Feature: Growing People - as well as food - at the Urb Farm
September 30, 2016
Sitting in the urban jungle that is residential Wolverton is a jewel that is providing young people with a means to learn new skills and a better way of bringing farm to fork.
The Urb Farm is the home of Growing People, an organisation which works with youngsters on growing food in the local community in a sustainable way. It helps support teenagers on their way to employment through horticultural training.
When I visited the Urb Farm last week to take a look, I wasn't sure what to expect. I've heard of urban farms and know they are an area where plants are given their own space in what would otherwise be a concrete jungle. I met Urb Farm manager, Florie Bryant, and a couple of the teenagers who have been receiving training, including 16-year-old Spencer. They took me on a tour of the farm and I was stunned at the amount of effort that has gone into make this two-and-a-half acres into a beautiful, but useful space. Everywhere I looked had something growing in it, whether it was fruit, vegetables, herbs or an area left to go wild.
Not only does the farm provide training for young people, it also supplies food to a number of cafes, including Cameron's Kitchen, in Stony Stratford, and the public and I'm not just talking about boring iceberg lettuce either. The list is endless and includes cabbage, beetroot, edible flowers (marigolds, nasturtium), raspberries, redcurrants, strawberries, apples, pears, cherries, horseradish, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, salad leaves (mizuna and mibuna among others), carrots (yellow, red and purple as well as the usual orange), herbs and squashes. They also make their own jams and preserves and thanks to a couple of hives, produce their own honey with the help of beekeeping volunteers.
People wanting to buy food from the farm, can subscribe to its Veggie Mail list and will receive an email on Tuesdays, letting them know what has been harvested that week. They can then order what they want and pick it up from the farm on Thursday or Friday afternoons. Anyone interested can email firstname.lastname@example.org. Florie said: "Some weeks people order four items but some will order 20, so it is a real mix. All of the orders have been big recently and there are a lot of them. People know if it is on our list, it is seasonal."
Florie said although they were not officially organic, they did not use chemicals. She said: "We didn't go for the certificate because of the cost involved and we are too small. We don't put anything on the vegetables but there is a bit of companion planting. Ninety per cent of plants are from the site. We buy a couple of trays of bedding plants in the spring, but everything here has come from the farm."
The farm also welcomes volunteers including parties from businesses. Recently, staff from Santander spent a day on the farm as part of the banking firm's corporate volunteering programme. Around eight or nine volunteers from the community work on the farm each week including retired people, people with learning disabilities and parents with their children. Visitors have also donated items such as pots and seeds.
Growing People has received funding and donations from organisations including the Woodland Trust, which has donated trees, and MK Soup, which has enabled the farm to purchase tools and other items. The RSPB has also donated bird houses. Over the winter, they plan to apply for funding for a wooden walkway around the site to make it easier for people with disabilities to get around. In the distant future, Florie hopes the money can be found to construct a straw bale building with a shop, cafe and classroom, but major funding would have to be sought.
The venue has welcomed pupils taking part in the Forest Schools programme and students from Redway School with special needs. The farm holds regular events, which include live music in its willow dome, and hot food. I enviously eyed up their pizza oven on my way around.
During my tour, I met a few of their feathered colleagues, chickens, which they keep for their eggs, and ducks. Wildlife, including starlings, finches, bats and foxes, make regular visits to the farm. Florie said in between the planted areas, they try to keep the site as natural as possible.
The farm site belongs to MK Council, but was originally a tree nursery. "They planted poplars and the plan was they would expand, but that didn't happen and it lay completely as a wasteland for years," said Florie. "Nine years ago the council said we could have it and we have a 99-year lease. The opportunities are endless. There are always people interested in food, the environment and anything about it. We would like to do more stuff, but it is a case of time, funds and people."
On October 22, the farm is holding its harvest festival, featuring live music, a produce sale, barbecue, vegetable carving, scarecrow making and a chance to feed the chickens. For more information, visit Growing People's Facebook page.
"People can come and see how everything is grown. They can see raspberries don't come from supermarkets. It is good for the environment and the farm is a wildlife haven," Florie said. "The trainees benefit immensely - they haven't done well in the classroom for whatever reason. A couple of weeks ago, some were struggling to add up, but now they are doing it first time."
More pictures from the farm are available from my Instagram account
Address: 499 The Urb Farm, 196-198 Windsor Street, Wolverton, Milton Keynes, MK12 5DR