Life begins at Forty Hall Farm

Kate McGeevor talks to Basil Clarke about her time working at Enfield’s local farm

Kate McGeevor

Kate McGeevor is leaving Forty Hall Farm after working as manager for seven years (credit Basil Clarke)

When Kate McGeevor moved to Enfield seven years ago most visitors to Forty Hall probably paid little attention to the adjacent farm buildings, if they noticed them at all.

Today, as Kate prepares to move on to pastures new after seven years managing Forty Hall Farm, she leaves behind a transformed place that, on top of its educational role, provides the borough with sustainably produced food, volunteering opportunities, fun days out for families, and enjoyable evenings for music lovers.

Back in 2011 there was no orchard, no market garden, no farm shop, no festivals and no music events. It was just a farm.

“Capel Manor College took it over in 1997 and ran it largely as a sheep farm and as somewhere for students to come and do practicals with animals,” Kate tells me. “One of the previous managers decided to go organic, and then, in 2009, the college was approached by Sarah Vaughan-Roberts, who was looking for land to set up a community vineyard.”

Forty Hall Vineyard went on to become a thriving business, producing still and sparkling wines from organically grown grapes grown by volunteers. Its success led to Capel Manor reassessing the role of the farm.

“The college saw the value of opening up the farm to the community and that’s when I was taken on. The remit that I was given was to establish a centre to promote sustainable food production.”

Capel Manor’s new vision for the farm came at just the right time for Kate. She’d been working for the government, researching the impact of food on the environment and people’s relationship with food. But following the arrival of the coalition government in 2010, she felt that her work was being ignored.

“In the early 2000s there was more of a commitment to environmental policy, and some of the work that the UK government was doing was pretty cutting-edge, looking at how you could encourage people to make environmentally-friendly choices.

“Partly because of the recession and partly because of the change of government, the work that I was doing, into ways of helping people live more sustainably, was not at the top of the agenda.

“So I was looking for something else. I wasn’t thinking of working on a farm, but then I saw this advertised.”

Kate’s first task on arrival was to put flesh on the bones of Capel Manor’s ideas for community production of organic fruit and vegetables. Seven years later both market garden and orchard are firmly established.

Organic produce from the orchard and market garden and meat from the farm’s cattle and sheep are used in the kitchens at the Civic Centre and Dugdale Centre, as well as being sold in the shop, which also stocks food and drink from other local suppliers. The Enfield Veg weekly vegetable bag scheme distributes produce to nine local pick-up points in the borough.

The orchard has more than one hundred different varieties of fruit – apples, pears, cherries, plums, damsons and mulberries. This is partly because of the importance of protecting genetic variety, but also for educational reasons.

“I think it’s important to educate people about the lack of diversity in our food systems and how that’s come about because of the supermarkets.

“We recently discovered that a big old apple tree on the farm isn’t on the national fruit database. DNA tests have confirmed that it’s a unique variety – so we get to name it!”

All events have an educational component; for instance, at the Food Festival there were foraging workshops, and there are short courses in skills like scything and hedge-laying. A veg box scheme encourages people to think about seasonality and reducing food miles.

The farm also hosts many school visits, and Kate doesn’t shy away from the issue of meat. “The first question we ask the children is usually: ‘What food do we get from this animal?’”

Kate emphasises the value of volunteering. “As well as practical skills, such as sowing seeds, volunteering helps people to build soft skills – like being able to work in a team, turning up for work every day – the skills people sometimes lose if they’re out of work or have been unwell for a long time.

“It’s not about expecting people to straight away become a gardener. Maybe they leave with the confidence to go on to more formal training or employment elsewhere. It’s a progression rather than a direct impact.”

Well, Kate McGeevor has certainly had a direct impact on Forty Hall Farm and the wider borough. I wish her well in her next job, which will be to transform a former theatre in Manchester into a community venue.