Going back to the land

Hazelhurst Community Supported Agriculture Co-operative: LtoR Joan Miller , Jenny Patient , Bardy McNair on one of the hay stacks on the site
Hazelhurst Community Supported Agriculture Co-operative: LtoR Joan Miller , Jenny Patient , Bardy McNair on one of the hay stacks on the site

IF you haven’t finalised your New Year resolutions yet, what about setting 2012 as the year you become a farmer?

“This is an ideal site,” said Bardy McNair, as she stood on her plot in the Moss Valley. “It’s gorgeous when the sun comes out.”

Hazelhurst Community Supported Agriculture Co-operative: LtoR Joan Miller ,  Bardy McNair and Jenny Patient walking over the site

Hazelhurst Community Supported Agriculture Co-operative: LtoR Joan Miller , Bardy McNair and Jenny Patient walking over the site

At which point the sun came out, lighting up the green south-facing slope of the Hazelhurst Community Supported Agriculture Co-operative in southern Sheffield’s little-known farming country, off Hazelhurst Lane, near Gleadless.

There have been farming families here for generations, said Bardy and her fellow farmers, Joan Miller and Jenny Patient.

A few years ago, one of the Hazelhurst landowners decided to reduce his acreage in the valley.

“He was an older farmer and we heard he wanted to sell a few acres,” said Joan Miller.

Twelve acres was bought by ethical property developer Huw Evans, who aimed to gain Soil Association organic certification for the whole site and then parcel it up for several growers.

Huw runs the Hazelhurst Fruitery community orchard on one plot and a vegetable area on another, while two other growers have signed up to farm alongside the Hazelhurst CSA. Huw has installed water through an on-site borehole, a community cabin and a toilet. There’s even a picnic table and small campsite for events and soon there’ll be a Hazelhurst tractor.

“It’s all a little bit exciting,” said Bardy. “I’m standing here imagining seeing all these different crops being worked, with the whole field full of life and people working.”

The ethos of the new Hazelhurst farmers is about growing local food for local people, learning and improving techniques as a community, food security in a city without a traditional hinterland of large-scale vegetable growing and producing food without the energy and fossil fuel input of the past.

Huw hopes it will be a return to the land for large numbers of local people, who will produce food by their own efforts and expertise rather than relying on pesticides, herbicides and machinery.

A few years ago, this might all have seemed rather far-fetched. But not in 2012, said Jenny Patient. “It doesn’t seem to fit the market picture but there are schemes like this all round the country now. It’s a new kind of farmland, built on the fertility in the soil to make it more productive. It’s not about going backwards, it’s about using the knowledge we have but advancing in a simpler way.”

Hazelhurst CSA grew out of the Transition Heeley/Meersbrook group, part of the local Transition Towns network, which aims to help local people get together to improve their communities.

There are currently 40 members of Hazelhurst CSA, with many more supporters on the group’s mailing list.

Up to now, the members have met once a week on Wednesdays and on the third Sunday of every month to work on the plot to improve the soil.

Last year’s first crop produced 260kg of potatoes (“16 varieties and they were wonderful,” said Bardy). The plan for 2012 will see more potatoes, carrots, parsnips, peas, beans, salad crops, celery and more. Members expect the produce to be sold in local shops, at market stalls and maybe even nearby schools. In time, they may launch a vegetable box scheme.

A part-time accredited grower will start work for the CSA soon to co-ordinate the scheme and work with volunteers. On February 2, the Hazelhurst CSA Share Offer is launched at the Quaker Meeting House.

This is the other side of the modern back to the land movement – paying for it to get going. In the longer term, the produce should provide, but to raise initial capital, farmland organisations like Hazelhurst CSA are turning to share offers whereby people or organisations can invest to make the scheme happen.

In this case, shareholders can invest from £50 to £2,000 for at least three years. After that, they will hopefully get their money back, possibly with a dividend. This is not a traditional profit-driven share scheme, the CSA points out. “It’s about investing in your local area for social and environmental outcomes,” said Joan Miller.

Rather than a fat cheque, investors in Hazelhurst CSA should expect to receive a “warm glow”, she said.

“If they have a bit of spare money, a lot of people are saying they don’t want to put it in a bank where it’s not doing anything,” said Jenny Patient. “So why not do something productive with it, like employing people, growing good food and building communities?”

Members have already interviewed local farmers about the conditions in the valley and the existing farmers appear enthusiastic about the project.

People in Sheffield are ready for this kind of scheme, said Bardy.

There are other local community food-producing sites springing up across the city, partly due to an unease with intensive factory farming and partly, she said, because “people are enthusiastic about growing and cooking their own food now – it is seen as a worthwhile thing to do.”

The 12-acre site at Hazlehurst isn’t going to feed a city of 500,000 people but hopefully it will “model what can be done,” said Jenny Patient.

“Ideas don’t just happen, you have to do it to prove it. We need one of these down the end of every lane in Sheffield, really. But this is a start.”

lMore information: www.hazelhurst.coop; admin@hazelhurst.coop