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Women who farm

We've recently noticed that a lot of our volunteers are women and we wanted to celebrate this fact. While our farm welcomes people of all ages, genders, backgrounds and experience the fact that so many women and girls feel comfortable, confident, content and at home on the farm is something we're really proud of. We've recently been on the Anna Perrott show, Saturday morning 10-2, where I and some of our volunteers, Laura, Annelise and Donna were interviewed. Some of our female volunteers have also written some reflections of their experience volunteering at Norwich FarmShare and how being a woman relates to growing food and agriculture in general. Here are their contributions. It's such a privilege to work with so many enthusiastic, friendly, committed people, especially woman. We've been asking ourselves why we have so many more female volunteers than male. We don't really have an explanation to this question but we celebrate the open, nurturing, courageous, high stamina, boundary pushing, community minded, fun, curious, artistic and supportive energy that our female volunteers bring to the farm. I hope you enjoy these contributions,

Joel, Farm Manager

By Tania Donnachie

Recipe for Happiness (or Being a Norwich Farmshare Volunteer)

Take 3-4 hours of fresh air in two acres of lovely plants. Add some exercise planting, weeding, hoeing, harvesting or pushing a wheelbarrow. Mix in some teamwork. Then stir in lots of fun chat and snacks at coffee break and lunchtimes. Add a great bunch of vegetables to take home and Voila! You have a recipe for happiness!

By Natasha Day

I had been meaning to volunteer for NFS for a while but it wasn’t until lockdown that like so many other people I was suddenly free from the entire commitments of my diary. Initially I was nervous, I thought that having zero knowledge about plant life, and usually managing to kill or wither any green stuff that came near me, that I would not be very good at it. What use could a city girl be?

I ‘fessed up my first time saying I knew next to nothing, but that I was very happy to be directed in every way to help out as best I could. Jack and Joel could not have been more helpful or more welcoming. They have huge patience so that every task is explained making it extremely easy to feel useful and included from day one. My favourite day is harvest day which I try to attend every week. I love seeing the wide variety of successfully grown organic vegetables and listen to the pearls of wisdom from Jack and Joel about growing food. Coffee break has become a community food share as we bring home made cake, breads and quiche to taste, often with some of the food grown on the farm in it.

Like many places where people come together with shared values the farm attracts a fun and interesting bunch of people from all walks of life and I soon began to feel very comfortable and a strong sense of community for this relaxed and yet industrious organization. New people are seamlessly absorbed into the egalitarian group and everyone strives together to collectively bring the harvest in and prepare it for going to the packers at the hub who prepare the shares for the members.

I haven’t really thought much about my gender as being relevant or not to volunteering on the farm until Joel mentioned it for this blog. I’m guessing women who farm is something not above the radar nationally either. In which case it needs to be. I have always loved using my body physically and from the amount of women Norwich Farm share attracts I am not alone in this. I notice I have got stronger, and have surprised myself by the hoeing, raking, carrying, digging, lifting that I can do. I love touching the earth, I love sustaining life. I love being part of something so honest.

The huge sense of good health I feel from being outside among seasonally shifting vegetation and insect life and contributing to the harvesting and management of the land, gives a purpose and structure to my week and indeed my life. As an artist, I love taking weekly photographs of what is happening on the farm, from crop growth to the natural cycle of new shoots and decaying plant matter, to share on social media to help promote the farm. It has given me a real sense of empowerment, satisfaction and confidence and I am so very grateful for that.

By Annelise Savill

I love being on a Farm as it gives you a vibrant and strong feeling of achievement: you can see the result of the work and go home knowing you did something visible and positive. I love the community you meet on a farm: down to earth (literally) with a great sense of humour and sharing. I love the teas and coffees between the work and the stories told; being outside with the sun on your face and the quiet breeze rustling through the plants. I love learning new ways of growing and taking this home to try in my own garden. What a great place to be!

By Lucy Rand

Some of my closest friends were made farming, and for some reason they’re all women. Women who like fresh air, who want to have fun, who enjoy using their hands, who love good food. All women because – I don't know why! Is it because there’s a humility in farming? A willingness to let nature be in charge? Are women more ready to submit to that? I didn’t realise at the time but it’s a pretty good recipe for friendship: spending hours in the field picking, digging, sowing, composting, laughing, teasing, complaining, napping; cooking experimental dishes for each other using whatever’s in abundance; discussing the minute differences between today’s tomatoes and yesterday’s, this week’s jam and last.

