The Kent brewers, Shepherd Neame, have recently leased a field adjoining a pub car park to the local Parish Council to turn into allotments. The Parish Council had received a number of requests for allotments, an increasingly rare commodity, and the brewers, knowing that the field was rarely used, were happy to accommodate the Council's request. Work has already started on the field: removal of the grass, putting up fencing and a shed and installing that most vital of requirements, a water supply. Each allotment will be 250 square metres and the only proviso is that the publicans at The Harrow, Knockholt, are able to have a plot where they can grow fresh produce for the pub. Can there be a better idea? Home-grown seasonal fruit and vegetables sourced yards from the pub itself. Shepherd Neame is willing to consider any similar schemes on land that they own as they are 'committed to working closely with local communities' and welcome enquiries.
Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, of River Cottage fame, instigated the idea of landshare on his programme at the end of 2008. By February 2009 over 22,000 people had signed up on his website and now there are over 44,826 people registered with Landshare.net.
There has been huge interest from all over the country with Kent and Sussex having sixty-four and forty-four landowners involved respectively, as well as many would-be growers and helpers. And I'm sure that there would be many more subscribers if they knew about the scheme. I met a neighbour on my dog walk this morning and whilst we were sorting the world out, I mentioned Landshare. He said that he would love to have someone cultivating part of his garden now and I'm sure that there are umpteen local people with underused parcels of land and it seems to me that the Landshare scheme may be a perfect solution for them.
How does it work? The idea is for interested parties to find land to grow their own on, or to offer land in return for a share of the produce and to keep an eye out for underused land which is suitable for the purpose. It's really interesting to read some of the messages on the website. I liked the one from the couple who had had an 'awakening' and who now feel the need to grow their own food. There are a myriad of different requests amongst which there are people offering small plots in their own gardens which they can no longer cope with, people wanting to have a few hens, and some who are more ambitious and who want to keep livestock as well as grow vegetables. All good stuff bearing in mind how many people are waiting for allotments and bearing in mind the benefit to them and their families of eating home-grown produce as well as the obvious health benefits of being out in the fresh air getting some exercise – using, as some say, an 'outside gym'. And I'm sure that this sort of scheme can only improve on community and neighbourly relations. (Did any of you see that funny but rather poignant film, 'Grow your Own' set in Merseyside which just proved the point – eventually?)
I think that before you launch into sharing your land, your garden or your allotment, there are the boring but sensible things to consider such as insurance, noise and just how much time someone sharing your patch might want to spend there. I'm sure that it would be best to set down ground rules before making any commitment but there are people who are happy with an ad hoc arrangement and who have a more relaxed attitude to life and who will be just happy with sharing a proportion of any produce grown on their land without worrying about complications that might never arise. You might, though, be of a more cautious disposition and want to set out who would be responsible for what – maybe the upkeep of hedges or other boundaries etc. Down in Totnes, Devon, garden sharers join a group insurance scheme, for example. I suppose the ideal situation would be to share land that is not absolutely adjoining your property so that everybody can be happy in terms of some privacy. And payment too. Judging by the people advertising on another website, Yours2share, very little payment is exchanged, surely the best way. Just a share of the produce seems to be far more satisfactory than fixing on some sort of financial arrangement.
I heard Sir Julian Rose who owns the Hardwick Estate on the Berkshire/Oxfordshire borders, being interviewed on Radio 4 at the end of last year. He's an organic farming pioneer who started off back in the early 70's when there were few totally organic farmers in this country. He's setting aside a field originally used for horse grazing for locals to have their own plots. He thinks that it is the right time to, and to quote, 'offer some land to people who are hungry to get their hands in the soil' and he's hoping that other land-rich landowners will follow suit. I think he's right. His idea is to charge a small rental to cover the cost of irrigation, the use of a lockup shed and any legal contracts that need to be drawn up.
On the Isle of Dogs, just ten minutes from the commercial city centre of London, there is the largest urban farm in Europe, Mudchute Farm. This thirty-two acre site, with its nutrient-rich soil next to the Thames, was going to be built on at one stage but it now has seventy community allotments as well as rare breeds, stables, a farm kitchen and restaurant as well as a smokery. The allotment holders are hugely ethnically diverse and consequently grow a fascinating array of produce from all over the world which they can share, swop and educate others about. It sounds a fascinating place for urban dwellers to escape to and to have an active share in a little bit of countryside.
Finally, The National Trust set up a three-year project this time last year 'to help new growers bridge skills'. When they set it up in February 2009 there were 100,000 people waiting for an allotment. They also have in mind to encourage experienced growers to volunteer to pass on their knowledge and experience to beginners. Their allotments will be in forty different locations in Britain and will be registered through the Landshare website and Landshare's estimation of the amount of produce that could be produced on these sites is staggering, both in the quantity and in its value – both in monetary terms and to our health.
To find out more visit www.landshare.net Sue Whigham can be contacted on 07810 457948 for gardening advice and the sourcing and supplying of interesting garden plants.