Manchester, England Part 1 of 2

Joneve Murphy

Joneve Murphy › Farmer, Photographer, Nomad and Explorer of the global food web, sustainability and innovative agriculture

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Editor’s Note: We love the work Joneve Murphy is doing. This is a post about her visit to a group of farm cooperatives near Manchester, England.

We support her efforts. Farmer Seeking Roots is Joneve traveling the world discovering the commonalities and differences about farming.

Here she writes about learning about cooperative farming in England. Thank you, Joneve, for your hard work and your excellent reporting.

Read Joneve’s post below.

My first stop in England was to work with a group of cooperatives in Manchester.

Some of the world’s earliest cooperatives were started in Manchester in the mid-19th century as a way to combat the new, large industrial mechanization of labor. It was a way for producers to come together and set fair wages, prices and decent working conditions.

The cooperative movement is still running strong in Manchester and the area surrounding. By definition a cooperative business or farm is one in which all members have equal say in the operation as well as equal profit and benefits. I worked with several cooperatives in Manchester that both produce and distribute food.

For this first post on the area I’d like to talk about 2 of the farms that I visited, as well as The Manchester Veg People (MVP); who sell and distribute their produce.

First, I spent time with the Moss Brook Growers. This cooperative farm is made up of 3 members; Rob, Stuart and Carl. They are tenants on the 21 acre property located in Wigan Borough in Greater Manchester. The land is owned by Unicorn Grocery (more on Unicorn in the next post) and Moss Brook has a 10-year tenancy. Moss Brook is not only certified organic but also a “stock free” farm. This means that they input zero fertility from animal products.

All of the food is certified organic and grown within 50 miles of the city.

So, no manure, composted or otherwise.

This makes the farm and the vegetables grown there completely vegan. Many small organic farms not only use animal manure to add fertility but also other animal products such as blood, bone, feather and fish meal. These products are used because they are extremely high in nitrogen, an essential element to ensure healthy and productive crops.

Moss Brook spreads composted vegetable material from Manchester’s city compost program to add nitrogen and other vital nutrients. They also use green manure. Stock free farming means that they need to manage their fields with strict crop rotation to ensure fertility for subsequent seasons.

They plant mixtures of legumes and grasses in between vegetable rotations and they rotate fields out of production quickly. These green manures can fix nitrogen in the soil through symbiotic relationships with soil bacteria, making it available to the crop in the following seasons.

Moss Brook also has a long term plan towards establishing habitats for local wildlife and increasing the biodiversity of their property. They are planting native hedgerows and orchards.

When they first arrived on the property it was a barren field, windy and inhospitable to the vegetables.

Since arriving, the land has really blossomed. By planting the hedgerows and trees strategically, they have minimized wind burn issues as well as establishing habitat for native wildlife.

The farm is on a semi large scale. I say semi because 21 acres is not quite enough land to financially justify going fully mechanical, but it is way too large to farm by hand. The guys seem to have found a nice balance by limiting their crop list.

They grow only a few different types of vegetables so that the equipment range needn’t be too large and it is manageable for the 3 of them to get the work done. They have one hired helper named Axel that comes a few days a week to help with harvest and weeding and a volunteer group called the Land Army that come every few weeks to help with larger biodiversity projects.

They grow beets, spinach, swiss chard, kale, leeks, garlic, winter squash and broccoli. I spent 2 days with Moss Brook, on the first day we harvested swiss chard and beautiful large beets for Unicorn Grocery and MVP. We also cleaned and trimmed garlic and I did some hoeing in the squash plot while Carl seeded the first of the fall spinach.

The second day was spent with a little harvest in the morning and a lot of weeding in the afternoon. I was really impressed with the integrity that has gone into the making of this farm. They may be the most ecologically minded farmers that I have been in contact with.

From their large scale decisions like their stock free organic methods, an irrigation system powered by solar panels, and a full scale biodiversity program, down to their certified fair trade rubber bands, bio-degradable bags and box liners. They have taken the full extent of the business into account and take the environmentally friendly option whenever it is available.