There aren’t many chances in life to build such relationships, and I’ve kind of mourned it ever since, accepting that the days are gone of going away all summer, living in a damp caravan, picking raspberries as a full-time job. But yesterday I did my first day volunteering at Norwich Farmshare and crouching in the field, hands in the soil, back aching, conversation flowing, I felt like maybe I’d found more of these women!

By Gee Hill - Actor

I’ve always been led to believe that farming was a masculine pursuit. From television to books and even children’s nursery rhymes. It is instilled in society that ‘to farm’ is a male labour. Women could garden as long as there wasn’t a speck of dirt on them or under their nails afterwards. In developing countries, the majority of women who are economically active work in agriculture. Yet I still feel that an inherent gender bias is present within the farming community. I have no qualifications in farming, and no aspirations to make a career out of this industry but I think it’s imperative that women feel as if they can- should they wish to. I volunteer, quite regularly, at Norwich Farmshare- an organisation I became aware of through a friend of mine who had begun to volunteer at the start of the first coronavirus lockdown in the UK. This friend is female. And since attending I have discovered that the majority of volunteers I have the pleasure of working alongside are also women. A hidden community of artistic, intelligent and passionate women. Learning about no-dig techniques, how to create your own compost heap and when a carrot is ready to pick is just a bonus to the friendships that are formed in-between 10am and 3pm on your day at the farm. Our lives are intrinsically linked from the moment we step onto the 2.5 acres of land; days full of recipe sharing, coffee and home-made cake. Alongside prepping beds, planting and harvesting- of course. I was so nervous the first time I went, having next to no knowledge of how to even use a pair of secateurs but it was the most down-to-earth experience you could possibly have. It was a sweltering hot day in August, and amidst all of the anxiety of the current global pandemic I felt at peace for the first time since March. Volunteering at the farm is a secret haven that I almost don’t want to share with the rest of the world. A feeling of being disconnected from technology and ‘real-life’, and escaping into the hands of mother nature. A community of women, and also men, who enable a safe environment to learn and create and ask questions.

I love that Joel and Jack are so readily willing to accept and expand on our ideas and suggestions to help grow the farm. And teaching us about sowing, growing and harvesting in return, never making you feel embarrassed for not knowing and offering constant support while teaching you the basics. Since Farmshare I have created my own vegetable patch in my garden, and I am incredibly excited to watch it grow and harvest it for years to come. I am also thankful for the realisation that spending time in nature is a fundamental human experience. I enjoy the callouses on my hands after a day of shovelling, the bruises on my knees and sweat on my cheeks- a reminder of the hard graft you have put into the day. It feels empowering. And getting a little dirty never hurt anyone.

Charlotte Kell, gardener

I have been volunteering at Norwich FarmShare for the last four months, going once a week to help with the harvest day. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at the farm so far, and I plan to continue volunteering. I find that there is a balance of my input of physical work and my time to what I receive in return in vegetables and excellent company. There is often a buzz of conversation in the poly tunnels and in the field as well as graft, and everyone is able to work to the speed that suits them without feeling pressure to work a certain way.

As a woman working outdoors in Norfolk which has a history of (mainly white) male farmers, I have come across continued patriarchal attitudes judging women not to be as capable of physical labour. At FarmShare I have experienced that the staff are willing to address these issues and want to promote a greater diversity of voices in this field of work. They are keen to offer opportunities for people to apply for funding or to use the space to develop their own skills and are open to ideas volunteers have. They have also been taking conscious steps to try to engage with ethnic minority groups in the city to enable more people to be able to access local fresh vegetables and access to learning opportunities. This is highly encouraging as access to quality produce is so important.

Overall I feel that FarmShare is bringing a wealth of social interactions and connections to people that I would not have met otherwise. I am also eating fantastic quality produce! It is a rewarding part of my week.

‘From Outdoor Arts to Artichokes’

- What Norwich FarmShare shared with me

Kate Evans – Outdoor Arts performer and creator

I first came to Norwich Farm Share in early lockdown. The atmosphere across the country was intense and panicked, the industry I’d worked in all my adult life had imploded overnight and left me jobless. Then, like the majority of the nation, I found myself going stir crazy at home with a family not used to spending 24/7 together. I needed some SPAAACE!

And so, one fine day in April (or was it May?) I found myself cycling through the lanes past Whitlingham lake & country park and off into the wilds beyond the A47 Southern bypass flyover.

There lies Norwich FarmShare an oasis of fertility, cultivation, and lockdown mental support. I was a novice horticulturalist so had everything to learn from day 1: how to poke out the seedlings to plant with the special poker (aka a stick), how to use the ‘long fork’* and the privileged task of pinching tomatoes (not often bestowed on green rookies, or so I was told).

