The good life


Always fancied an allotment but lack the time? Rosie McGlade visits a community growers’ co-op in Northumberland to get a taste of home grown without the work

When it comes to veg, what could be better than growing your own? Well, we think we’ve found the answer in three fields near Ovington, Northumberland. It’s like grow your own, only someone else grows it for you.

Ian Todd is the grower at Go Local Food; a flourishing cooperative set up two years ago by residents of Ovingham, the village just down the road. They were seeking the good life; good as in tasty, healthy, and beneficial for the environment and the community.

You pay £24 a year membership, and then every Tuesday or Saturday, but not both, you turn up and collect a crop share of fresh-picked, tenderly nurtured and carefully selected veg for £7.50.

As far as I could make out, if you don’t want to dig, weed or sow, you don’t have to. But if you want to, you’re more than welcome. You also get to go to meetings and vote on what you’d most like in your veg box (this gets lively, apparently), share recipes so you’re prepared for seasonal gluts (cucumber sorbet or chilli jelly, anyone?), and you get invited to barbecues, parties and scarecrow competitions. What’s not to love?

It’s a sunny day and the three fields overlooking the Tyne Valley are resplendent in tidy lines of end-of-summer produce alongside four polytunnels and a Glastonbury-inspired pyramid-shaped store tent, made especially by a member.

In one of the tunnels works Jude Clayton, cutting and collecting chilli peppers. There are tiny red ones, big green ones, black varieties, and lots in between. There seem to be thousands of them.

Then, dangling from a huge net are kilos of onions and nearby another net of spaghetti squash.

49Jude is a work share and is paid on a part-time basis, taking direction from Ian, who’s a shepherd near Corbridge when he’s not here. Others volunteer and get their veg for free, and retired members are particularly active.

The peppers will go into today’s vegetable box with potatoes, courgettes (including flowers if you want them) garlic, onions, runner beans, mange tout, shallots, kale, and all you can harvest from the pick-your-own herb garden.

Ian grows most of the plants from seed in a crop rotation system and he aims to be fully organic once decades of weed seeds are dealt with.

Most of the 40 members are local or come from a little further up the Tyne Valley to keep it easy on the food miles.

It started with plans by Ovingham resident Debbie Reid to engender a more sustainable community spirit, developing ‘Green Ovingham’ along with other villagers. Christine Morrison is a founder member. “We were incredibly lucky to find this land at Hall’s Nursery. We got our first field in 2012 and were only able to pay for six hours a week help. It was a nightmare; the year we had all the rain and everything bolted. But now with our three fields, Ian and our work shares, it’s going well. Ultimately, to make it work financially, we have to scale up.”

Christine is hoping to attract a further 20 members. The only real rule is to collect veg once a week, but help is obviously welcome with the cooperative currently requiring 64 hours’ labour a week. The dream, Christine adds, is to one day have a community farm, with animals and even a first-class vegetarian restaurant.

Chris Dixon comes every Tuesday in readiness for Wednesday openings at the Wood Oven, a pizzeria in nearby Wylam he opened nine months ago, and pays a little extra to cover his needs. The Wylam Bakery emails out the breads it’s making for Saturday mornings and members can order and collect at the field. There are other producers turning up with hen and quail eggs, and lamb.

“We don’t just do pizzas,” Chris is saying, among the wa wa cai choi, now gone to seed but in its prime a peppery Chinese salad leaf. He’s delicately picking the yellow flowers, which are strangely moreish. Tomorrow they’ll appear on the restaurant bruschetta with the co-op’s beetroot.

Chris pops up again in the polytunnel planted with baby beetroot and carrots. He’s taking a look at what’s left of the Swiss chard. Behind us, the cucumbers are past their best, but not long ago members picked 75kg in a single week. It’s been a bad year for aubergine (too dry when they needed moisture) and for spuds (the August rain brought in blight), but a great year for a lot else.

Five minutes later and Chris is busy among the peppers. “I made jelly with the black chillies recently, and I’ve got that on the menu with pickled pumpkin and mozzarella and sweet potato.” No sooner has he said goodbye than he’s spotted gathering handfuls of courgette flowers and edible marigolds. It bodes well for the menu.

The nearest similar venture to this is near Sedbergh in Cumbria, where they reckon it took a good eight or nine years to get properly established, and there’s an emerging movement near Rowlands Gill which uses land at Gibside. There are similar operations up and down the country, the biggest in Stroud, Glos, where the dream of a whole farm has come to fulfillment.

I leave with a little bit of everything. Do they take members from Newcastle? Sadly not. Spare field in the Toon anyone?

To enquire about membership, contact Fi, tel 01661 836 629 or Christine, tel 01661 832 295, email

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