Before moving to Harlow, when I was around seven, I’d been living in the depths of Devon, times I remember with fondness. Me and my three siblings roamed the surrounding countryside with glorious impunity. So, as you’d expect, leaving Devon for Harlow was a shock to the system. It also coincided with tumultuous times, which ultimately led to my parents’ divorce.

When bad things happen, it often dictates your life in one of two ways. Dwell on it and adhere to the adage ‘my life is worse than yours’. Or, as my mother taught us, adapt, move on and become stronger. Obviously it was an upsetting time for me, but I’m glad I took the latter route. By doing so it armed me with a different, more mature perspective on life – as well as a mindset to seize life’s opportunities. 

I floated through my school and college years without too many issues before working in – and quickly becoming disillusioned with – the media industry. My self-prescribed remedy was to take some time to go travelling, which included Australia.

In 2012 I again headed down under, this time for a total of eighteen months, during which time I worked on large-scale farms. The work not only supplemented my savings, it also alerted me to alarming practices within the agricultural industry. One of my tasks was to walk among rows of ripe tomatoes and rip them from the vine so they could rot into the soil – purely because a drop in their value meant it wasn’t cost-effective to transport the produce to market.

I learned that such actions where commonplace – tonnes of food rotting purely because it didn’t conform to supermarkets’ misguided standards. This troubled me. It was abhorrent to think that, in a world where so many people struggle to feed themselves, it was seemingly the norm to let perfectly edible food go to waste.

As a child in Devon, I’d had a basic introduction to growing your own food – but my time in Australia really sparked my interest. So, upon my return I went in search of an allotment. However, with my name on a five-year waiting list I settled for a raised bed in the garden of the house I was renting in the meantime. Granted, it wasn’t the usual activity for a man in his twenties. Few understood my fascination – more often it was treated with suspicion as to whether I’d be harvesting drugs at some point!

With my horticultural knowledge and skills progressing, I was ready for phase two – upscaling the operation. After searching I found a stunning space, three acres of organic land ideally suited as a basis for something else I’d been considering – a community farm. But the £3,000 a year for the lease put the dampeners on things. However, knowing how beneficial a community farm could be, I put the idea out to a wider audience in the form of a crowdfunding scheme.

After countless emails, a fundraising night at The Square, plus radio and newspaper interviews, I beat my target of £6,000. To this day I’m still humbled by the generosity of those Harlow residents who invested their money into what in essence was little more than a dream.

 

With the funding in place I was all ready to move forward – and then the landowners backtracked on the day I was due to sign the lease.

Instead of ‘land and no money’ I now had the far worse quandary of ‘money and no land’. After several frantic weeks I connected online with a lady who was already working on a similar community project in Harlow. We met up and the long and short of it was that we joined forces.  

On day one, with the support of over thirty individuals who selflessly volunteered for a day’s hard graft, the plot started to transform.

 

Cleared of brambles and detritus, the soil was dug and a growing plan evolved. With donations and volunteers never in short supply, it confirmed our belief that such a project in Harlow was well overdue. As well as making the farm available to schools, charities and those with disabilities, we host an annual music and food festival. Farm Fest helps raise our profile and much-needed funds for further improvements – a tea shed, BBQ, play area and bee hives are just a few of the things we’ve got planned. 

Aside from being good exercise, the mental health benefits of volunteering at the farm can’t be denied. It’s become a sanctuary that provides solitude for those in troubled times, or companionship for those who suffer from loneliness. I’ve also found that two very different people, who wouldn’t ordinarily meet, can become good friends when placed in an environment where they share a mutual interest. I failed to predict this and countless other benefits coming from a community farm, but none of these positives would’ve been possible without the tireless effort from the hundreds of people who’ve been involved.

Due to covenants we can’t sell our produce, but that’s not our ethos anyway. A proportion of what’s grown is gifted to homeless shelters and charities, while the remainder is free for volunteers or those who visit and request food. Within reason, we turn nobody away, and neither does anyone have to dig for their own food. We know life is hard for some in Harlow and it’s our way of helping them out.

As for the future, well, our goal is to expand. With the fine produce we grow, maybe we could (while retaining our ethics) introduce an aspect of commercial activities. The additional money raised would in turn enable us to help others directly and further benefit the town.

 

Unfortunately, many people have lost faith in Harlow – they assume it’s soulless and, at times, hopeless. But my hope is that community projects, such as our farm, will help instil a sense of pride in the town and show just what can be achieved when people are pulling in the same direction.

© 2018 CHRIS HADDON

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