North’s Acorn Farm project aims to create a more sustainable food system
Backyard veg patch became a pilot for the project that will recruit 100 families to grow their own food
Hayley Donan with her son Tiernan and daughter Maebh in the garden where they grow their own veg. Photograph: Martin McKeown
Hayley Donan began growing vegetables in her back garden during lockdown. Photograph: Martin McKeown
During lockdown, Hayley Donan turned her back garden into a vegetable patch.
So far, she and her family have enjoyed everything from courgettes, peas and potatoes to borage – “good for the bees” – sorrel and Swiss chard. “It comes up pretty quickly, it’s easy to grow, and it has lovely rainbow colours.”
There have been other benefits: “During lockdown, people had to slow down and reconnect with nature and their local environment,” says Donan. “Handling greenery also affects your wellbeing, and that’s something I think we’ve lost from modern life.”
It has long been part of Donan’s life. A floristry teacher and a member of Conservation Volunteers, her backyard vegetable patch became the pilot for a project which will recruit 100 families in Derry and Strabane to tackle climate change by growing food at home.
Funded by £200,000 (€220,500) from the National Lottery Community Fund, it is part of the Community Foundation NI’s Acorn Farm Project, which aims to create a more sustainable food system throughout the city and district by researching where its food comes from.
“Climate change is frightening,” says fund officer Shauna Kelpie, “but so often, when you change something, you can’t see what your contribution is.
“There are a lot of air miles attached to a tomato, so if you just grow your tomatoes, automatically you’re doing something.
“It’s putting people in charge of their response to climate change through their food choice, about the food that we eat and where it comes from.”
This has been thrown into sharper relief by the coronavirus pandemic. “During lockdown, people could see the value in where they lived,” says Kelpie. “The number of people who got out walking, or families you’d see out walking together, it was almost a throwback, a questioning of what the values are in our lives.”
Says Donan: “It brought things like community resilience and self-sufficiency back into people’s consciousness, and improving the damage we’re doing to the environment with our lifestyles.
“It’s just about having a go. Start with something simple, like the ingredients for a salad, which you could even do in a pot on your kitchen windowsill. You don’t need much space.”
In the long term, the plan is to create an innovation hub for sustainable food production in one of the city’s parks.
“Covid highlighted that we were totally reliant on ferries coming in from England with our food,” says Kelpie. “With Brexit, there are also huge questions that haven’t been addressed. So part of this project is discussing that, and understanding that, so we are in a better position.”
This will give “a real sense of what the supply chain looks like and where our food’s coming from”. This includes “looking at our relationship with our rural farmers – are they supplying into Great Britain and then back out to us? Let’s understand it, and then let’s change it if we want to.”
Whatever the future holds, says Kelpie, “it’s about putting people in charge themselves. Obviously the authorities have their responsibilities, but we have to be informed as well.
“It’s like with Covid. You had to take responsibility for your individual behaviour during Covid. So what’s your self-responsibility in regard to climate?”
In the Donan household, everyone is taking that responsibility seriously. Digging was eight-year-old Tiernan’s favourite part, and waiting for the strawberries to ripen. “The strawberries tasted better than the supermarket ones,” agrees older sister Maebh (12).
“It is scary thinking about climate change, so at least you’re doing your tiny bit,” she says.
For more information on the Acorn Farm Project, or to get involved, contact email@example.com