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Would you like to run an organic farm in London?

In October 2013 I became a Trustee of Cultivate London, a charity that trains unemployed 16-25 year olds in horticultural skills. With a week we were offered the chance to take over a three-acre organic farm near Heathrow, an opportunity that would make us a very serious player in London’s burgeoning urban farming movement.

At that point Cultivate was facing some internal challenges – we were recruiting for a new general manager as our existing manager’s visa had run out and she was due to return to Canada, our office was about to move as the premises were to be redeveloped, and our polytunnels would have to be moved from one site to another as their lease expired. The timing was far from ideal.

Cultivate London uses “meanwhile space” – land that is to be developed, usually into expensive apartments – but is available for a year or two while planning and financing issues are sorted out. Developers are happy to lend their land, knowing we will move out punctually. We set up large polytunnels, four in our current main site in Brentford, another four on neighbouring plots, and grow herbs, salads and flowers for sale at farmers’ markets and directly to florists, grocers and restaurants. The young people who attend as trainees for 3-month courses not only learn how to sow seeds, pot up seedlings, and care for plants, but also learn how to turn up on time and every day, how to calculate the number of seedlings in a tray, give correct change from a purchase, interact positively with customers – in short all the everyday skills that will make them employable.

The offer of three acres at Heathrow – of real soil, not the usual concrete base we are offered – which came with organic accreditation, already planted up with rows of fruit bushes, to be farmed under a long-term lease instead of our usual short term tenancies seemed like a dream come true.

We went along to visit. The farm was created by a group of local enthusiasts who took over a derelict allotment site, cleared it and gradually created a working farm, complete with chickens, guard geese, fruit bush orchard and bee hives, as well as veg beds. For six years the group worked the land. Some of the original members gave up and moved on; now the main driving force had left – emigrating to a country small-holding to take up a real job with a salary – and with their last gasp the few remaining members contacted Cultivate London hoping to ensure the future of their hard work.

We walked around the land somewhat daunted. We knew it was in Heathrow, but we hadn’t realised it was right under the flight path – literally – so close that if felt almost as though a tall man standing on tiptoe could stroke the undercarriage. In so far as one could tell the land was in good heart, the recently planted fruit bushes were flourishing, the chickens were healthy and happy, the geese alarmingly aggressive, the weeds spreading enthusiastically. We realised it presented not only a fantastic opportunity but also an enormous amount of work. We could take on many more trainees and they would learn a great deal; we could produce much more veg and fruit. But we would need to recruit someone to supervise the extra trainees and land – for which we would need more funding. We went away to think.

Two weeks later the council summoned us for a meeting. The allotment department, part of the department of parks and leisure, had been reorganised and subsumed under health. As part of the drive against obesity, the council was keen to explore options.

But as the meeting progressed, it turned out that over the years the farm had been partially guerrilla-gardened, and that relations with other plot holders had not been straightforward. The council, although it seemed keen to work with us, had doubts. Allotment land is – thank goodness – sacrosanct, so they couldn’t give us a lease on the land. And during the meeting it began to be clear that the remaining original members of the group would find it very hard not to remain in charge of the land that they had worked so hard to reclaim.

As the days ticked away without a decision being made the organic certification of the land expired. Meanwhile some of Cultivate London’s challenges resolved themselves: the manager decided to apply for a visa and stay on; the office move was postponed for a few years; the polytunnel site was extended by a year, we were offered a large site in the middle of Acton…  The dream of running a three-acre organic farm under the Heathrow flight-path evaporated, but we realised that Cultivate London’s bright future lay in a different direction.

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