Sitopia is a new, urban farm. We grow organic food and flowers on two acres in Greenwich, South East London, using regenerative, agricultural techniques and selling locally. We are on a mission to make a better food system a reality in South East London and beyond. Our vision is a world where the food we eat nourishes both people and planet. Urban areas currently hold great untapped potential for food - and flower - growing. We want to expand the use of land in London to grow food for our community, spread the word about the changes needed in the food system, and model the wider changes we want to see.
As an urban farm in London, we have an incredible opportunity to reach large numbers of people.
We raise awareness about the changes we need in our food and farming systems and reconnect
consumers with the realities of production. We bring people together and connect them with the
land and each other through the joy that is having hands in living, rich soil and the enjoyment of
good food and beautiful flowers in the company of others.
As well as selling wholesale to grocers, restaurants and florists, we run a vegetable box and flower
subscription scheme, provide wedding flowers, host a monthly pop-up farm shop when we also
open up the farm free of charge to visitors, run weekly community volunteering sessions, food and
flower growing courses, organise team days where businesses/charities/other organisations come to get their hands dirty as well as learn about regenerative farming and enjoy a seasonal farm lunch.
We’ve hosted various other events including an incredible dinner with Outstanding in the Field,
Charles Dowding’s latest book launch, and some filming. We donate produce regularly to local food
projects, offer discounts on our veg bag subscription scheme to those with low incomes and have
provided free places on all our food/flower growing courses to enhance access.
Everybody eats. Food is the great connector. For us therefore Sitopia, ‘the food place’ is both means and end. Sitopia comes from the Greek sitos, meaning food, and topos, meaning place, and is a play on the word Utopia. Where utopia means ‘good place’ or ‘no place’, Sitopia means ‘Food Place’.
The word ‘sitopia’ was coined by Carolyn Steel, an architect, lecturer and food systems thinker who wrote a book called Sitopia, which is about how we live in a world shaped by food: it has a huge impact on our economy, our heath, the environment, our culture and society, but it’s almost too big for us to see it. At the moment we live in a bad Sitopia with a broken food and farming system, but we can and should live in a good Sitopia.
I was listening to Carolyn give a talk about her new book when I was pondering a name for the farm and thought: this is IT! I got in touch with her and she very kindly took a chance on me…said yes…and in fact is now on my Advisory Board!
It’s been quite the journey to get here, and it continues to be every day. My background isn’t in
farming: for over a decade I worked in central government and was a senior civil servant and before
that I worked in international development, working for charities in Tanzania for several years and
then based in London but travelling overseas. I’ve long held a secret fantasy to escape the office and
become a farmer and it was a dream that just grew. I’ve never had a garden or proper outside space
living in London, but started to grow food on my window ledge…then helped an old lady who
needed help with her allotment…volunteered through WWOOF on other farms in my holidays…until
a few years ago various things happened in my life -including the death of a dear friend to cancer in
her mid-30s- and I just thought now is the time. If not now, when? So, I left my job, did a Masters in
Food Policy at City University, London, looking at the whole system of food from production to consumption and the economic, environmental, social and health aspects. At the same time, I was
lucky enough to undertake an urban food growing traineeship with Growing Communities in
Hackney, East London. At the end of that year the dream was still there, and no part of me wanted
to go back to an office…but I thought I should probably learn a bit more about farming before trying
to set up my own! I managed to get a job at a biodynamic farm, Fern Verrow, in Herefordshire, and
worked and learnt there…living off grid in a shepherd’s hut through a cold winter…until covid struck
and I thought it was time to get back to London and my boyfriend (now fiancé) rather than get
stranded out in the countryside. At the time we thought London might get locked down like had
I started to look for bits of land, with the idea of creating a patchwork farm from different small
sites. After asking I think everyone I knew I managed to find a few sites including in the grounds of a
disused primary school by Hackney Downs…and in a friend of a friend’s back garden…and with the
help of some amazing volunteers who somehow just appeared, we converted overgrown sites into
mini working farms, selling our produce locally and donating to food banks.
