Crops for the community: Middle Ground Growers

Middle Ground Growers grow organically on a two-acre orchard and market garden in Bath. We talked to Head Grower Hamish Evans about how it all started, what it means for the community and his ambitions for the future.

You live on a solar-powered boat on the Kennet and Avon Canal. What is life like on a canal boat, especially when it’s chilly?

I moved to live on my own canal boat when I was 16 – my first independent home. This invited me into a way of living that was closer to nature’s cycles, surrounded by a diverse and supportive community. I am still on a boat, eight years on, which is powered entirely by solar panels and a bicycle mechanism that moves the boat, so I don’t have an engine or any need for fossil fuels. What I enjoy about living on the water is the everyday inspiration and excitement from being immersed in nature and getting to know new people as the community ebbs and flows along the canal. It’s a lifestyle choice, just like farming, and it comes with its own challenges: being off-grid and being responsible for my own waste, filling up the water tank every fortnight, and collecting firewood. Once I even ran out of power as I was in the middle of an online exam at university (I studied Social Sciences at the University of Bath and did much of my coursework from the boat rigged up to solar panels).

What is your background in Bath and what are your favourite natural areas to explore in the region?

I’ve lived in Bath all my life – I was born in Combe Down and moved around rented houses until Mum and I decided to move onto canal boats for a simpler and more natural life with real community. Living on a boat and farming here has completely changed my perspective of place, shifting focus away from the built environment and towards the ancient roots of the bio region itself, including its woodlands, soils, bird life and water. It is the sacred city of water, and yet our waters have been mostly polluted, and the abundance of springs is largely ignored or taken for granted.

What was the idea behind your business Middle Ground Growers?

When I finished school I left for two years of travelling and working on organic farms across the world, exploring the best (and worst) models of ecological growing, community organising and sustainable living. This trip took me to the pioneering organic farms of New Zealand and to the ancient indigenous farming practices of the Middle East, India and South East Asia where I learnt about agroecology, food forests and permaculture. On my return to the UK I volunteered in community growing projects such as Dry Arch Growers and started as a grower at Avonleigh Organic Orchards. In 2020 I quit my paid work to focus on establishing my own market garden enterprise on 1.5 acres of leased land in Bathampton, initially selling a few lettuces to the local shop and then building up to the 120 weekly veg boxes we are supplying this year. We also supply wholesale to restaurants and local outlets who champion our organic produce to those wishing to eat a regenerative and sustainable diet, grown locally and delivered by bike.

What does ecological market gardening mean?

We tick all the boxes for organic growing such as no fertilisers or pesticides, and yet we believe that truly sustainable growing must go a step further. Organic food can still be grown in industrial-scale mono cultures (one crop variety) using deep tillage, a harmful cultivation practice which destroys soil health. Ecological market gardening is the cultivation of diverse crops for local communities, grown in a way which actively improves biodiversity, regenerates soil health and sequesters carbon. Not only this, but the business practice must mirror the growing, so we deliver only by bike and source our materials ethically and locally, ideally second-hand and upcycled. Our farm is powered by the sun, and the tools are powered by our hands, legs or electric batteries charged from the solar barn.

Tell us about your vegetable boxes.

We grow over 60 vegetable types – diversity is key to ecosystem functioning, community health and business resilience. We also offer eggs, apple juice, vinegar, fruits, herbs, salads, berries and we are developing mushroom cultivation systems. All this fresh produce goes into seasonal veg boxes, delivered to the communities of Bath on our four cargo bikes every Friday. This year we are growing to cater for 120 veg boxes weekly, plus wholesale supply to over eight local outlets. There is no such thing as a typical box as the seasonal range is excitingly huge, but a summer box could include tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, courgette, carrot, radish, beetroot, onions, beans, blackcurrants and plums. A winter box could include potatoes, garlic, onion, butternut squash, broccoli, cabbage, kale, apples and pears.

Above: the Community Farm in Chew Valley

Do you cook for yourself with your organic produce?

We cook up big meals on the farm for the crew on a rota – this year we had six growers and the lunch-time ‘cooking from the land’ rota got quite deliciously competitive! We also share what we cook at home with the veg box community on a WhatsApp group where anyone on the box scheme can input ideas and recipes – we learn a lot from it too. It also creates a great sense of community around local food and regenerative diets.

Do you eat meat and what is your view of the meat industry?

We need to cut down meat consumption massively and eliminate factory farming if my generation are to inhabit a healthy earth to steward. However I believe the vegan debate has become too polarised – there are plenty of non-sustainable vegan diets on imported junk food and plenty of regenerative omnivorous diets which consume grass-fed, wild or regenerative meat products in moderation. After years of being vegetarian and vegan, I now choose to eat occasional meat from local and regenerative sources to supplement my home-grown plant-focused diet.

