's going to happen. More people want to do, and sooner or later, more people will have to do it as food prices start rising.

"The great thing about urban agriculture isn't just the money you'll be saving. It's the enjoyment of actually going out there and growing. It's a great way of keeping healthy and preserving community cohesion."

And it is definitely not just about allotments. Sustain will hold a conference next week to examine ways of using parks, housing estates and roof gardens to produce food for London.

Last year, we fed 2,500 local people using produce entirely grown in the city
Charlotte Rutherford, Middlesbrough Council

The urban farming idea is not just restricted to the capital either.

Last year, Middlesbrough broke new ground - literally - when it set about planting up its unused spaces with vegetables, herbs and fruit.

Led by Groundwork South Tees, 2,000 people took part and organisers hope to repeat the success this year.

Already there are at least 280 growing sites. The council has turned over parkland, town-centre planters and other landholdings, and many schools, hospitals and community centres have offered part of their grounds.

Deprived communities

Charlotte Rutherford, from the council, said: "It all culminates in a town meal. Last year, we fed 2,500 local people using produce entirely grown in the city."

Urban farming has already taken off in the US, with cities like Chicago leading the way.

There were no fences, and yet there was no vandalism, with the harvested produce sold at a nearby market

Royal Parks deputy chief executive Colin Buttery

Growing Power is one of several initiatives there. It works with some of the city's most deprived communities to teach them how to become more self-sufficient by creating their own gardens.

The organisation also holds small markets so back-yard growers can sell some of their produce for a profit.

And on a larger scale, it has created a 20,000-sq-ft (1,858-sq-m) urban farm growing vegetables, herbs and edible flowers for soup kitchens.

Sustain recently visited the US with Colin Buttery, deputy chief executive of Royal Parks, which manages London's green spaces, including Hyde Park and Regent's Park.

Mr Buttery was particularly interested in Chicago park authorities' decision to convert some of their ornamental flower beds into vegetable patches.

Doorstep harvest

"There were no fences, and yet there was no vandalism, with the harvested produce sold at a nearby market," he said.

"It would be great to see some of these ideas adopted in London and cities across the UK."

Several projects in London are already following the sort of model used in Chicago.

One is Food Up Front, which was founded in south London in April 2007.

The fundamental problem that is blocking its take-up is land ownership.
Tim Lang
Food policy professor, City University

It provides starter kits for people living on housing estates who want to grow something in their front gardens, balconies, roof spaces, doorsteps or window boxes.

For 20 a year, they get compost, seeds and containers and have the support of so-called "street reps" - volunteers who are on hand at any time to give advice, perhaps if you find your lettuces devoured by slugs.

Growing Communities in Hackney, east London, has taken things a step further.

It is a semi-commercial enterprise, growing food in three small gardens to sell at local farmers' markets and via an organic-box scheme. It also supports farmers within a 60-mile (96km) radius of the borough.

"We need a world that is hugely re-localised," founder Julie Brown says.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, believes there is huge potential for urban farming in the UK.

But he says: "The fundamental problem that is blocking its take-up is land ownership. Too much is in the hands of private developers."

Farming Today is on BBC Radio 4 at 0545 BST. The Urban Agriculture series will run until Friday 26 June.

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