Saturday, 31 March 2012

Back to the Land

Planting hedgerows with Moya at Hazelhurst
I returned to the UK four weeks ago, after working in Zimbabwe for the last year and a half as Director of Hlekweni Friends Rural Service, a Quaker vocational training centre just outside Bulawayo. I've spent some of that time planting hedgerows on the new Hazelhurst local food project site, just on the edge of Sheffield in the Moss Valley. The 12-acre site has been bought by Huw Evans, a Sheffield Quaker, and he is converting it from intensive grass cultivation to a fruit orchard and four half-hectare plots for renting out to local organic growers, including the Hazelhurst Community Supported Agriculture Co-op.

My own experience of growing food has been limited to cultivating a stony allotment for a few years in Sheffield, followed by a rather more productive vegetable garden in Zimbabwe (where the plants seem to grow visibly between morning and evening). My working life has mostly involved setting up and managing projects and charities, including the City of Sanctuary movement, Asylum Link Merseyside and The Big Issue in the North. At Hlekweni though, I decided that I don't want to spend the next twenty years sitting front of a computer and in meetings, and I have enrolled in a part-time Masters course in Organic Farming from this September, through the Scottish Agricultural College, based in Aberdeen.

As someone whose practical skills have been largely limited to plugging in a computer, I have wanted to gain some sort of concrete physical expertise for many years. Rob Hopkins has described those of us alive today (in Britain) as having “ a very strong claim to being the most useless generation to ever walk the planet. 

"We have forgotten how to cook, sew, knit, repair stuff, grow food, build soils and live thriftily. Above all, we have lost the sense, that comes from having a wide range of skills, that we could turn our hand to anything, one of the key distinctions between resilient cultures/individuals, and non-resilient ones."
(Full article here).

This observation struck me for the first time when I lived in a South African shanty town in the late 90s. The people who lived there were extremely poor and consequently had very little formal education, but many of them were in the process of building their own house, using a few basic materials - zinc sheeting, cement and sand collected from the surface of the 'roads'. It was a humbling and educative experience to stand by as middle-aged women with babies on their backs mixed cement for bricks, and told me to 'sit down, you're not used to this work'.

Living in Zimbabwe also highlighted the critical importance of local food production. In 2008 Zimbabwe suffered a catastrophic economic collapse, when it became impossible to buy anything in shops, and people depended for survival on what they could produce themselves. Maybe this is part of the reason for the different reactions I received from Zimbabweans compared to British friends when telling them about my intended career-change. British people's response to the idea of changing from NGO management to farming has generally been a puzzled expression, whereas Zimbabweans have tended to see it as a very positive move – 'yes, farming is the source of wealth' as one colleague expressed it.

Whether or not I can make it a source of wealth remains to be seen – I am certainly a long way from it at the moment, but I'm already enjoying engaging with a completely new set of skills and knowledge disciplines. Last week this included getting acquainted with the back end of a tractor, as three of us aspiring agriculturalists were given a masterclass in attaching a rotivator by an extremely helpful local farmer. It has also been a source of solid satisfaction to be able to look over the results of a day's work in the field and see a completed hedgerow – a windbreak for our future crops and wildlife corridor for birds and small mammals. It feels like a small but concrete contribution to rebuilding the sustainable and productive agricultural landscape that was lost in the conversion to industrial food production in the second half of the 20th Century.

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(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)