St Jerome’s Field community growing project, Tay valley

29 April 2013

The Soil Association Land Trust exists to safeguard farmland and currently owns four organic farms in the South West of England. So its recently acquired eight-acre field in Perthshire, Scotland was something of an anomaly amongst these 100-acre traditional farms. However, it has shown how a local community can take food production right back into the heart of a village.

Planting in St Jerome's fieldIn 2010 a long-standing Soil Association member donated St Jerome’s Field in the village of Dunkeld to the Land Trust. The field is in the Tay valley - an area with a rich soft-fruit heritage (tayberries take their name from the river) - but for nearly 30 years it had been used for grazing horses. The site on the edge of the village was ripe for development; placing it within the Land Trust meant it would be returned to food production rather than lost to houses.

The Soil Association presented the idea of using the land for a growing project in a public meeting. There was huge interest and a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) approach was chosen to involve as many people as possible.

Over the next year and a half, a small band of local people came together, established a group called @The Field (Dunkeld and Birnam Community Growing) and began to plan and fundraise to bring the field back into production. The group’s vision was of a growing area owned and run by the community, which could produce vegetables on a scale to be sold and distributed to the community in the most equitable manner.

Vision into reality

By writing a business plan, devising a membership model, fundraising and relying on contributions of labour, skills and materials, their vision began to be realised. They decided to take on a lease and started with the cultivation of a single acre.

This was not without its challenges. With deer and rabbits a problem, fencing was an urgent and costly priority. The grant-funded fence, however, was no deterrent when a passing crow dropped a small rabbit into the field. Fortunately it was quickly caught and released.

The project has capitalised on local support, engaging the community in imaginative ways - from the vintage tractor club ploughing the field, to the local salmon smokery providing insulated fish boxes for large-scale propagation. Before the arrival of the polytunnel, boxes, compost and seeds were distributed among the villagers for windowsill propagation. The field now has both a polytunnel and a beautifully crafted shed, built according to a traditional local design.

A lot of laughs

Working in St Jerome's fieldThere are now over 60 @The Field members, with a core group of 20 regular helpers. Founding member Dave Roberts describes the atmosphere: 'Folk are turning up most days or evenings to put in an hour or two. It is a lovely space to work in and a lot of laughing goes on.'

All the produce in the field is grown according to organic principles. However @TheField hasn’t gone down the path of seeking organic certification. Given that the people eating the food have also grown it, there is simply less need for the reassurance of provenance that certification gives.

Last season they harvested 4,000kg potatoes, 5,000 leeks, 4,000 onions, over 100kg courgettes, French beans, chard, salad leaves, herbs and flowers. So much that they have contracted a recently retired retailer to co-ordinate harvesting and marketing.

Members receive discounted vegetables from July onwards, and surplus produce is sold at the weekly market in the village square. The local arts centre now offers @TheField produce on their menus. The end of 2012 saw the group planting 400 wild harvest trees as hedging, a small orchard and soft-fruit area.

Local resident Jim Sutton explains why the project has found such favour: 'I love working in the field [Jim's in his eighties] because we grow superb vegetables, which taste really good. I have also met a whole lot of new people. And although I worked in horticulture for many years, I have learnt so many new ideas because of the commitment to organic growing techniques. It is most enjoyable.'

In just one year a committed group of people have transformed a paddock into a thriving market garden, bringing people together from all parts of the community to grow and share good-quality local food.

This article was first published in Living Earth, the Soil Association's membership magazine. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the work of the Soil Association, and receive the latest issue of Living Earth direct to your door, then please join us from just £2.50 per month.

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