If society as we know it ever starts to break down, and some would say it already has, then the work of urban farms like the Severn Project and inventive humans like Steve Glover will become even more essential to our wellbeing and survival than they already are. This week in Bristol I was privileged to be part of a group of us who went to talk with Steve and see him and his team at work. ‘Inspirational’ isn’t a strong enough word for what we found.
The Severn Project is a community interest company, a social enterprise. As in a real enterprise but one with a social purpose instead of shareholders:
“We produce high quality salad leaves and herbs at our urban farms in Bristol. But we do more than just grow food. We strongly believe that all business should have a positive social impact. This is why we support people who face significant barriers to the workplace to help run the project.”
The ‘significant barriers’ mostly involve the fact that the people who work here are working as hard as is humanly possible to overcome their dependence on, well, substances. And the ‘hard as is humanly possible’ is the point of it all and also the method Steve has come up with. From his own background in dependency and then in counselling others, Steve worked out that working hard, outdoors, on crops that grow organically and quickly and can be locally and freshly sold is a good way of replacing heroin, cocaine and the rest with something that works better and last longer than the effects of the drugs. Steve explains:
“It’s really hard to do rehab when you stay in the same environment as where you became addicted. If you’re hanging around there with nothing to do then the temptations are often just too great. So this gives people a reason to get up in the morning, very early in the morning, and then work intensely in a team and replace the temporary effects of drugs with real physical exhilaration and the quick reward of producing fast growing crops and getting paid for it all.”
So far there are two Severn Project sites in Bristol. This one at Whitchurch, just opposite an ASDA, and another squeezed in next to Temple Meads railway station. Read much more about them on their website.
These people are this year’s intake on the ‘Social Enterprise Champions’ programme I’ve been running with HCT Group, the country’s biggest social enterprise bus company, on and off for a few years now. These are all front line staff, mostly bus drivers, and this is their first day together. So I’m keen to show them how far the idea of a real enterprise also being socially good can stretch.
Both sites are seen as good places to get going. But, Steve explains, their eventual aim is to buy their own land and, once there, also set up their own rehab centre.
And talking it over later we all agree that only a fool would bet against its coming true.
You won’t by now be at all surprised to hear it will be rough and ready.
Steve is vigorously opinionated, devoted to what they’re up to and well aware of the fact that many in society are having to queue up at food banks while the rich stuff themselves in their heavily guarded ivory towers. ‘You know what they say’ he quips with a gleam in his eye ‘Society is only ever two solid meals away from anarchy!’
But he urges us to stay around, as he says they’re about to attempt something ‘a bit Heath-Robinson!’ It involves how to water two newly planted polytunnels that are nowhere near the water supply.
And the judgment of the water deliverer?
“We did ok, but the ground’s still not wet enough. So we’ll have to go back, load up and do it again.”
I told you there was hard work involved here. Hard work and miracles. We were more than happy to have witnessed this one and will be taking up Steve’s suggestion of talking more soon.
Here at home a few day’s later I keep thinking we could do with one or a few of these in Liverpool, Leeds, Stockton, Hull and wherever you are. Steve wants to expand around Bristol, but local’s local and I keep imagining all the bits of land around here where we could be growing serious amounts of our own food rather than corporately importing it. As one of Steve’s colleagues puts it in this beautiful film:
“It’s like growing your own money. Think about it people!”
Also recommended is this BBC Radio Four Food Programme ‘Growing food, not drugs’ about The Severn Project.
Big thanks to Tracey Vickers and all at HCT Group, including Bristol Community Transport for a great week in Bristol. You’ll be hearing more of the Champions adventures in social enterprise!