Ecoworks: Nottingham’s first permaculture organisation

Interview: Al Needham
Friday 17 February 2012
reading time: min, words

If they were any greener, Robin Hood would be wearing them. Part community project, part landscape design consultants, part catering service, part suppliers to Notts cafés and restaurants, 100% local produce champions, they’re on a mission to turn the entire city onto home-grown produce, as Business Development Manager John MacDonald points out….


In a nutshell, what is Ecoworks?
Nottingham’s first permaculture organisation.

And what does that mean, exactly?
Permaculture is a design system that seeks to work with nature, rather than be master of it. We started as a group of permaculture enthusiasts with a piece of land on the Hungerhill allotments who wanted to grow in ways which cared for both people and the environment - quite revolutionary for Nottingham at the time. We’d already started to develop our community garden and our equally pioneering FRESH project (a centre of excellence in ‘no dig’ production horticulture on the Hungerhill allotment site). We’re still based in St Ann’s, but now we work across Nottingham to develop many separate sites, both in the city and on the urban fringe.

Who’s involved here? Tell us about the average Ecoworks volunteer…
There is no such thing as an ‘average’ volunteer. Everyone has different motives and goals for getting involved. For some, it’s a way back into employment. For others it’s a way of caring for the environment. For still others, it’s about feeling better about life in general. We work with almost every age group and social element; we’re a social inclusion project.

You’re very keen to promote locally-sourced produce. Is it really that beneficial?
Food travels further than ever before. Fresh produce can travel thousands of miles - from growing to packaging to consuming. Because of that, local economies lose money and the distance travelled by over-packaged and processed food contributes significantly to climate change. Through their struggle to compete in the global market, we are also losing many of our small family businesses, local farms, market stall holders and shops - which means a loss of local distinctiveness, traditional varieties and a connection to the food we eat. Buying locally supports local producers and retailers, keeps money in the local community and provides social benefits. If we really want to be here on Earth in a hundred year’s time, if we want to have food to eat when oil prices go through the roof as a result of diminishing supply, if we want to tackle climate change then yes, it really is worth producing food locally and trying to buy resources locally. And if for any reason we can’t source things we need locally, then we’ll try to source as ethically and environmentally responsibly as possible.

How far is too far for locally-sourced produce?
At Ecoworks, 'local' is defined in areas of urban, peri-urban and rural hinterland. The latter ranges up to 100 miles but the furthest we've ever sourced is 70 miles, and that was one particularly cold spring when purple sprouting broccoli wasn't available locally - but we just had to have it in the bags as it’s not in season for long and yet it’s delicious. We're actually very good at building networks with urban growers; 60% of produce comes from this area alone during the summer and autumn months.  We do need more rural growers across Nottinghamshire, however, to meet growing demand - so if anyone has farmer friends, ask them to get in touch.

What do you think of projects like Orchard in Sneinton?
Orchard is fantastic. We've been developing urban food spaces and fruit forest gardens for a while now, so we were really pleased when Neville Gabie from the Orchard Project approached us to get advice on planting fruit in public spaces. We'll be helping other groups maintain the apple trees in Sneinton Market, and look forward to developing many more urban food projects. We want to see Nottingham covered in beautiful food-producing plants, and we’re working on many sites to begin to make that happen.

What does the Notts climate specialise in? What fruit and veg grows best round here?
With the help of polytunnels and greenhouses, there isn’t a lot that we can’t grow here these days. We grow a lot of the more familiar vegetables, and also support a local growers’ network in producing greater quantities to support our veg box scheme. Ecoworks grows a lot of salad veg at the moment, because that’s what restaurants and cafés buy from us and we need to sell the best produce to fund what we do. People don’t realise the many varieties of fruit and veg that we can grow - like hardy kiwis which taste far superior to the imported varieties and amazingly succulent apricots. I can’t wait for late summer again.

Is there still an old-man or Good Life image to growing your own, or is that changing?
Things have changed so much. There’s a real cool status now to growing your own, and the stereotypical image of a retired man spending hours in their shed and competing with their neighbours to grow the biggest onion rather than the tastiest has pretty much ended, I think. We see many young people and families attending our courses now - there's definitely a plant growing revolution happening.

You make growing your own tommies and snips sound like a political act.
Well, permaculture has been described as ‘revolution through gardening’. People are realising that protest isn’t the only way to bring about change, and we offer people positive solutions. People are really open to new creative and sustainable ways of living generally, and growing food or buying locally is just one part of that. We work with people from all walks of life who enjoy getting out and doing positive things.

You fund a lot of your activities through your Vegboxes. How can people get hold of them?
To sign up for a bag is simple - just go onto our website. Our collection points are spread out across the city and most are real ale pubs so they're very, very convenient. And if you work somewhere with lots of staff, contact us and we’ll look to drop off at your place of work.

What’s your food-related guilty pleasure?
I just discovered it. Our kitchen guys just made a rose petal and cardamom cake with white chocolate. Om nom nom.

What have you got planned for the future?
We want to increase the amount of people buying our Vegboxes, and carry on building our local food network. We have a new electric custom built mobile food stall - which looks uncannily like a milk float - which we’re using to sell local produce and market our Vegbox.  We want to grow our incredibly tasty kitchen business, which specialises in mind-numbingly good cakes, and we want to make it easier for people to learn about and put into practice permaculture design.

So you’re not just stuck on the allotments, then…
Our in-house permaculture design department is growing fast; we’re taking on larger and more complicated sites. Some of them are on polluted ground, while others require liaison with existing buildings to redefine how we can grow food and increase biodiversity in the built environment. We want to make Nottingham like an edible open air version of the Eden project in Cornwall; we’ve a long way to go to get there but that’s our vision.

With the Wollaton allotments reportedly under threat of development, how secure is the future of allotment sites?
It's sad; and there should be full community consultation. Allotments are a cornerstone of our cultural history and contribute hugely towards people's health and well-being, community cohesion and wildlife - and of course they have a positive role to play in tackling climate change. However, with the growing interest in edible plants within urban green spaces outside the confines of allotments, we are able to show people that permaculture and food growing can be done anywhere, not just the traditional plots. You can grow fruit bushes or nut trees in domestic gardens, on grass verges – even on traffic islands. Salad can grow on walls. The city has a library of roofs we could harness. Permaculture design gives us a more sustainable source of food in the face of any threat to food security - whether that’s building over allotments or closing the Strait of Hormuz so there’s no oil for the West.

How can people get involved?
Through the website, or by calling us on 0115 9622200. We have so many opportunities and different things happening that it’s impossible to give you a short answer.

What advice would you give to people who are looking to grow their own? What kind of budget would you need?
The secret lies in design. Folk are put off by the idea of hard work when it’s usually required because of a failure in design. Often people think of growing on a bit of ground, and therefore set about breaking their backs digging the grass and weeds up, when covering it in free cardboard and incredibly cheap municipal compost would have probably made a much better growing environment for a fraction of the effort. The tools needed are really very few and can usually be found for next to nothing. Seeds can be shared rather than bought. Land is available, despite the waiting lists for allotments.

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