Farmer this month looks at Growing Well, a farm-based mental health charity that rents two hectares of land from the Park family at Low Sizergh Farm, near Kendal.

Growing Manager James Smith, who co-founded Growing Well in 2004 with the support of the Parks, describes the history of the project, their innovative Crop Share scheme and how they ‘Kept on Growing’ through lockdown.

Life is slowly getting back to normal at Growing Well: the beds of vegetables are being tended to by many of the relieved hands of our volunteers – who for the last three months have been denied the chance to nurture their crops. Although every season has its challenges for a growing enterprise in Cumbria, there was no way we could have guessed what 2020 would have in store. Overnight in March we were left with a polytunnel full of young plants, four acres of newly ploughed land and over 80 volunteers “locked down” with no hope of working in the spring sun.

We provide a safe supportive working environment to nurture mental health recovery. We grow organic vegetables on two hectares at Low Sizergh Farm three miles south of Kendal. As Covid struck, and lockdown hit, we were left with two dilemmas: how best to support our volunteer workforce of people recovering from mental health problems, and how to maintain and continue the work in the fields.

Our mental health support went digital – with our therapeutic team making weekly one-to-one phone or Zoom calls with volunteers, helped by a grant for IT equipment from Cumbria Community Foundation’s Covid response fund. Our growing enterprise evolved and responded, first as a one-man band, and then redeploying other staff members to the field rather than furlough. As lockdown eased - and until we were able to safely offer our full support service to our volunteers on site – we opened our doors to local friends and supporters. It's been a herculean effort, the results of which can be now seen as our six polytunnels are filled with an abundance of aubergines, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers. Our customers have had a weekly supply of vegetables throughout.

As a local charity and a small organic grower, we have always understood that security and resilience is built with a community around you. Twelve years ago we only sold our vegetables wholesale and through Low Sizergh Barn farm shop. In 2014 we developed a novel retail outlet for our produce - our “Crop Share” scheme. This is a direct sales route that encourages people to make a year-round commitment to Growing Well and take a share in what we grow. With 70 crop sharers at the start of 2020 – we had to ‘Keep on Growing’ and honour their commitment back, and this is what provided the motivation for hours of onion planting in the late March heat.

Growing Well was first envisaged from a novel idea, fired by a lack of mental health support in south Cumbria and an understanding that growing food collectively motivates but also enhances our lives and health. We envisaged a farm-based organisation that seamlessly married the two.

In 2004, through the forethought and the willingness of the Park family at Low Sizergh Farm, Growing Well found a home. Initially all our crops found a market through the farm shop. As we grew as an organisation, and as we expanded our growing areas, we soon realised that we were unique, both as an organisation locally but also that we were able to produce quality food throughout the year. We needed a community that would support what we did socially and understood that local, fresh food was important. The Community Supported Agriculture scheme (Crop Share ) was developed as the response. This runs for 40 weeks of the year and provides a bag of at least eight items of seasonally grown vegetables.

From its early days Growing Well was an organisation for the benefit of the community, a structure that enthused us to use the site as productively and creatively as possible. With the closing of horticultural training at Kendal College we used our facilities to run training in commercial horticulture. Tractor training soon followed. We have always encouraged schools to access and visit Growing Well to learn about food but latterly to explore the “Five Ways to Wellbeing”. In conjunction with the farm we now run the farm’s educational commitment through the Higher Level Stewardship scheme.

In 2019 we opened a commercial catering unit on site that produces a daily lunch – more than 3,000 meals a year - and turns surplus produce and local ‘food waste’ into delicious chutneys and pickles. This has also involved outside catering events and created opportunities for people to get involved in different ways.

Food production is still the foundation of all we do, but our work is now supported by an on-farm Occupational Therapy team who provide daily support to volunteers, and run life skills courses on managing mental health and returning to work or education. This development from the early farm-based social enterprise where people with mental health problems could come along and volunteer in a supportive, welcoming environment, to offering more structured professional support, was marked last year with Growing Well becoming a fully registered charity.

So to the future, we are increasing our Crop Share members to 100 this year and produce continues to be available through Low Sizergh Farm shop and to local restaurants. The importance of food security, where and how we get food, has been highlighted to us all in the last few months. As volunteers return to site we are also reminded of the importance of the freedom to be in the fields: the need for that will never disappear.

If you’d like to find out more about the work Growing Well does, please look at our website