Spring was a very gratifying time to start at the farm as Mama Nature starts to kick in after her Winter nap and stuff literally starts sprouting everywhere. I planted Kale my first day and secretly worried I’d done it wrong and nothing would grow – much to my relief, several weeks later the bed was already showing the fruits of my labour in the form of a burgeoning mass of green; if not a little incapacitated by Cyril the slug & his mates having a Kale party. But that’s the deal with organic isn’t it? No evil chemicals & open season for slugs, mould, snails, rats etc. Although Joel & Jack, the 2 farm managers, have more often than not got a cheeky enviro-friendly solution for fighting our slimy or mouldy friends – and Geoffrey the cat is on hand to deal less organically with the mice and rats 😊

To be honest, whilst it’s an interesting & rewarding aspect, you may have guessed that initially it wasn’t the agricultural education that I came for. I came for the space, the lush and gorgeous outdoor surroundings, the sense of purpose and achievement, and of course, the (socially distanced) company. And I’m happy to say NFS delivered on every level. Twice a day we down tools and sit together (2m apart obvs) for our coffee and lunch break. We compare notes on how much of the bed we’ve weeded, how many Kohl Rabi we’ve picked and which size; and most importantly, the size of the compost pile we’ve just built. Conversations could be on anything and everything; from the best recipe for Chard to politics, tree surgery, art, TV and everything in between – oh and farming of course, that crops up occasionally.

The mood is generally relaxed from the top down, the two managers are highly amiable and good humoured, constantly thanking volunteers for their toil and rewarding them with home-made brownies and coffee at break time.

I’ve met some really great people and specifically some great women. It was suggested recently on the Radio Norfolk feature on Norwich FarmShare that women generally perhaps are happier to volunteer, to offer up skills and services for no financial exchange. 68% of the UK voluntary sector are women, research states that they are more likely to volunteer for social (as well as philanthropic) motivation and I think I’m 100% that demographic.

Harvest day, the most focused day, can often be up to 90% women.

This is the day that real teamwork is required as we dig up, gather, weigh, count (and count again) and pack the huge amount and variety of vegetables. So, it’s not unusual for us to be lugging 20-30+ crates of veg including giant squash or enormous cabbages around without a thought. I usually work in the outdoor arts and circus world, so strong women undertaking heavy work is nothing new for me, but I know that this isn’t quite the case across every industry sector, or life in general.

The gender balance makes for an atmosphere that while productive, is easy going, cooperative and fun. I bought my 13-yr old daughter here over the Summer holidays and found it to be of a positive mutual benefit. It can be a very welcoming space for all ages, and those shared hours with her happily chatting to women mainly old enough to be her mother or grandmother felt very enriching. I wanted her to feel the dirt in her hands, to wield a machete, to roll a full barrow across the field. It’s educational, outdoors, physical and fun: win, win, win.

I do love the physical aspect of the work; it’s helping to replace a little of the activity I miss from my day job. I occasionally chronicle my endeavours on Instagram and Facebook, it’s very satisfying to visually mark the ‘before’ & ‘after’ of the aforementioned compost bed build, the weeding of a particularly ‘occupied’(i.e. weed-ridden) bed and the subsequent planting of a crop into neat green rows. It’s also surprising how much people get involved over composting! Who knew what a flurry of passion and comments a pile of rotting veg can provoke?

Working out in the fields my soul is nourished, as well as when sharing down-time with the other volunteers. And then so is my body, when I take my hand-picked bounty home to cook with and fill my belly full of nourishing local goodness – the freshest veg you can get.

Oh Yeah, the veg – did I mention the veg? the sweet, the sour, the sharp and crisp, the soft and tangy OH MY! Nothing ever tasted so good as the freshest lettuce picked by your own hand and eaten within hours of being cut. But then, you knew that, right? It’s pretty obvious that the fruits of our labour are the also the currency for it. The reward of a bag of veg you’ve helped to plant and tend and water and then harvest, makes for the ultimate in food smugness – no carbon footprint, no air miles across the world, no evil pesticides AND I flipping well picked these little green buggers too!

And for that I give thanks to Norwich Farmshare.

So, come on down to the farm, come sow some seeds, and lug some woodchip, chew the fat and help put this big old world to rights before we screw it up for good.

*Backwards since you ask

By Minnie Harrington, 13

The first thing I remember about the Farm is seeing everyone sat at the table at the start of the day, most people arrived on bikes, some in their cars. Everyone was very talkative and friendly, there wasn’t any judgement. It felt very hands on and like anyone could do it.

