Hard work and miracles: The Severn Project

The Severn Project, Bristol.

The Severn Project, Bristol.

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.

Steve Glover.

Steve Glover.

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.”

Severn Project03 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.

Meanwhile, here's Steve to welcome me and the group.

Meanwhile, here’s Steve to welcome me and the group.

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.

Steve explains all the basics.

Steve explains all the basics.

Then shows us around.

Then shows us around.

This is their second piece of land.

This is their second piece of land.

And is let to them by Bristol City Council.

And is let to them by Bristol City Council.

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.

We are all fascinated to be here listening to such a well told story.

We are all fascinated to be here listening to such a well told and determined story.

And talking it over later we all agree that only a fool would bet against its coming true.

Much of their seed planting is done by hand. But here's new acquisition.

Much of their seed planting is done by hand. But here’s a new acquisition.

A mechanised and very precise seed drill.

A mechanised and very precise seed drill.

This will soon be their on site farm shop.

This will soon be their on site farm shop.

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!’

After much questioning it's now time for Steve to get back to work.

After much questioning it’s now time for Steve to get back to work.

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.

The team start getting things ready.

The team start getting things ready.

Here's the water, here's the tractor.

Here’s the water, here’s the tractor.

Oh and here are the bee keepers passing by.

Oh and here are the bee keepers passing by. Part of the team here.

They have planning permission for 50,000 bees.

They have planning permission for 50,000 bees.

Now begins much grunting and thumping and trying things out.

Now begins much grunting and thumping and trying things out.

Very long hoses are produced.

Very long hoses are produced.

And here is the pump the water is then siphoned into.

And here is the pump the water is then siphoned into.

Bit by bit, trial by error...

Bit by bit, trial by error…

We watch, fascinated but at this stage completely bewildered.

We watch, fascinated but at this stage completely bewildered.

Until 'Oh look! They've got the pump picked up on the back of the tractor.'

Until ‘Oh look! They’ve got the pump picked up on the back of the tractor.’

Next Steve's round at the front

Next Steve’s round at the front pull starting something.

Yes it's a generator.

Yes it’s a generator.

And now it's time.

And now it’s time.

To drive everything round to those new polytunnels.

To drive everything round to those new polytunnels.

And just watch what happens.

And just watch what happens.

As well as the generator on the front of the tractor there is now a human.

As well as the generator on the front of the tractor there is now a human.

The generator is driving the pump, the pump is driving the water and… Severn Project32 Severn Project31Severn Project30

Creativity you can crouch and watch and photograph.

Creativity you can crouch and watch and photograph.

Severn Project34Severn Project35Severn Project36

And back again...

And back again…

Til its done.

Til its done.

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.

The HCT Social Enterprise Champions, with Steve Glover.

The HCT Social Enterprise Champions, with Steve Glover of The Severn Project.

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!

 

8 thoughts on “Hard work and miracles: The Severn Project

  1. lindsay53

    Reblogged this on Life and the Lot and commented:
    This is one of the most inspiring posts I have read recently. Thank you Ronnie for writing this. And to those of you who, after reading this are holding their hands to their mouths in health and safety horror because there was a man perched in the bucket on the front of a tractor, I would say it is a very creative answer to a pressing problem and we need more brave, courageous, creative, opinionated, dedicated, far sighted, thoughtful, hard working, inclusive just-getting-on-and-doing-it people like Steve Glover. Could we do this in France do you think? Establish a real social enterprise? With positive social outcomes and benefits and a healthy bottom line? If you think we can and you are willing to give it a go I’d be right there with you.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Well said Lindsay and thanks for the reblog. Lots of interest here in Liverpool and the North in doing something like this. And we’ll be talking with Steve about it. My own view is it pretty much needs the anarchist outside the system approach that they take. Beyond everything else that hasn’t worked is this, hand farming little pieces of urban land like humans have done for millennia. Basic, instinctive, urgent.

      Reply
      1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

        Me too Helen. The settled give it a bad name but I always view it as kindly. The way we shake hands and make contracts for what we will do for each other. Mutual, social, communal – civilised.

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