Grow Wilder: Road-map to a sustainable future for Bristol?

One of the most intriguing stories behind the clean lines and urgent angles of Bristol’s modern skyline is its rich history of local food production. It takes a little ‘digging’ to find it because it is somewhat hidden, surrounded by the bustle of city life.

The story is this: there is an unassuming strip of agricultural land running parallel to the M32 that was used for food-growing from the beginning of the twentieth century. Rather like tenant farmers in medieval times, small-scale producers tilled the soil alongside each other, producing food for the community.

So, nine years ago, when our sustainable food-growing site Grow Wilder (formerly Feed Bristol) set up in Stapleton within that strip of farming land, it was less a brave new world, and more a resurrection of the past.

Now seven producers operate independent farming businesses on our 12 acres, and together they have provided jobs and a reliable source of local food in the wake of the pandemic.

There’s no doubt; jobs are important. Food is important. But there’s more to this place, and the clue lies in the Avon Wildlife Trust sign at the entrance. To many, the stereotypical image of an arable farm may be one of sterile fields, shorn of wildflowers, drenched in chemicals and alien to fieldmice.

By contrast, Grow Wilder proves that if you farm organically and sustainably, wildlife will thrive alongside the vegetables. The place is alive with busy pollinators, birds, wildflowers and blossom. It comprehensively answers the question: is it possible to feed our communities, provide them with jobs, whilst also allowing nature to recover? The response is a resounding yes!

Field and roundhouse at Grow Wilder

(c) Nick Turner

Where we care about helping wildlife to thrive, great people stories thrive too, and Grow Wilder is no exception. One of our growers, Sims Hill, was Bristol’s very first community support agriculture project (CSA), whereby the volunteers who tend to the vegetables get a share of the harvest.

Then there’s Edible Futures. During the pandemic, they ran a ‘solidarity’ scheme for their veggie boxes: when people ordered their box of vegetables to be delivered to their door, they could pay a premium to allow a struggling household to receive a box as well.

There’s a wildlife story behind traditional woodturning business Tree to Treen, too. Craftsman Geoff gets much of his wood by coppicing, which involves repeatedly felling trees at the base and allowing them to regrow. This practice has many benefits, including the improvement of woodland biodiversity.

Meanwhile Diana, the farmer behind Unusual Edibles, says that while there are more than 20,000 edible plants on earth, only around 20 are commonly eaten. She is on a mission not only to get us eating and growing new things, but also to get people who are new to gardening interested too - and that’s good news for nature.

Herbalist Chris Roe enhances the biodiversity of the site with an abundance of herbs and native plants in his medicinal herb garden, while Adam Jones, the man behind Black Hen Market Garden, was a delivery driver a year ago. Now he is a full-time market gardener, passionate about growing organic food for local communities. And the clucking of his friendly chickens provides a very pleasant soundtrack as he tends his lettuces.

The seventh business to be based at Grow Wilder is Street Goat, an urban goat farming cooperative. The female goats are milked onsite by volunteers who take a share home, while the male goats have helped in the restoration of habitats on some of the Trust’s reserves. Sites like Goblin Combe have benefitted tremendously from the goats, who have grazed happily on the brambles there, allowing wildflowers to thrive.

In short, Grow Wilder is something for Bristol to be genuinely proud of. Living in a time when the Council has declared an ecological emergency, while communities are regrouping after the pandemic, it’s a place that provides so much hope to so many. If you'd like to find out how to support us, why not check us out online or pay us a visit in person - it might be the lockdown tonic you need. 

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