We spoke to Alice Holden, author of ‘Do Grow – 10 simple vegetables’, about urban farming, organic careers, and being a woman in a male profession.
What made you want to be a grower?
I realised I loved this type of work. I spent the summer after university working at Blaencamel farm in west Wales. Despite having grown-up on a farm, I thought I should go into a more academic career, but there was nothing else that seemed to make so much sense to me. Growing food combines so many social and environmental benefits.
Also, my cousin Nathan had left a successful career in London to become a grower, and it helped having someone near and dear to me with a strong conviction that this was a positive career choice.
How did you find your way into growing as a career?
I worked as a labourer on lots of different organic farms, which was a great way to learn. In 2007, my friend Will and I joined the Soil Association’s Future Growers apprenticeship scheme. This consisted of two years of working on an organic farm with a grower mentor, along with theoretical learning to support the practical side of my work. Having the work formalised by an apprenticeship within a community of like-minded people, really helped me to have the confidence to call myself a grower and follow this path.
You are one of the most visible female organic growers in the country. Why do you think women are a minority in the profession?
I think it is easier to consider a career when there are role models within it that you can relate to. Farming and growing has, in the last century, increasingly been a male profession. The first time I considered becoming a grower, I was working for Anne Evans, one of the few females in the profession at the time. There are now lots of young women looking at food growing as a career, and I think there are more women coming into small-scale growing than men, which is great as there will be more of a gender balance.
You’ve just published a ‘Do’ book on growing – why do you think it’s important to grow your own food?
Food is unique because it affects everyone – we all eat. It has massive potential to build positive relationships, because it is a point at which humans intersect with nature and it highlights to us that we are a part of our ecosystems, not separate from them. Growing connects us to the environment, which is extremely important in terms of how we look after it. This, in turn, can have many personal and social benefits. I wanted the book to encourage people who may never have grown anything before, to have a go. It is rewarding (most of the time!) and I wanted to make people feel they don’t have to be an expert to get involved.
Tell us about Growing Communities where you currently work?
Growing Communities is a not-for-profit social enterprise that provides community-led alternatives to the current industrialised food system. They run farmers’ markets, box schemes and urban food growing projects. Their trade outlets source food from sustainable farms that are as local to them as possible. Their model enables smaller scale, sustainable farmers to be paid fairly for what they produce so they can continue their work, while at the same time providing urban communities access to local, organic food. Newsletters and the farmers’ markets allow consumers and farmers/growers to have a direct relationship with one another .
Why do we need urban farms? There’s always a grocery store around the corner in cities.
At the same time as populations are becoming increasingly urban, they have less and less contact with the story behind the food they rely upon. In order to care about the impacts of food production, we need to have some contact and understanding of what may be involved.
The processes and impacts of food production have become largely invisible in many consumers day to day lives, and this has repercussions in terms of our ability to care about the related environmental and social issues. Contact with farms and food growing, I feel, is one way of providing education about food production which can enable people to make informed choices as consumers.
Whether it’s knowing about animal welfare, workers rights or pollution, it’s important because the production of food affects everything on such a huge scale.
Do you feel that what you are doing at Growing Communities is helping increase food equality? How?
Organic food is often perceived as being food for the affluent, and I think this is largely to do with it being less accessible to people in poorer areas (due to price, or availability in the shops, etc.). In Dagenham, when we sell from the ‘farm gate’, so to speak. We sell our produce at a wholesale price, as we do not have the additional work/expense of packing it and transporting it. It is not cheap to produce, so it shouldn’t be undervalued, but in this way it can be affordable to local people. I add on a premium when selling at the farmers’ market and restaurants further afield.
The farm in Dagenham is drawing in more and more local people, volunteers, school groups and shoppers. Generally, you don’t have to teach people the benefits of growing food or eating healthily. You just have to create the space where they can access these things, and urban farms have huge potential to feed people from across the stretch of the urban fabric.
Photograph by Susy Morris
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