While in Manchester I also spent 4 days with The Glebelands City Growers.

This cooperative is owned and run by Charlotte, Adam and Alan. Glebelands was started by one of the founders of Unicorn Grocery. He saw a gap in Unicorn’s supply that needed to be filled, mostly a lack of green leafy vegetables.

The plot for Glebelands was a market garden over a century ago, but the land hadn’t been worked in a long time and was quite derelict. He leased the land from the city council and over the following 10 years he and his wife worked hard to turn the place around.

They built poly-tunnels, an irrigation system, tool sheds, rehabilitated the existing glass house and got organic certification. They grew swiss chard, summer squash, cucumbers and herbs but the main bread and butter of the farm has always been salad mix. The land is located within the city of Manchester and they pride themselves on the fact that all of the produce is sold within a 5 mile radius. The food miles generated by their produce is an important aspect of sustainability to the growers and brings new meaning to the “eat local” movement.

Adam came to Glebelands 8 years ago and worked for a few seasons before taking over management. Charlotte came about 1 year later and the year after that the original couple that started the farm left to move down south and buy a new farm.

Adam and Charlotte have been managing the farm together for the past 6 years. Watch an interview with Adam and Charlotte of Glebelands City Growers.

Alan came on later and is now in the middle of his second season though he had been involved in the farm as a volunteer as well as a produce buyer before that. The three of them took over management of the property and were essentially given the keys, they pay the rent and all of the yearly bills but came into the farm debt free, a remarkable feat in any business.

Glebelands has had help from various funders and supporters over the years and that combined with their hard work and dedication, they have put themselves in a position to complete their second profitable season this year, though they still only pay themselves minimum wage.

Now the crop list is almost the same as the original, but they have also added microgreens and they are experimenting with tomatoes and chili peppers in the glass house.

The timing of my visit was perfect since they are just getting into growing for high end restaurants. We talked a lot about the differences growing for chefs, their needs and how they expect the produce to look upon arrival. In my 4 days there we did a bit of everything, seeding, cultivation, weeding and harvest.

It was a great exchange of ideas. Their produce is beautiful and the vibe of the place is really great. They are a cooperative in the true sense of the word.

Each of them seems to have their strong points that they play to, but they are all responsible for the health of the farm, the land and each other. It is an idyllic situation.

Both of these farms sell their produce to Unicorn Grocery, but they are also part of the Manchester Veg People cooperative. MVP is a cooperative of farmers, restaurants, caterers and public sector organizations such as community halls and Manchester University.

MVP started small 5 years ago with the help of The Kindling Trust. They were originally 2 growers and a few restaurants. They have grown a lot over the years and are currently made up of 7 farms and over 20 buyers all working together to ensure that the buyers not only get the best quality fresh produce but that the farmers get a good price for their produce as well as a consistent and reliable revenue stream. All of the food is certified organic and grown within 50 miles of the city.

Katie and Simon are heading up MVP for the moment and Zoey is helping them part time with orders and organization. Katie takes care of making new contacts and communication while Simon picks up all of the produce from the various farms and gets it to where it needs to be.

It is an enormous task. I spent 2 days with Simon in the truck. He picks up the produce in bulk and then repackages it for each individual delivery. He is also the best line for feedback on the produce between the buyers and the growers.

I got to see the farms of many of the growers that they work with as well as speak to some of the chefs. These types of cooperatives are so important to farms.

As I wrote in my last post, farmers often don’t have time for deliveries and taking orders. That type of work is just one more thing to take them out of the field and away from what is really important.

These types of cooperatives are better than commercial distributors because they have both the growers and the buyers in mind and the prices are fair to everyone. MVP is a great model of how this type of cooperative can work.

This post originally appeared on Joneve’s site–she graciously shared it with us–check out farmerseekingroots.com to see more of her writing about her worldy farm visits. Thanks, Joneve! 

Photo credit: Joneve Murphy