I liked being outside in the sun, but I preferred it when it was windy and cool rather than too hot and sunny. What was good was it was doing something, rather than just being outside – there were tasks to do and I enjoyed the excitement of seeing what veg you got at the end of the day.

I liked the smell in the patches, it was refreshing, and I enjoyed the smell of the herbs in the leaf garden, it felt calm.

I liked the Tea breaks, sitting in the shade and talking to people. I also met Geoffrey the cat, who seemed old but was very energetic and she stole food from peoples’ bags!! She could even undo zips.

And the food! I liked seeing all the odd shaped vegetables on the table at the break- the tiny cucumbers, the weird squashes, and the miniature and the massive marrows

I liked using all the different tools particularly the machete! We harvested the cauliflower with it, and I got to hack at the stems - very satisfying.

I loved standing on the compost heap to squash it down and washing the carrots with the jet hose.

By Bee Springwood

Women and farming

I was taking part in a webinar on climate change and food security the other day; someone noted that 70% of food worldwide was produced by smallholders. And I wondered how many of them must be women. In southern hemisphere countries especially, it’s often women who manage the subsistence crops and produce food for the family, along with fetching water and irrigating, and cooking from scratch. All these things intertwine of course.

It seems more unusual in our weird western culture, yet women farm workers filled the fields round here in the 1970s , when I joined the ranks of strawberry pickers one summer. But Gradually, farming was becoming more mechanised; lonely men (and some women) on tractors all day, often getting depressed with the long hours and a strange detachment from nature itself, while we grubbed up hedges and lost the biodiversity that makes a small-holding sing with liveliness

Women have always gardened of course, but there did used to be a bit of a traditional divide between allotmenteering, by men, and home gardens, cultivated by the woman of the house. All these boundaries are blurring in a positive way. While men have vacated the allotment spaces over the last half century, the empty ones have often been taken up by women, old and young, with family on tow now. Since I could afford a house to own, having a big growing / nature space has been a big priority.

When our community farm started up, it was predominantly women who took up our paid farming posts. (seven women to three men). That may say something about the pay scales and worldly rewards of farm work today, but on a positive note, it also speaks to the growing awareness by women that we can take charge of our food systems directly, regain a relationship with the land that can provide for us.

For me, I know I need to get my hands on the Earth to feel re-grounded, to settle all the internal chatter while I listen to the plants, the beetles and worms. When I was working, it put all my work worries on the back burner to sort themselves out. Now I’ve retired, it gets me out to see the day and realise it’s usually nicer than it looks from indoors.

Plus, I take that immeasurable pleasure in harvesting something I’ve supported to do it’s thing the best it can; then get it into the kitchen to find or make up a recipe that uses all the variety that’s arrived through the door. It’s nourishing all round

It’s lovely to have everyone at the Farm, men or women, but it’s great to see women can farm, and share that community feeling.

By Claire Gebbett

I took a squash home from the farm last week. It was a gargantuan monstrosity. It was too large and distorted for the members’ shares. It lay by the toolshed, wearing a huge, cracked scar down its cheek and its flesh unattractively mottled. It caught my eye. I took it home to see what I could make of it.

To cope with a vegetable of this enormous size, you almost need butchery skills; you need to understand the anatomy, to know the right knife to use and where to make the first cut. Recalling previous experiences of toiling with knives and squash or pumpkins – how I’d laboured to peel off the leather-like skin, so firmly attached and resilient, for what felt like hours - I decided to bypass the rigmarole in favour of the “bake-it-whole” method. Small beads and pools of viscous orange liquid collected in my oven as the thing gently cooked.

Once out and cooled, I cut through the skin easily. Inside the flesh was perfect, bright apricot-orange in colour, it sliced like cheese and smelled of the sweet earth. The skin peeled as if old parchment. Soon I had a hungry face at my side. Cutting a generous slice for each of the family, I added the glowing dark yellow vegetable to our plates. I told the story of how, when we had been in Valencia, we saw calabaza served in slices with honey or maple syrup. Excitedly, our youngest brought the rich sticky syrup to the table and we gorged on the sweet portions as if we were sitting in the Winter sunshine of Spain.

