Julie Brown

Julie Brown

Become a market gardener

Julie Brown lives in Hackney, a densely populated area of East London. She walks and cycles everywhere and has all the conveniences of urban living on her doorstep. No wide open fields or quiet rural life here. But Julie’s working life is dedicated to the cultivating of land for food. She is, however, no ordinary farmer.

I met Julie on a showery June morning in Stoke Newington at Allen Gardens. Almost invisible from the busy street, a narrow lane leads into what feels like a forest glade. Next to a small wooden play ground, is the walled garden which is one of Growing Communities’s three urban cultivation sites. As I peered through the gate I could see lettuces and leafy vegetables flourishing in neat raised beds. Jamie Oliver would be proud.

Julie arrived shortly after me, slightly breathless, on her bike and immediately started to enthusiastically explain how they came to be in Allen Gardens for a peppercorn rent. Having gone through a series of incarnations from “middle class commune” to community garden, the site had become neglected when Julie found herself needing to relocate. Their previous plot was being taken over by developers. They were invited to participate with the regeneration of the gardens. “We literally put our soil in wheelbarrows and wheeled it down here! It was the only Soil Association accredited organic land in London and we weren’t about to leave it behind!” This is a woman who clearly has it in her to move mountains.

Growing Communities, the organisation which she founded and directs, began life in the early 1990s when Julie started looking for places to grow food on her doorstep. At that time she was working with some friends to organise one of London’s early organic vegetable box schemes. They were selling produce from a farm in Buckinghamshire but Julie wanted to do more. She had worked for several years as a campaigner for Friends of the Earth. She understood the bigger environmental issues at stake and she wanted to use food as a practical example of how the world could work better. She wanted the food that she was selling to be even more local and she also wanted to use food as a way to strengthen and build communities.

Fifteen years on, Growing Communities has three Soil Association accredited sites in Hackney, giving them a total of 0.5 acres of land to cultivate. They sell their boxes, which combine their own produce with that of farms mainly within a 100 mile radius of London, to 450 individuals and families a week. Their customers come to collect their fruit and vegetables from one of five collection points around the borough. “We want people to be active in the way they get their food. Over ninety percent of our customers walk or cycle to their collection point. The collection point also encourages people to meet others and make connections within their community. We don’t want people to just be passive consumers.”

The third element of Growing Communities’ activities is the weekly organic farmers market which they manage in Stoke Newington. By being active at different points along the food supply chain, from producer to consumer, Julie has achieved something remarkable. Her business is environmentally, socially and financially sustainable. The holy trinity of the green movement is here, in action, in one of the most urban areas on the planet.

It hasn’t been easy getting this far. All three cultivation sites are connected to Hackney Parks and there’s always uncertainty about whether they will be able to remain there. “At one point we were given two weeks notice to move from a site. But what the council underestimated was that my colleague and I both came from campaigning backgrounds. We even got an article in the Guardian about it!” There’s also been a lot of fundraising necessary in order to make something out of the derelict sites that they’ve acquired. But now, a combination of the fees from farmers who have stalls at the weekly market, the mark up on the vegetables they sell in the boxes and the revenue from selling their own produce all add up to make Growing Communities a financially viable business.

Julie was way ahead of the curve when she first started Growing Communities. In recent years food has become a hot topic. People want to know where their food has come from. They are increasingly concerned about the environmental and health implications of intensive farming and global supply chains. There has been a massive growth in organic box schemes and farmers markets. This means much more competition, but Julie is confident that their scheme ticks many of the boxes that others don’t. They’ve already come up with solutions to many potential problems. They don’t air freight anything. Only their bananas come from outside Europe. Most of their vegetables are from the UK. They know that sometimes it’s better to import something from Europe than to heat a poly tunnel in the UK.

The next step is to replicate their model elsewhere. “It’s not about Growing Communities getting bigger, it’s about finding people who we can work with to create other Growing Communities elsewhere in London or in other urban locations. What we have is successful and replicable. This is an actual concrete way in which to make the world a better place.” “We also want to use our campaigning skills to try and influence the broader debate on food. Now we have an example of what is possible, we hope that others can learn from it.”

I found it so inspirational to find out what could be created within this urban space with land that is just there waiting to be cultivated. It made me want to go home and dig up my concrete courtyard and grow vegetables! We’re so dislocated in the cities from the seasons and food production, from this urban garden on a June morning I found myself seeing a glimmer of hope that people in cities can live a life which is truly in tune with nature.