The Incredible Edible experiment

Julian DobsonAfter five years of austerity and with more to come, the need to rethink local economies is more pressing than ever. Governments are not going to do it for us. The big society has evaporated as a political idea. Many of the new private sector jobs are precarious, low-wage roles with few prospects, barely keeping body and soul together.

No wonder New Start is examining the experiments in local economics with increasing urgency. No wonder Neil McInroy is talking about an economy that is ‘less about me and more about us’. And no wonder David Boyle is banging on the Treasury’s door in a quest to change conventional economic attitudes.

For six years now one of these experiments in local economics has been taking place at the back end of a neglected Yorkshire valley. Frequently dismissed as just another community growing scheme, Incredible Edible Todmorden is serious about rethinking the local economy. But it recognises that economies start with people.

Incredible Edible has come a long way since its co-founder, Pam Warhurst, came back from a conference inspired to take action in her community; since community worker Mary Clear dug up her rose garden and planted vegetables with a big sign saying ‘help yourself’; and since ‘propaganda planter’ Nick Green turned the derelict medical centre where mass murderer Harold Shipman used to practice into a free feast for passers-by.

Today there are more than 50 Incredible Edible groups around the UK, linked under the auspices of the community network Locality. In France more than 300 groups have sprouted up, loosely connected via social media; and there are many more worldwide, from Montreal to Mali.

More importantly, the Incredible Edible ethos is filtering into the thinking of many other organisations. Urban designers are looking at how they can rethink towns with edible plantings. Schools and colleges are putting growing and horticulture into their curricula. Universities like Leeds and Leeds Met are creating edible campuses. In Lambeth there’s an Edible Bus Stop.

Todmorden attracts media coverage from around the world. This isn’t because there’s anything particularly sexy about the stuff that’s grown there – why would a TV crew from Brazil turn up at the far end of Calderdale to look at turnips? It’s because what’s happening in Todmorden provides clues about how to rethink places and communities in a harsh economic age.

The work of organisations like the Trussell Trust has demonstrated the need to take immediate action to help the rapidly rising number of people in the UK who are going hungry because benefits are delayed, a crisis such as sickness has struck, or because low wages are simply not enough to pay the bills and feed the family.

In such circumstances actions that empower people to take control of their food, that most basic of human needs and foundation of trade and exchange, become essential – not just a nice thing for nice people to do to make their towns look nicer.

What Incredible Edible Todmorden and its many offshoots are finding is that people can take action where they live to reconnect neighbours through conversations about food; they can rethink learning and teach their children skills and knowledge that have been lost in a supermarket culture; and that from that they can provide new opportunities for businesses.

There are now market traders and cheesemakers whose work relies on Incredible Edible Todmorden, while the nearby Incredible Farm is teaching apprentices horticulture skills and providing learning opportunities for children and young people. The local high school has just opened a £500,000 aquaponics centre showcasing new growing methods that provides both a teaching resource and food for sale.

What started with slightly anarchic plantings in public places is actually a model that can begin to reconnect communities and local economies. People are thinking differently about the town as a whole too, with an edible Green Route that connects the health centre, theatre, market, station and canal towpath, bringing a sense of unity to the town and creating important habitats for pollinating insects.

This is why we’re now publishing the book of Incredible Edible. Written by co-founder Pam Warhurst with Joanna Dobson, it will explain why the Incredible Edible effect has caught on in so many places and how it could happen near you. It will tell the story, encourage those who are planting their own Incredible Edible ideas, and enthuse a new wave of potential changemakers.

In true Incredible Edible spirit, we’re crowdfunding the resources to get it published. You can pledge as little as £1 and if we don’t hit our funding target, nobody pays a penny. We have just two over weeks to make it happen, so if you’d like to support it, please join us. As they say in Todmorden, if you eat, you’re in.


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Julian Dobson
Julian Dobson
10 years ago

If you’ve been following the crowdfunding campaign, you might like to know that with 2 days to go it’s within a whisker of its target – so thank you to all who’ve supported, tweeted or shared on Facebook and elsewhere!

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