How do you cope with wastage?
Chickens! Our chooks are the true bosses of the farm and manage our fertility, pest control and food ‘waste’. Waste is just an unutilised input into another cycle – the small amount of surplus veg and greens we have are fed to chickens in the orchard who turn this into the richest organic fertiliser for the fruit trees and our composting systems.

Ecological farms are more productive per acre of land. Why is this?

The majority of the world’s food is produced by small-scale organic farms (although they’re just called ‘farms’ in the east and the south, where most of the world lives). Despite less land in cultivation, these farms are able to produce a diversity of crops without depleting soil, applying chemicals or using heavy machinery. On a market garden scale with hand tools and healthy soil, we’re able to plant crops up to 10 times closer than on an industrial farm where spacings are based on huge machinery and depleted soil. The food is more nutrient-dense and higher quality, and we can deliver to our community within minutes. This compares to months/years in plastic packages on a refrigerated shipping container – how inefficient is that? We also stack functions by growing veg between rows (‘alleys’) of perennial crops such as fruit trees and berry bushes. And we are beginning to grow more staples like nut trees as an additional yield grown between the veg crops in an agroforestry system.

How important is the community to your enterprise?

It is written into our business and farm plan to grow food for community. This is a symbiotic relationship – our veg box community provides us with a livelihood through their trust and subscriptions, while we provide them with their weekly produce and food. We are aiming to build community resilience, linking up producers, consumers, restaurants and shops so that we can all meet our needs within a flourishing biosphere.

How can people start to renew their connections with the land?

We live in the most connected world ever, through online technology and globalisation – and yet we live among the highest ever rates of loneliness, depression, screen addiction, eco-anxiety and nature disconnection. Access to nature is one thing – difficult due to UK land ownership inequalities – and willingness to access it is another, in a world of disappearing land-based livelihoods and urbanisation. However, we each connect to the land three times a day when we choose what to eat. We can have a positive impact on the land that we eat from, as we know where the food comes come from and have a direct relationship to the grower. We want to re-engage young people with the joys of working on the land and growing food together, through our volunteer days, courses and traineeship programmes.

Your business is run for people not for profit. How does this work?

It’s fairly simple – 100% of our income is re-invested in the land and community. This includes paying the growers a living wage, training new growers for a land-based livelihood, and improving the ethics of our growing practices with every year of income and experience. We don’t see economic and ecological aims as trade-offs but as synergies – for example the greater our soil health the greater our income and customer satisfaction due to the quality and abundance of produce.

Can you explain your aspiration to create a flagship farm project?

We are creating an ecological farm for Bath, to feed over 400 families with weekly produce and supply over 20 local outlets. Our trainees from last year are also starting new market gardens to supply their communities, so the ‘upscaling’ is also about pollinating and scaling out so more small farms can flourish. We are building the new farm project on 15.5 acres in Weston, Bath. This will include a diverse fruit and nut orchard, with acres of no-till vegetables grown between the tree rows in an agroforestry system. We will also restore wetland, create wildflower meadow and reforest large areas of the farm through coppice, willow and nut production. We are implementing a model no-till market garden and multiple food forests around the site. We have raised £95,000 on Crowdfunder and will be adding this to our veg box income to cover the full start-up costs for this ecological farm. Fruit trees are going in this week! We believe that all of Bath’s fresh food supply can come from local, renewable farms which are integrated into the community. It wasn’t long ago that Bath was surrounded by market gardens, and the pandemic has unmasked how insecure our food system is when supermarkets run low from fragile global supply chains. And yet the solutions lie right beneath our feet.;

Other sustainable local community projects
The Community Farm is a not-for-profit social enterprise based in the Chew Valley, just outside Bath. It is a nature-friendly, organic farm, working with a network of producers who share its ethics, to supply fresh, local and organic food to hundreds of households throughout Bath, Bristol, The Chew Valley, Frome and Weston-Super-Mare. Any surplus made is reinvested into its own community programmes and to fund volunteering sessions, wellbeing courses and events at The Farm. It also helps to manage the land in a way that’s beneficial for all life. All members of the local community are welcome to visit The Farm – whether you’re interested in learning, therapy or play, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved for individuals and for groups.
Grow Batheaston is a community group, soon to become a charity, which arose during the first lockdown from a group of residents wanting to improve the village. Its four aims are to strengthen community, create food security, encourage biodiversity and promote sustainable living. The group has set up junior and walking football, adult netball, and has launched an Art Trail for the village. It has also planted over 40 fruit trees around the Elmhurst estate, has given out free seedling boxes to encourage people to grow their own food, planted 500 native trees across the meadows, created areas of wildflower meadow, set up various clubs including bee, wildlife, hen, and wellbeing clubs. The group is about to create a forest garden at the back section of the secret garden off the riverside car park in Batheaston and launch a pop-up market to promote local suppliers and producers.

Featured image: Livi Rhodes, Marcus Rees, Xavier Hamon, Hamish Evans, Sammy Elmore and Naomi Lander