(First published in Kitchen Garden magazine, April 2009)
By their very nature, allotment growers are hardy individualists with a strong sense of self-reliance. From my experience, they are also friendly and generous towards new tenants and happy to offer assistance. What they do frown upon is someone who takes on a plot, doesn’t put the required work in and lets it go to seed. There is an important social etiquette to be observed on allotment sites; a collective ethic where individuals work to ensure their plots remain fairly weed free, the paths are kept clear and they do not dump heavy garden waste in the wrong places. The observation of such ‘good practice’ keeps the site in good order for the benefit of all and is the foundation of the cooperative bond that unites the tenants.
Allotment Associations a pure form of Cooperation
There are other ways in which plot holders can work cooperatively to make the growing of fruit and vegetables that much easier and effective. A well run association acting as the collective voice of the tenants, or, as is increasingly common now, managing the site, can make a big difference. Allotment associations are cooperative ventures in the purest form. The majority are unincorporated, having no legal existence beyond the rules or constitution by which the members agree to run the site. In legal terms the association is a collection of individuals who come together to engage in allotment gardening. Such allotment associations have no authority to trade, hold property, borrow money or employ people. These legal limitations mean that their activities, beyond paying for some grass cutting, must be by voluntary collective effort.
Collective Self Help
There is much that allotment associations can do to be of practical assistance to their members. At our self-managed site in Haslingfield in South Cambridgeshire, officers of the association organise the delivery of heavy bulk items such as free wood chipping from local landscapers and compost from the council green waste scheme. One of our plot holders has access to horse manure so we have set up a manure club, charging 30 pence a barrow-load to cover the cost of deliveries. Another tenant has access to wooden pallets, which he supplies to us rather than taking to the dump. We re-cycle these to create the bays for our communal composting scheme for heavier garden waste. The association also organises working parties to tackle various site development projects and larger maintenance jobs. To improve the approaches to the site, a successful ballot of members was held, raising a levy to fund the laying down of hard core on the access lane.
Allotment associations can also help by setting up collective seed purchasing schemes and by providing channels of communication for tenants to exchange surplus produce and their own seeds. Traditional forms of communication such as notice boards are essential and member’s websites are an obvious a way forward, particularly for the larger allotment sites with more revenue and access to a wider pool of human skills and resources.
Beyond these formalised examples of cooperation are the personal networks that emerge from contact and friendship between people sharing the same passion for growing their own food. When they are working well these informal networks of cooperation are a vital resource and a major advantage of allotment growing. For example, having a neighbour who can tell you about local growing conditions and the nature of the soil, give advice about how to deal with a particular pest or plant disease; someone you can make arrangements with to provide mutual cover when away on holiday. Perhaps the greatest benefit, particularly for the new tenant, is the generous manner in which neighbours often provide cuttings and offshoots to stock the plot.
There are new forms of cooperation, which allotment associations are beginning to develop particularly on the larger urban sites. For example properly structured mentoring schemes and smaller beginner’s plots. On our site we are happy to accommodate plot holders who wish to take on a half plot, or perhaps share a whole plot with friends and work the land together. Given the pressures of modern life this may be the only practical means by which people can run an allotment. I know of three couples who shared a plot elsewhere, in which each agreed to provide sufficient labour and divided the produce accordingly. The scheme only broke down when one or more of the couples moved away.
Green Principles and Climate Change
One area where allotment growers will have to take a cooperative approach in future is in the use of limited natural resources such as water. There can be a good deal of waste in the consumption of water at allotments, especially by novice growers who often over-estimate the need for watering. At our site, we operate a ban on direct watering from hose pipes, although we allow tenants to use hoses to fill their buts, since we only have one tap at present. If the estimates of climate change come true then mutual cooperation in ‘water economy’ is going to be a vital aspect of the way in which allotments operate. This makes collective schemes for composting and mulching even more important so as to reduce surface evaporation of water.
Another aspect of cooperative working is in making use of vacant or waste land. About a third of the site in Haslingfield has not been cultivated as allotments for many years. We are gradually bringing parcels of this land back into use as plots by a process of leap-frogging. However this is going to be a long gradual process and is dependent on new tenants coming forward with sufficient time to take on the heavy work involved. Some of this vacant land has been set aside as a communal area for composting waste and for bonfires. We are also looking at the idea of hazel coppicing for use as plant supports. If we so wished, we could use some of this land as a nursery for fruit cuttings, or bushes, which we could then plant along the perimeter as a wind break.
The possibilities for cooperative working practices to enhance the quality of the allotment site are wide indeed. The key is to tap the ideas and enthusiasm of the members by making them feel part of a collective project, which is progressive and forward looking.