The urban farming revolutionaries transforming locally sourced food and community outreach
Many of the best stories to come out of Platt Fields Market Garden seem to have come about by chance.
Home to Manchester Urban Diggers (MUD), a Manchester-born urban farming collective, their Fallowfield HQ has been fertile ground for more than just organic produce. A powerful sense of community has also blossomed.
The reality on the ground is far more than growing organic vegetables in Fallowfield
“Last summer some Kurdish families that have barbecues and shisha on the lawn over there came in to see what we were doing.” MUD director Mike Hodson tells me, as he walks me around the Platt Fields site. In a few minutes of walking around the garden the families had honed in one plant in particular.
“They got so giddy when they saw it. They haven’t got anywhere to grow it where they live in Rusholme. They use it all the time at home and from then on they came back every week to get a big crate off us, so now we make sure we grow it every year.”
A chance encounter with a succulent
The plant Mike is talking about is a succulent called purslane. Difficult to find in UK shops due to its short shelf-life, it’s a staple of Middle Eastern cooking, especially soups and curries, and the leaves have a watery citrus flavour. Mike and co didn’t think much of it when they originally put it in the ground but it has helped to nurture a special bond between the market garden and the local Kurdish community.
The purslane episode corresponded with an outreach project called Near Neighbours which in turn led to one member of the Kurdish community taking the MUD team to a local Kurdish shop that sells rare seeds. As a result, part of MUD’s harvest this year will include vegetables and herbs used in traditional Kurdish cooking. Members of the community have also joined MUD’s volunteer team too.
All of that from a chance encounter with a succulent.
From bowling green to market garden
Platt Fields Market Garden started out five years ago as a project to regenerate a former bowling green in Platt Fields Park in Fallowfield and Manchester Urban Diggers (MUD) was born out of that project three years later in 2019. Now with three full-time and eight part-time staff (including ceramicists, chefs, illustrators, and designers), they're helped by a diverse team of over 350 volunteers.
What started with hours of clearing grass, planting fruit trees, and trying to improve soil has developed into a hybrid social enterprise creating an unprecedented blueprint for inner-city urban farming. So unprecedented in fact, that it’s tricky for public bodies to fully get behind them.
“The council really want to support us but don’t know how,” fellow director Jo Payne says.
“There is no form to fill out for a community interest company (CIC) social enterprise that generates money, but is for the benefit of the community, that’s not for profit but does take an income.”
This goes some way to explaining what MUD is and does, but the reality on the ground is far more than growing organic vegetables in Fallowfield. Based out of its market garden HQ in Platt Fields Park, MUD grows and sells organic produce to restaurants and customers, the latter in the form of their on-site market garden, café and veg box scheme. MUD's aim is to create a blueprint for sustainable urban growing spaces across Manchester by focusing on food.
They host events, workshops and work closely with organisations across the city on urban farming spaces, notably The Landing on top of the Merseyway Shopping Centre in Stockport and Up Top, a massive growing space soon to take up the roof of Stretford Mall. Grow-your-own plant kits, locally sourced ceramics and plant sales also contribute to their income, as do sales from products sourced from local suppliers sold in their market garden.
More than growing and selling organic veg
As Mike and Jo walk me around the space, the work they’ve done thus far is impressive. A true collaborative effort with food and sustainability at its core. The clay that was dug out to make the nature pond, for instance, is used for on-site ceramics, processed at an on-site kiln and pottery shed.
There are greenhouses, indoor and outdoor cafe space, a beautifully decked out summerhouse space, a kids' playground area, beehives, a market stall area, and a lot of space for growing veg.
The other key element of the MUD blueprint is its community work, which is extensive. The team’s own backgrounds in volunteering - especially Mike who worked in youth justice prior to taking up his current role full-time - have led to them working with groups across the community spectrum, from schools and disability groups to young offenders and the unemployed.
“We’ve just run a 12-week course for unemployed people to upskill and give them experience in horticulture. Every day they got a free lunch included, made with produce from here and cooked by Lorcán.” Mike tells me, as said chef, Lorcán Kan (of Where The Light Gets In and his own Things Palace pop-up) appears.
He passes Mike a compostable tray of char siu pork (roasted on site) with a slow-cooked jasmine rice congee, topped with kimchi, cucumber and pickles sourced from, you guessed it, the very garden we’re sat in.
My produce brings all the chefs to the yard
That’s the other thing about MUD. They’re tight with chefs. Since day one they’ve worked closely with Sam Buckley and co from Stockport’s Where The Light Gets In as well as Joseph Otway formerly of Higher Ground. Joe was so inspired by MUD’s work that he went off and set up his own Cinderwood Farm project in Cheshire. In Manchester, it’s difficult to get more locally sourced than Fallowfield and this is not lost on local chefs.
They like to come in and grow weird stuff and they know they can count on the quality of the produce.
Lorcán, whose resumé cites impressive work in cities spanning New York, Berlin and Melbourne as well as Stockport, lives around the corner from Platt Fields. He originally began working with MUD during the pandemic as part of the Dan Barber (of Netflix's Chef's Table fame) helmed Kitchen Project, an international initiative that aimed to get chefs - who were out of work due to the pandemic - into the garden and closer to the growing process.
He now cooks regularly at Platt Fields and is paid one day a week to turn surplus produce into a range of kimchi, pickles, preserves and ferments, most of which he uses in his cooking at MUD events. His advice and experience have also proven priceless in helping to set up the garden’s kitchen and food events.
The char siu pork he is serving today was roasted in a homemade smoker that one of the MUD volunteers upcycled out of an old water tank taken from an office building.
Despite food being the focus of everything they do, the MUD team understand how nourishing the environment they’ve created can be for people. Along with other groups around the city, MUD is taking part in an NHS social prescribing pilot scheme that aims to provide therapeutic horticulture sessions for people suffering with anxiety and minor forms of depression. If successful, it’s hoped that the initiative will be taken up across the city as an alternative to prescribing drugs.
It’s an initiative that’s close to home for the MUD team, Mike especially.
Nourishing mind and body
“When we had just set up MUD, I had my daughter and when she was six months old she had something called dilated cardiomyopathy which is like heart failure. She was in intensive care for three weeks, then stayed in hospital for another three weeks after that. So I basically spent six weeks living in St Mary's with her.” He says.
“Afterwards I was having weird PTSD stuff with hearing alarms go off when I was alone in the house or car because I had spent so much time in intensive care. So I’d just like come down and spend a few hours here with people or on my own doing gardening.”
“It was really traumatic and I basically just gardened myself better,” he adds. The irony, Mike tells me, is that in times gone by hospitals used to have a farm growing projects on site. North Manchester General is currently bulldozing theirs to make way for a car park and MUD swooped in to save the polytunnels from going to waste.
A blueprint for the future
Looking to the future, the MUD team is excited about the opportunities that a post-pandemic world will bring. “We’ve both done loads of volunteering at growing projects and they do tend to burn out if they’re volunteer-led because people get ill or they get a job and they can’t invest the time in it anymore. That's what makes us different,” Jo says.
As well as more events, workshops, food, and community outreach the aim is to keep the company sustainable, both environmentally and financially, and keep writing the blueprint for others to follow.
“We want these gardens to provide jobs for people so they can keep going and get bigger and better, embedded in communities with infrastructure to support them.”
Platt Fields Market Garden is open to the public Friday, Saturday and Sunday 11am-4pm. Information on volunteering with MUD can be found on their website.