Growing for the future

Laura Creen

25 November 2010

In her second year of the Soil Association Organic Apprenticeship scheme, Laura Creen explains what drove her to the scheme, and what her hopes and amibtions for the future are.

In her second year of the Soil Association Organic Apprenticeship scheme, Laura Creen explains what drove her to the scheme, and what her hopes and amibtions for the future are.

After an August weekend spent in west Wales with 17 other organic apprentices, I came back buzzing with dreams for the future. It is like this every time we get together: we meet at different farms, sometimes with our Soil Association organisers, and after a farm walk and conversations with other growers, the ideas on what I might do with my new found skills at the end of this apprenticeship just whir out of control.

I joined the Soil Association Organic Apprenticeship Scheme a year and a half ago in March 2009 and will complete the two-year scheme in February 2011. It was an interesting journey that led me to this apprenticeship, a journey that started half a world away. I am a Canadian who left home 10 years ago, travelled through Canada and then further afield in Europe, Australia and the many tropical islands in between. For five of those years I worked on traditional wooden square rigged ships to earn my keep. Sailing the oceans, I quickly learned to embrace the vagaries of the weather, which comes in quite handy now I work as a grower. On the ships I worked with my hands and felt satisfaction at the end of a day, spent, covered in tar – the same satisfaction I now feel when I end the day covered in mud.

After years living the itinerant lifestyle, I grew tired of packing and unpacking and of saying goodbye to so many friends. For two years I had happily sailed with my British boyfriend, but we both realised that if we continued sailing we would soon need to separate to find work on different ships. I had the skills of a 19th century sailor – but what use could I be on land?

Arriving in England for Christmas 2008 to look for land-based jobs, we soon found out how bad the recession was. The job market was dreary and we hunted for the few opportunities that were available. When I started to search the internet for apprenticeships I found the Soil Association webpage, which provided full details of their Organic Apprenticeship Scheme.

The Organic Apprenticeship Scheme currently costs the apprentice £1,600 a year to join. Apprentices work full time on a chosen host farm and are paid the minimum wage, spending an hour each week with a mentor and attending seminars (led by master growers) for one weekend every month over the winter period. Like the move from suburban living to sailing square riggers, this was a huge leap that made little sense to anyone else. But it felt so right in my gut that I responded immediately. I had never grown a vegetable but knew our food system promoted a disconnection from the land which I was ready to tackle. Only a year later would I begin to try to untangle the path that led me here.

The suburbs were a safe place to grow up, with a lawn in the front and one at the back with a crab apple tree whose apples dropped neglected each autumn. We had a stubborn rhubarb plant that grew next to the concrete of the house but no one ever thought to use it in the kitchen. Food came from the supermarket, wrapped in plastic or packed in boxes. It was all a mystery: approaching adulthood it felt strange to have been forcibly taught so many things, yet left clueless as to where our food came from.

Sailing in the South Pacific and visiting the islands I learned that raw, fresh food was precious. With no means to refrigerate – and daily temperatures of at least 30 degrees Celsius – food had to be eaten quickly or it would soon be thrown to the chickens. Island villages all grew food to supplement the goods shipped in once a month. One village had to move their subsistence garden a hard hour’s walk away after a hurricane destroyed the original site. There were chickens left to wander, pigs left to forage and perhaps a goat or two; everything was small scale and they could afford to waste nothing. The effort involved in obtaining food shocked me and made me wonder about all the plastic wrapped food in the supermarkets back home. Where did it all come from? And if fresh food was such a precious commodity, why were we wasting so much of it?

While looking for work here in the UK, I lived with my boyfriend and his parents. Every week an organic vegetable box arrived at the front door and often there was a new vegetable I’d never seen or eaten before. Since then, I’ve grilled any North American friends, asking things like “did you know about kale?”, to which some would answer “yes” and some “no”. With six mouths to feed in my family, and both parents in full time employment, there was little energy left to cook from scratch. Vegetables would quickly wilt in our refrigerator after their long journey to it, and I thought they were a waste of money.

But when I found the apprenticeship scheme I was ready to change the way I related to food. I had eaten food without chemicals in the South Pacific and now felt it ridiculous to think we need them when humankind had done without for so long. I tasted so many new vegetables in my first months as an apprentice. I would learn the name for a new salad leaf while I was harvesting it – ‘Green in the Snow’ – what a fabulous name, and then I tasted it: Kapow! I never knew that leaves could taste like mustard! I never knew how sweet asparagus would be when it was fresh off the plot. I came home and cooked with these amazing new vegetables and, in time, I began to feel the seasonality of our meals. I rejoice in eating seasonally: there’s nothing as special as welcoming autumn with open arms upon the arrival of our first root vegetable stew.

