Northern Soul and People’s Powerhouse are continuing our partnership to share good new stories about businesses, people and communities coming together in the North of England during the COVID-19 crisis. As the country begins to loosen lockdown restrictions, we’re talking to Northerners doing excellent work across the region.

This week, we chat to Josephine Payne, director of Platt Fields Market Garden in Manchester, a community market garden which hosts volunteering days, workshops and events as well as selling fresh produce. 

What inspired you to set up/start Platt Fields Market Garden?

At first it was just luck. We had an interest in growing food and attended a one-year organic food growing course hosted by The Kindling Trust. When we finished, by chance a friend of ours offered us the opportunity to grow food on an old disused bowling green on Platt Fields Park that he could no longer look after. We started growing food and not long after realised we wanted it to be community-focused.

Now, after three years, people from the local community get involved in any way they can. This ranges from volunteering on the garden and making tasty food and drink from our produce (most recently rhubarb cordial), to coming and having a cup of tea or just walking around the garden. We’ve now started Manchester Urban Diggers CIC and are hoping to make a network of similar community market gardens around the city that can make noticeable change to our food system in Manchester.

Platt Fields Market GardenWhat challenges have you faced during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Over the past few years, we have been slowly taking on other gardens and projects funded by housing associations and NHS contracts which helped pay for staff time to design and coordinate the gardens as well as supervise volunteers and session attendees. When the pandemic and lockdown began, all of the funding from these sources stopped as all our sessions had to stop. Unfortunately, growing food and gardens don’t allow us to stop so, we have continued growing and have been focusing on the garden for the past few months. Funds for wages have been very tight and we only expect them to get tighter as we start our approach to winter and our garden’s vegetable output starts to wane.

How has the community been affected by the crisis?

There has definitely been a struggle in the local communities for people accessing good food. While many people have been rightly advised to self-isolate for up to 12 weeks, it also meant many of the support networks that would usually be helping through regular visits and calls have been put under serious strain. At the start of the lockdown period, there were many troubling stories about how many people had no way to get food as they could not go to the shops and the delivery services could not cope with the massive increase in demand.

And how have they come together?

There are some great community groups, which we have had the pleasure to supply with our gleaned vegetables when we can, that have set up kitchens to organise, cook and deliver cooked food and/or deliver food parcels to those most vulnerable in their communities. There have been tons of new small vegbox schemes start up around the city which is great also.

Platt Fields Market GardenHave you been surprised by the reaction to your work during this time?

No. People have always loved our work and people have always been keen to help us out. We were surprised, though, by the amount of people willing to help. It just tells us how much community projects are needed.

What does the loosening of lockdown restrictions mean to your organisation and how will you approach these new challenges?

The advice received from the Government has been very mixed and it has been hard to know if what we are doing is right or wrong but we have been trying our best and learning as we go. We have lots of new COVID-19 specific health and safety procedures and risk assessments for our volunteers and visitors to the gardens which we are updating regularly. As the restrictions loosen, it is obvious that, as some people become more relaxed, others get more nervous especially if they are vulnerable or know vulnerable people. We have been trying to walk this line by increasing our signage around site to include friendly reminders about social distancing as well as directional arrows and barriers for our one way systems.

Platt Fields Market GardenWhat’s the most positive moment/thing you’ve experienced during the crisis?

One positive aspect we have noticed is that we have had an increase in people interested in helping us on the garden. Those who have been furloughed seem to have really enjoyed their time volunteering with us and are likely to continue in the future. It seems to us people have enjoyed using their spare time to start/increase their time spent doing new/old hobbies. We are hoping people have seen the value in dedicating more time to their personal interests and their mental health, and hopefully reassessing their work/life balance when they return back to work.

What does the ‘new normal’ mean to you?

A new normal hopefully means a fairer society built around regenerative practices and humans positively feeding back into earth’s system. Our CIC is trying to help a small bit towards that by bringing our food system in Manchester more local, creating more green spaces around the city and creating resilient community hubs where people can learn about the benefits of outside spaces and growing their own food.