An Urban Farm Is Teaching Ex-Offenders to Grow Salad Leaves
After recovering from his own addiction problems, Steve Glover set up the Severn Project, an urban farm located on the outskirts of Bristol employing people from socially excluded demographics.
All photos by the author.
"Growing up in Exeter in a family of born-again Christians, I quickly started using drugs, motorbikes, music, and all that kind of stuff. But unlike most addicts, I was able to stop because I had experience of what it was like to work."
This is the story of Steve Glover. After recovering from his own addiction problems, Glover completed a degree in addictions counselling and set up the Severn Project, an urban farm located on the outskirts of Bristol. The project employs people from socially excluded demographics, including those recovering from drug and alcohol misuse, people with poor mental health, and ex-offenders.
"The whole purpose is to create roles that people can be proud of," Glover explains. "After all, if you haven't got a role, you're not recognised by society. The only role that substance misusers have is generated by Daily Mail readers. They are scapegoats of society."
The farm sits in a rather nondescript Bristolian suburb, wedged between an airport-sized ASDA and some unassuming allotments. A world away from the surrounding suburbia and throngs of weary shoppers, visitors to the farm are instantly thrust into a very different type of community.
Underneath polytunnels, long lines of salad leaves grow. Specialising in mixed leaf salad, rocket, and herbs, the Severn Project uses no herbicides or artificial fertilisers. It supplies 220 customers a week, selling to shops and cafes in the south west of England, as well as restaurants like River Cottage and Michelin-starred gastropub The Pony and Trap.
Since starting the project in 2010 with a derelict plot of land and £2,500 in startup cash, Glover has expanded the Severn Project to include 600 volunteers and operate within a sustainable model that relies on no external funding.
"We are in a live commercial environment providing a necessary part of human need: food," he says. "But we're not just growing food here. We're also growing people's abilities and confidence."
In teaching people how to sew and harvest crops, Glover argues that he is also providing the skills needed to become self-sustainable.
"Treatment programs have an 80 percent failure rate. Most people don't come out of detox clean of drugs, they come out on different drugs," he adds. "They are just sticking a plaster on a problem that is a lot more deep-rooted than misusing substances."
What's more, Glover sees the process of farming as therapeutic in itself.
"If you took a survey of people in this outskirts of town area just 100 years ago, 80 percent of people would probably work outdoors and probably be engaged in some sort of physical activity," he says. "But now if you took a survey of this same area, you'd find 80 percent would have coronary heart disease, substance abuse, diabetes, Asperger's, allergies, prescription drug addictions, dementia, Alzheimer's—the list goes on."
Venturing out of the office and into the fields, I run into Benito, the Severn Project's head grower. Having grown up on a farm in Tuscany in Italy, it's obvious that he's in his natural habitat.
"I enjoy working here. It's hard work, of course. I'm here 50 hours a week," Benito says. "Our main crops are the salad leaves and herbs—that's where the money comes from. We grow red and green mustard leaves, rocket, mitsuna, and more salad leaves".
As well as salad leaves, the farm also experiments with an array of herbs.
"We also grow parsley, coriander, basil, mint, chives, sage, oregano, and thyme," adds Benito. "In fact, this year we even grew fresh garlic for the volunteers. Fresh garlic is my favourite herb to cook with".
Talking me through their annual growing cycle, Benito explains that the Project starts afresh every spring.
"In March, as the weather improves and the temperature rises, we cut everything and start sewing the new crops. It takes 30 days from sewing to cutting; in summer even less time," he says.
This short time span between planting and harvesting is one of the economic advantages of growing salad leaves. In other words, you don't have to wait long to reap your profits and as such, the Project has sold 31 million 10-gram portions of salad in the last year.
Nevertheless, work is harder and slower in the winter.
"Everything stops growing when the cold weather comes, the last sowing we do is in December. It also takes longer to cut in winter because the leaves get damaged and more weeds grow," Benito tells me. "For most of the year, it takes me two hours to cut a whole bed but in the winter it takes three hours or more."
Despite this, Benito is adamant that the Project will never touch artificial fertilisers or herbicides.
"Why would you want to put poison in what you're going to eat?" he asks. "In the supermarkets, nearly all veg you get uses systemic pesticides—a pest that enters into the system of the plant—so no matter how much you wash it, you can't take it off."
Michael* is one of the volunteers currently working with Benito and others at the Project.
"I'm serving a sentence in a local D cat prison but I'm here working eight hours a day," Michael explains. "They took me on on a voluntary basis and I'm so grateful. I'm privileged to be here".
Sentenced for a violence offence, Michael has already spent four years in prison.
"It was a one-off. It was out of character but when you go through life sometimes you make mistakes," he says. "I'm due to be released next October. I love coming here and being outdoors. I've also got a lot of interest in the growing. Having a routine has definitely helped me. Before I came to prison, I was an alcoholic so for me, this is a new lease of life without alcohol. When I get out, I'll stay here for bit. Everyone here is lovely and relaxed."
Surrounded by billowing pear trees, peppery rocket leaves, and ruddy-faced volunteers, it's not hard to see why Michael is keen to stay. In providing an open-minded retreat, the Severn Project is one of the few places to offer addicts a healthy alternative path to recovery. A path where they are treated as humans, rather than users.
*Name changed to protect identity.