I started working at Abbey Home Farm, near Cirencester in Gloucestershire about 18 months ago and since then I’ve become accustomed to rising early to start work at half seven. I read the prepared sheet of what needs harvesting before the shop opens, and then go about that harvesting on auto-pilot. Salads for the cafe, fresh herbs and bunches of carrots for the shop – whatever needs doing gets done. At half nine we stop for a cup of tea and breakfast to plan the rest of the day. This is my favourite time: we’ve already had two hours of work under our belt and with a warm brew we make hopeful strategies on how to tackle the enormity of jobs that call to us from all corners of our holding. There’s an acre of potatoes to harvest, compost to turn, beds to clear, rake and sow, the wheel of the trolley to fix, and so on – ad infinitum. But at this time of day everything seems possible. Splitting up into teams we spend the rest of the day trying to get as much done as possible, asking our head gardener as many questions as come into our heads. The questions started off with “what is a brassica?” and have developed into “why do we grow brassicas the way we do?” Our head gardener, Keith Denning, is patient and knowledgeable. During the first year of my apprenticeship I needed a lot of training. Now I am in my second year I find that I am able to help by taking on some of the responsibilities. What keeps me hooked is that there’s always something new to learn – there is no time for boredom.

Even the days we hand weed aren’t really boring, because we tackle it as a team, spending our time talking and dreaming about the future. The apprenticeship scheme is flexible and although it has attracted many like-minded people, there are as many different ways to use the skills learnt as there are apprentices. Some of us wonder about grouping together and creating a new business on a patch of land, sharing resources and supporting each other. Others dream of becoming a teacher and educating students about food, or creating a vibrant cafe with a garden to supply it, or linking people in the city to farms and using vegetable growing to connect with disabled people – though all these run concurrent with the more traditional roles of employment. But what we’d all like to see is a rejuvenation of the countryside. To see rural communities that are full of vitality, where young people can find satisfying employment and where they can build a life. More than anything, we’d like to see people get out of the supermarkets and onto the farms. We defend our methods whenever we can; we try to gently educate friends and family as to why chemical farming is dangerous and both of these would be easier to do if people were linked to their local farms rather than the faceless produce on the supermarket shelf. We are all young people who are ready to challenge the food system.

I want to share my new found love of soil and food. I could see myself working to produce fruit and vegetables and anything else that a community might need from the soil, but only if I can be connected with that community. I love working in our vegetable garden and want to communicate the story of every crop to the people who are eating it. Everyone deserves to know the story behind their food. They deserve to eat food untainted by chemicals. Once they feel linked with a farmer or grower they will be more realistic about how our food system works.

While encouraging that link is arguably our future challenge, finding a piece of land to grow on alone or as a group is a more pressing one. As horticulturists we need good soil and land that we can hold on to for the long term. As young people, it is an extremely tall order to find such land in a vital rural community where we can live on it. And the ability to buy land or a house on the wages of a horticultural worker is just a distant dream.

Within a two-year stretch I have had the chance to learn how to grow and visited numerous established growers. I have re-educated myself through documentaries, magazines, farm walks and word of mouth about how our food is produced and what I can do as a consumer and grower to change what I do not feel comfortable with. More than that, I have learned how incredibly timely this apprenticeship scheme is. Our food supply is vulnerable to future changes in the climate, global economy and natural resources. The Government is too slow and too ineffective to reliably insulate us against these changes. So if there are changes to make they must come from us. If we want chemical free food we must grow it ourselves.

We are lucky. The organic movement is well established, their methods tried and tested. The men and women of the movement are welcoming, teaching us all they can to prepare us for the future. Above all, they are setting a precedent: that anyone who has an interest should be given the opportunity to explore it. From Lady Eve to Patrick Holden, these people have found their passion for soil and the food it grows and have shared it with us. All the growers who have taken us on farm walks, who have lead our seminars, who are our mentors at work – they inform and shape how we understand the concept of organic growing and show us the enormous opportunities we have to follow. It falls to us now to take up the torch and continue the important work of this movement. We are standing on the shoulders of giants and have a responsibility to those that came before and those that will come after. We are energetic and hopeful, and we are ready.


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