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Growing Stronger: Sheffield independent wholefood growers continue to flourish

Spend time walking around the university area in any city in the UK and you are likely to find an independent wholefood shop whose main stock consists of groceries, often organic.

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Freeman Biodynamic Garden, High Riggs.

Why do wholefood shops exist? For a start, the same items are likely to be cheaper in a supermarket.

The answer is clearly that they supply a demand which supermarkets cannot accommodate. In part this may be a criticism of extravagant and unsustainable food miles involved in the transport of, for example, salad crops from Spain to the UK (around 1,500 miles). But there's another factor. We instinctively recognise things that are natural from those that are manufactured. Nature produces variation whereas manufacturers strive for uniformity, and it may be that lack of uniformity that makes wholefoods so attractive.

Suppliers of wholefood shops are usually independent growers, often not more than a couple of hectares. They vary but most fall into one of three groups: purely commercial; commercial, but with priorities that extend beyond profits; and groups that exist to provide for the needs of their local population.

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Wortley Hall Walled Garden.

While the first group may supply supermarkets, enterprises found in the last two groups rarely become part of the conventional food supply chain. They also frequently allow volunteers to take home some of the produce they have grown. Inner city projects may describe themselves as city farms, community allotments or community gardens, depending on size. Including growers, shops, cafes and restaurants, Sheffield has at least 25 wholefood projects and enterprises, of which six are shops - many more than any other city in the region.

Talking over the year so far with some of our local growers, Martin at Moss Valley Growers says they are supplying up to 30% more customers and Darrell at Wortley Hall finds he has 50% more customers but only 50% of the usual workforce. Meanwhile, Peter at Freeman Biodynamic Gardens worries about the lack of rainfall, because it could force early flowering, but he too records a 50% rise in veg box deliveries, as well as higher demand for larger boxes.

The range of facilities and opportunities provided by Sheffield's independent growers is staggering and deserves to be better known. While almost all will, once lockdown is fully lifted, again offer visits, tours and open days, features and facilities available vary from project to project. These include veg box schemes, herb gardens, ponds, raised beds, compost bays, bug hotels, forest gardens, cafes, toilets, safe spaces for vulnerable people, and mental health self-help groups. For young people there are opportunities for training and some projects offer commercial contract garden services.

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Firth Park Community Allotment.

If that were not enough, there are also opportunities to see animals small and large, a garden centre, a garden furniture making centre, a bewildering range of fruit trees, green waste composting facilities, tomato and pot plants for sale, Shetland ducks and geese, a 'mud patch' and sessions for children, apple pressing, bee keeping and wreath-making. Several inner city projects are supported by a mixed of ethnicities reflecting their locality, where sharing and discovering new crops and recipes is commonplace.

Some of the projects listed need new volunteers and one or two may be in danger of folding, reflected by a lack of recent online activity. Project websites and social media pages that carry the message 'closed' should not prevent you phoning or messaging to check for updates.

The wholefood movement is really not that old, having started sometime in the late 1960s, and it's nowhere near complete. City centre place names like The Crofts and Nursery Street point to a time in Sheffield's distant past that saw a similar level of growing activity. Once lockdown is lifted we need an urgent review of where we stand so that new projects can be planned to keep up with the surge in demand reported from many of the listed growers over the past few weeks.

The wholefood picture in Sheffield is rich and varied. It adds to the social capital of many localities and we can look forward to the growing revolution quietly changing hearts and minds in the Sheffield region for many years to come.

Wholefood growers and shops in the Sheffield region:

  • Arbourthorne Community Allotment
  • Darnall Allotment Project
  • Oasis, Grimesthorpe
  • Ecclesfield Community Garden
  • Firth Park Community Allotment
  • Freeman Bio-Dynamic Gardens
  • Green City Action
  • Green Estate
  • Heeley City Farm
  • Herdings Food Growers (Reach South Sheffield)
  • Lowedges Community Food Growing Project
  • Moss Valley Market Garden
  • Regather Farm
  • Sheffield Organic Growers
  • Tinsley Allotment
  • Woodhouse Garden Project
  • Wortley Hall Walled Garden

Shops:

  • Beanie's
  • Zed's
  • Barra Organics
  • Down to Earth
  • The Incredible Nutshell
  • New Roots
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Heeley City Farm.

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