Only about an eighth of the fruit used up, I entered upon making squash curry – a family favourite. The sweet flowery flavour of the flesh is the perfect foil for hot spices. I mixed up my own Ras El Hanout and thought about the generations of people who had survived on gourds across the world. This not so humble vegetable has inspired cultural references everywhere you look. Creation myths for example: in Polynesia the story goes that the Gods made the earth from a calabash shell, the flesh became the sun, the seeds spilled out to become the stars of the white milky way. In Laos it is said that a woman, survivor of the great flood, birthed a gourd. All of humankind emerged from the seeds. Musical instruments, vessels and cups, vases: all made from or mimicking the rounded shapes of this vegetable. I splashed in a drop of rosewater over my bubbling pan, the result was delicious. The firm but soft vegetable melted in our mouths. We had enough for two dinners and another batch in the freezer.

We were halfway through it now. I scraped back the white seeds in the middle and revealed more soft flesh, feeling as if I were a creature from James and the Giant Peach.

My friend Renee is 92. Her son has asked if I could help her get her dinner on Wednesdays. It has been great to have a legitimate reason to get out of the house and see her. On my first visit, I left with a mask, gloves, hand sanitiser and the social distancing rules firmly stuck in my head - I took a large wedge of the squash too. She joined me in the kitchen wanting to help. She struggled a bit with cutting the potatoes, so I passed her the squash to cut up. Soon we had a gorgeous deep yellow thick soup, flavoured with onion, garlic and ginger. We sat with the stew on our laps in front of the TV. She complains regularly that vegetables don’t taste like they used to – lots of older people do. I used to think that maybe taste changes as one ages, but more likely they were brought up on home grown chemical free veg and can still taste the difference. Renee loved the soup, no complaints about my truly delicious, huge and ugly squash. I went home with a cauldron full myself and blended the last of the body into it the next day.

The soup served our family of 5 for lunches all week. Our squash was gone, all the goldenness of summer consumed, its other worldly orange hue a bright warm spot in my memory. I don’t think I would have such a connection to the vegetable or enjoyed it so much, if I weren’t at the farm every week, sowing, growing, weeding, planting.

I also muse about how ironic it is that a vegetable (in honesty as ugly as hell) had the best taste! Our crazy commercial food system has hoodwinked us into preferring the ideal shape over flavour. It’s become the norm to buy food that looks great but that tastes thin and washed out – no substance, no colour.

I’m using this lockdown to modify my shopping habits. I’m trying to buy friendly and local. I don’t want to buy food that has travelled more than I have this year! I don’t want to buy into organisations selling food supplies which have left me feeling uneasy for years. I’m using the slower pace of lockdown to change things up. If you want to make a change too, a good start is joining Norwich FarmShare. You’ll be able to volunteer at the farm (kids as well) and get your veg – picked the same day – in your share each week. Through the Summer you’ll be delighting over the sweetest tomatoes and tastiest salads. In the autumn you will be feasting on squash which tastes like the glowing neon sunset over a Norfolk field. Get in touch, we’re a really friendly lot!

By Dulcey Gebbett, 13

What’s it like to Volunteer at FarmShare?

There is a lot of hard work involved in volunteering – but it’s always fun and rewarding in the end. I especially enjoy farming when there is cold or rainy weather because you feel like working hard to warm yourself up. I go every week but it’s amazing how much it changes every time I come back. One week there are bright orange pumpkins ripening in the fields and the next week they have all been harvested (and most likely I’ve had one for dinner). I look forward to enjoying fresh veg that I helped grow myself every day.

Would you want a farming job?

I don’t think I’ll ever be a full time farmer, however, I think farming will always be part of my life. I have other passions and dreams I want to achieve but farming is something that I know I will do, not as a job but because I enjoy doing it.

What do you think about food?

I went vegan about 3 years ago. I chose to limit what I eat, not for health reasons but because of the way the food industry operates. Many animal products are taken with such cruelty, I find it horrifying. Vegetables are not much better. The ingredients printed onto the pointless plastic packaging of some mixed salad is not going to tell you what pesticides were used on these leaves. When people farm, they should not hurt nature. They should give as much as they take.

My favourite FarmShare memory:

I remember one day when all of us went along to the new farm, the whole family. The first beds were being got ready and we were clearing nettle roots and moving the organic fertiliser onto the field. I really liked all working outside together.

By Elanor Gebbett aged 9

Volunteering at FarmShare is very inspiring. It makes me think I can be more eco. I think an eco-farmer would be a very good job but I want to be a psycho-therapist. I am a foodie; I like cooking, eating out and trying new food. I think I’ve tried more vegetables than most children because I have been helping at FarmShare since I was 2. I think treating animals cruelly is an abomination. I think farming should respect animals and the earth – be kind to the planet.

My favourite memory at FarmShare is the time it rained, but we still had the awning up from our open day, we all gathered underneath and drank cups of hot tea.

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