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Harvest (Exeter Community Initiatives)

Harvest is a project under the umbrella of Exeter Community Initiatives (ECI) that began in April 2010 and which aims to ‘spread the growing bug’, building skills and confidence for people to grow their own food.

Harvest beginnings

ECI, formerly known as Exeter Community Umbrella Ltd, was set up in 1993 as a registered charity and company limited by guarantee to provide an umbrella charity for local community projects working in Exeter. At that time, Palace Gate Project (a community and project development agency set up by local churches in 1991) was initiating a number of church-related and other community work initiatives across Exeter that had no proper legal framework or overall structure to which to relate. The Exeter Diocesan Board for Christian Care (a church social action agency) organised a meeting between a group of people representing some of these different initiatives to plan the development of an umbrella organisation. The organisation revised its statement of purpose, aims and priorities and changed its name to Exeter Community Initiatives in 2002 as this better reflected the proactive development role that it plays within Exeter.

ECI looks for gaps in services to the people of Exeter and fills them where possible. Focusing on groups and individuals experiencing disadvantage, there was a perceived need to build community and resilience for a changing future. The Harvest Project is designed to address this, using food growing as a vehicle for community building, confidence building, and skills development, as well as having obvious environmental and health and wellbeing benefits.

What is Harvest?

Harvest is a city-wide project, encouraging people to engage in food-growing activities in their local community. The project encourages greater community involvement through developing relationships and co-ordinating resource and skill-sharing. It mainly targets areas of the city where people are experiencing disadvantage and have limited access to chances to grow food. It aims to build confidence in the participants. Harvest organises events and skill-sharing opportunities related to food and growing, encouraging participants and the wider public to celebrate local food and their own achievements. This is a community-led project and, once established, it is hoped that community members will continue to run and develop the activities.

Harvest encourages people to grow food through:

· Providing 'starter kits' for people with limited space to grow their own Harvest Mini Garden.
· Providing training and ongoing support to new growers.
· Enabling community members to share their skills and knowledge.
· Supporting schools in their food growing activities.
· Identifying sites for community growing.
· Promoting the health and wellbeing, environmental and economic benefits of growing food.

Harvest activities

Incredible Edible MiniGardens are for new growers or those with limited space, with support from volunteer Growing Champions. People who become Incredible Edible Mini Gardeners will be given a starter kit of a container, compost and seeds, plus the support of a local growing champion, a trained volunteer who will be able to offer advice and support to make sure that everything goes well.

□ We are very excited to be launching Exeter’s (possibly the world’s?!) first ever Permaculture Pub at the NBI, St David’s Hill, Exeter. This is a joint project with Permaculture and Organic Growers of Exeter. Permaculture is a system for living and growing food which mimics nature’s processes and uses design principles to get the most out of a growing space. Two local permaculturists introduced a group of volunteers to the design process. The volunteer’s story below tells what happened next.

Permaculture Project at the NBI Pub – A volunteer’s story

After all our planning, training and design meetings it was time to start work. On a fine April Sunday afternoon we all met in the courtyard garden of the pub. We set about clearing the overgrown areas, emptying and replanting the pots and containers. We put all the plants left over in small containers to be sold inside the bar to raise funds for the project. It was good to see the results when people work for a common purpose. Since then we have been several times to do some more work on the garden, but the best thing is just to come and sit and enjoy the community garden in one of the best and friendliest pubs in the city.

□  St Sidwell’s Community Garden Challenge is a competition to see who can get the most value from their raised bed in the community garden at St Sidwell’s Centre, a community centre in the heart of Exeter. Inspired by a London grower who produced £750 worth of produce on his balcony, the teams have until the end of September to grow as much as they can using organic methods.

Community Growing – Harvest can support people and groups who want to grow food together in Exeter. If you are an existing community

- group, or an informal group of friends and neighbours who would like to start a community garden. Harvest can:
- help identify suitable land, and liaise with owners if necessary.
- help groups to develop constitutions and work through any legal issues.
- help you publicise your project and support your fundraising efforts.
- provide practical support and guidance for getting started.
- recruit volunteer Growing Champions to provide ongoing support to a group.

Cowick Allotment – a group of volunteers have been busy clearing and planting an allotment plot on Cowick Lane. The plot has been very productive and is providing new gardeners with an opportunity to learn together about growing food on an allotment scale.

Guinness Trust Dreamscheme – Harvest has worked with the Guinness Trust to help 20 children create a community garden on Guinness Lane, Exwick. The garden will provide winter greens, broccoli, garlic, leeks and salad and will be nutured by the local children, with support from a Harvest Growing Champion.

