THE SEVERN PROJECT
Produce: Salad greens and herbs
Distance to table: 3.8 miles
I grew up in a family where salad meant iceberg lettuce, and it wasn’t until I lived on a farm myself that I came to understand the real beauty of a big bowl of fresh, mixed salad leaves. I quickly discovered the variety of the different leaves, and the wonderful flavour present in something I’d always consider rather tasteless.
When I think of a farm, I think of rolling hills and hedgerows. I definitely don’t picture being a few miles from the centre of Bristol, opposite a large Asda and surrounded by houses. So when I heard about the Severn Project and tried their salad mix for the first time, I knew a visit was in order. I popped by their Whitchurch site on a sunny Tuesday lunchtime, and the founder, Steve Glover, took time out of his busy day to give me a tour of the site.
Starting in 2010 with a £2,500 grant, Steve had no prior experience of growing food or farming. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” he admits, sitting on a bench outside the packing shed. “We learned from google. We picked out the best, fastest growing plants, and within a few weeks we had too much and had to start selling it.” Conceived as therapeutic exercise for people in recovery from substance abuse, he admits it’s turned into a pretty good business. There are now 9 people employed on a long term basis, working alongside a team of volunteers that includes people referred from other agencies or on day release from prison. “50% of the people who work here come from a background of substance abuse or similar,” he explains. “So for them to find a sense of community and purpose and a role, in something as intrinsically and substantially important as growing food is very good for them mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally.”
The Whitchurch site is their third location, with their first two being temporary use sites. In the past year, they’ve produced around 40 tonnes of salad greens and herbs from the 2 1/2 acres that are currently in cultivation on the land. They’re hoping to stay put for a few years, but are also looking into buying a piece of land that would allow them to put into place crop rotations that would make the intensive growing more sustainable in the long term. They grow to organic principles, but aren’t certified. “For us, it’d close more doors than it opens.” Steve explained. “And if you have a relationship with your farmer, you don’t need that certification.”
He suggests we go on a tour, and as we walk around, I’m surprised by the size and the scale of the operation. A long line of greenhouses stretch across the land, each full of beautiful healthy salad greens. “Before we came here, nothing grew here except for weeds, so we’ve done really really well to get it to where it is in 11 months,” Steve pointed out. It's confusing to your senses, the lush greenness contrasting with the sounds of traffic and general city hubbub surrounding you. Looking nervously at the bright sun and blue skies, Steve admits that he’s hoping the good weather doesn’t continue. “We want it to be cold so the plants don’t grow any bigger than they are now. This stuff will stay in the ground until Christmas, well hopefully till mid January. Then we import from Spain. We grow for 8 months, and we don’t grow for four months. But we always try and grow in those four months.”
Hearing Steve talk about the farm and the business, it’s clear that he’s learnt a lot in the last five years. “Really, we’re running three businesses; production, distribution and marketing and therapeutic support,” he points out. They have two distributors that deliver to 200 odd restaurants in the south west, and they deliver to 70 local businesses themselves, some of them every day. But he has bigger dreams. “Ultimately what we want to be doing is running a residential treatment program for people with drug an alcohol problems, that’s coupled with a live, working farm. That would mean accommodation and therapy programs, and outcomes of turning people who’ve got no role or who are permanently in care, into autonomous people with a massive degree of self advocacy, who’ve got skills to grow food. Training the next generation of farmers, that’s what we want to be doing.”
We head back through the open fields to the packing shed that’s currently being painted by a group of volunteers, chatting and laughing as they work. The salad greens and herbs are picked by hand every morning and refrigerated in the field, before being trucked over to the packing shed. Inside the shed, a worker is calmly weighing the greens before bagging them and preparing them for deliveries. Grown and packaged on site, it doesn’t get more local than this.
It’s clear The Severn Project are doing something right. “We’ve had people who’ve turned up homeless, on drugs, no access to their children,” Steve explains. “And within two months they’re clean, healthy, accommodation, interacting with their children, employed.” He pauses for a moment. “As a society we commodify those with needs, but if you people like a commodity, they behave like that. If when you treat them like an asset, they behave accordingly.”
As Steve points out, working with food is grounding.
Find out more: http://www.thesevernproject.org