Friday 28 November 2014

'Glastonbury for growers' gives us food for thoughtMichael Kelly tells how one speaker at the GIY Gathering managed to get the Obamas on board

Published 02/10/2012 | 06:00

So, the GIY Gathering is all over for another year, and I've had a little time to reflect. The first thing to say is how awesome it was to have nearly 450 GIYers at the event -- though the tickets were incredible value (if you don't mind me saying so) at just €20, it costs money to travel to and stay at an event like this.

We had delegates from almost every county in Ireland and sizeable contingents from counties that couldn't really be any further away from Waterford -- like Sligo and Donegal.

The fact that we had such an incredible turnout in the height of the worst recession we've ever had points, I think, to the strength of the programme and the interest in how homegrown food can transform our health and help us to live more sustainably.

This year we brought seven overseas speakers to Ireland for the Gathering and it brought a new edge to the proceedings. All of the panel discussions benefited from having their perspective to mix with the domestic points of view.

Pete Russell, the founder of OOOOBY (Out of Our Own Backyard) came from New Zealand and talked about how GIYers can take things to the next level by selling their produce. Pete comes from an international food distribution background and has designed systems that allow people to do that.

There are already a number of GIY/OOOOBY collaborations in Ireland -- notably in Wicklow (run by Mike and Suzie Cahn) and in Shanagarry, Co Cork. In each case, GIYers are starting to move beyond home-growing and starting to turn their hobby into an enterprise. For people who might not want to grow their own, an OOOOBY outlet helps them to source home-grown food in their community -- it is a promising, workable alternative to the current food distribution system.

Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Garden International, came to Ireland from Maine in the USA. KGI is very similar to GIY, and Roger famously led the campaign to get a veg garden planted in the White House.

Amazingly that journey started with a simple phone call to the White House reception -- he was then transferred to someone on First Lady Michelle Obama's staff who liked his idea and got on board. The White House veg garden is now providing food for the Obamas, the White House canteen and a local soup kitchen in DC.

At the gathering, people actually got to their feet and applauded when Roger finished -- you don't often see that.

From the UK, we had Paul Clarke who founded the Incredible Edible project in Todmorden and latterly, Pop-up Farm. Paul is one of the most original thinkers that I have ever met.

Pete, Paul, Roger and I have been discussing ways that the four organisations can share ideas and collaborate, so it's great to have opened up discussions with them.

We also had Mark Diacono, all-round top bloke, sometime River Cottager and the brains behind the world's only 'Climate Change Farm' at Otter Farm; the sublime Alys Fowler, author of 'The Thrifty Gardener' and former BBC 'Gardeners' World' presenter; Simon Dawson, self-sufficiency guru and Lia Leendertz who writes for 'The Guardian' and gave a superb talk on allotments.

All of our UK guests spoke about the uniqueness of GIY and the event. Lia Leendertz commented on Twitter that the Gathering is a "wondrous mixture of political and practical gardening" before adding: "I love it. Can we have one in England, please?" We have the early seed of an idea to run a GIY Gathering in the UK next spring.

Lia's quote captures perfectly what the Gathering has evolved into -- a fascinating mix of very practical talks from wonderful horticultural speakers such as Joy Larkcom, Joyce Russell, Kitty Scully and Klaus Laitenberger, and broader panel discussions to get us thinking about the bigger picture.

This year, we had panel discussions on community gardens and growing in schools. The Sunday morning panel discussion, called 'GIY -- Affordable Healthcare' focused on how our Government is spending billions each year treating sick people, yet spending nothing on encouraging people to grow their own food, which would stop them getting sick in the first place.

We were delighted to once again affirm and reward the efforts of some of our GIY groups at the Gathering -- winners were GIY groups in Tramore, Oranmore, Dundrum and Lisburn, and overall group of the year, Limerick.

We also recognised the volunteer spirit of one of our youngest ever volunteers, Adam Hoban, who has done huge work for us this year at Bloom and other events while also having to contend with his Leaving Cert.

We also presented the prize to the winning family in Operation GIY Nation, the Phelans from Macroom. Later in the day, the RDS also presented their allotment awards.

Each night was rounded off down at the Waterford Harvest Festival marquee for some local brews and food and it was gratifying to see ideas being exchanged and friendships formed. As Mark Diacono put it, the GIY Gathering is like "Glastonbury for Growers".

So, we're done for another year. The planning for Gathering 2013 begins now. A huge thanks to our host Ella McSweeney, all our volunteers, speakers and delegates, without whom we simply couldn't pull off the event. See you next year!

• Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.

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