City Fruit Harvest invites tree owners who can’t manage all their own fruit to donate surplus fruit to the project. Scouts will ascertain when the fruit will be ripe, and arrange dates for harvesting. A group of harvesters will go and pick the fruit. The tree owner gets first pick of the harvest. Good quality fruit will be distributed to where it is needed, such as homeless charities, children’s centres, refugee support group. Any damaged fruit gets turned into juice, jam, chutney, etc.

Seedy Sunday is an opportunity to swap with other growers seeds, seedlings, plants and produce grown, picked, baked, pickled or preserved and meet other gardeners and share tips.

A developing story

Harvest has developed over time as new ideas have been brought on stream. We evaluate each activity, so ideas evolve as we try things out and refine them. The main leadership come from the parent organisation, Exeter Community Initiatives. Key stakeholders and partners include Exeter City Council, Devon Wildlife Trust and Exeter Wild City (a partnership project of the two former organisations), Exeter College, Exeter Council for Voluntary Service (CVS), local housing associations and Love Local Food, a local food supplier.


The budget for Harvest’s first 3 years was £278,740. Funding came from the Big Lottery Fund’s local food fund. This paid for two full time workers who needed office space (available within ECI’s premises). The workers immediately set about recruiting volunteers. We have had donations of various resources (seeds, plants, compost, other materials, expertise, etc) from a range of businesses and organisations locally.

We continue to look for bits of funding for specific activities, and there is a shortfall in our budget over the life of the project which we are trying to address. We are permanently on the look-out for more volunteers. Apart from the grant from the Big Lottery Fund, current sources of funding are grants from local councillors plus lots of donations in kind. There has also been non-financial support from some local councillors as well as from various organisations.

Harvest has links with various local food education projects, schools, community centres, youth groups, children’s centres and other grassroots community organisations and now a project is being developed in collaboration with Exeter Islamic Centre and Exeter University.


Volunteers have come from a range of organisations, including Exeter Islamic Centre. Harvest currently has over 30 people signed up as volunteers. Some help on a weekly basis; others join in from time to time when extra hands are needed. They get involved in a variety of ways:

· Growing Champions are trained volunteers who will offer support to Incredible Edible Mini-Gardeners. It doesn't matter how old or young you are, or how much or how little you know. All you need is a bit of passion for growing food and the willingness to share that passion with new gardeners. We provide two days of free training so that volunteers feel confident about supporting other people and helping them to get growing. The commitment after that is up to the volunteer but, at a minimum , the expectation is that s/he will be prepared to support 5 new growers over the course of a year, maybe as little as a visit and a few phone calls to each grower.

· Events Volunteers - Harvest will be organising and attending a range of events throughout the year. We need people to help with all aspects of putting on events, from planning, leafleting, delivering materials to being present on the day, helping with planting workshops, clearing up etc.

· Drivers with their own vehicles are always needed for collecting and delivering materials (compost, containers, tools, plants etc). Mileage is paid.

Chestnut Children’s Centre – A volunteer’s story

At the Chestnut Children’s Centre in Wonford I have been working with a group of families developing a piece of land to grow vegetables. It is a great project to be involved with, to take a piece of empty grass and to watch it turn in to a productive growing space. Most of the families have never grown any food before and it’s wonderful to see their enthusiasm. It’s so fantastic to see the little ones enjoy planting seeds and watering the plants. Hopefully I am passing on my passion for growing things.


Forest School at Countess Wear Primary School – A volunteer’s story

In Forest School, I have been helping with year 6. We have been working out in the community doing gardening. Some of the things we have done: laying slabs to make a path; make a compost bin; clearing the borders of weeds; put flowers and bulbs in the borders; making a vegetable patch and growing potatoes, beans, onions, carrots; making bird tables; planting wild flower patches to attract bees, butterflies, etc. In forest school the children grow their own vegetables then they cook what they have grown for snack time. They learn all about nature. They like working in teams and learning new stuff. They like to see the development from sowing the seeds, watching it grow, looking after it then harvesting and eating it. The children enjoy Forest School and working with their hands and they have fun.


Measuring success

It is early days, but we measure all kinds of indicators; for example, how many people get involved, what their feedback is and whether they get involved in other activities. The main indicator of our success will be the parts of the project that continue beyond the funded period of Harvest.

Key success factors so far have been

· engaging people from our target communities;
· building good links with other organisations;
· working collaboratively with other agencies.

The main barriers are

time, energy, targeting publicity and balancing seasonal work throughout the year.

Challenges and opportunities for the future

We hope to build on the successes of the first year. We are becoming better known in Exeter, which generates more opportunities to get more people involved in more activities.

Ellie Parker
Andi Tobe