It quickly became clear that to be a viable enterprise financially, and to produce proper volumes of
food, I needed a bigger bit of land. I got together my wonderful Advisory Board, drew up a business
plan, and started hunting in earnest. We were lucky enough to be put in touch with the Woodlands
Farm Trust in the winter of 2020/2021, who manage 89 acres of land as a charity off Shooters Hill in
the Borough of Greenwich. They had closed during lockdown and had been thinking for a while
about wanting to grow more food on their land. As we were both not-for profit organisations who
cared about the environment and food systems, it was a great fit and we were beyond delighted
when they offered us 2 acres of one of their fields.
The next step was to raise the funds I needed for the initial infrastructure: polytunnels, greenhouse,
tools etc. Fortuitously the London Mayor had just launched a grant programme. I applied for that
and happily was successful- though it was contingent on raising half the funds through a
crowdfunder. As with everything about running a social enterprise, and a farm, this was a steep
learning curve. I pulled in a lot of favours to help with things like film and then edit a-rather
embarrassing- video including myself and the Board setting out our vision and why people should
fund us. At very short notice I set up a twitter account, an Instagram account…researched how to
crowdfund successfully…incredibly it worked and we had over 400 mostly local backers, and with theMayor’s Grant raised over 60k.
Then the harder work began…Again, I was bowled over by the support I received, as all sorts of
people came forward to help in different ways. The key was the many volunteers who came and
helped build our beds. We’re a no-dig farm, and have been from the start, so to convert what had
been a field of pasture with a few sheep on it and a Shetland pony called Bob, we didn’t want to use
a plough as would be the conventional method to turn over the soil. Instead we rolled out huge
cardboard rolls straight onto the grass, and shovelled on countless wheelbarrowfuls of green waste
compost, and woodchip from a local tree surgeon for the paths. The first bed was built at the start of
April 2021, we popped in seedlings I’d already started (in the hope the Crowdfunder would work)
and by June 2021 we were harvesting and selling our first crops.
We grow a wide variety of vegetables, leafy greens, salads, herbs, fruit and flowers. In particular we try to grow unusual and heritage varieties, partly to help preserve biodiversity, and partly because they are so delicious, colourful and fun, not to mention nutritious. Under the current dominant industrial agro-chemical farming system and supermarket supply system, we have such a narrow choice of vegetables on offer, not to mention low in nutrition, flavour, and grown in environmentally-damaging ways. There is so much joy and fun and deliciousness to be had in our food and we want to show people that! So for example we grow about 25 different varieties of tomatoes, from black and orange cherry oval ones to stripey yellow and green round ones to fat round pink ones. We grow some beetroot, but as well as stunning rich purple varieties we grow pink and white stripey Chioggia beetroot (which looks like a stick of candy rock when you cut into it). We also grow a lot of salad leaves (our mixed salad has 10-15 different types of salad leaves and herbs and edible flowers in it) and lots of greens (like kales, chards, spinach, mizuna, spicy Asian greens) which make sense to grow in a relatively small urban environment. They are ‘cut and come again’ crops which means we get multiple crops off one plant, so making best use of our relatively small space. They’re also highly perishable, meaning the freshness we offer - normally harvesting and delivering our produce to customers within 24 hours- is important.
Growing cut flowers was initially a bit of an experiment, but it’s been wonderful and a growing part
of the business. While our focus is changing the food system, we also want to change the flower
farming and buying system. The vast majority of cut flowers sold in the UK are grown using heavy
doses of chemical pesticides, fertilisers, fungicides and preservatives, often by workers in appalling
conditions, in heated greenhouses, then wrapped in plastic, sprayed to keep them alive for longer,
refrigerated, flown here from countries half way across the world and then wrapped in cellophane
and kept in chiller cabinets. For a luxury product. Instead, we grow gorgeous, alive, scented flowers
in incredible colours that move! From wild looking cornflowers and sweet rocket and flowering
brassicas to tulips, dahlias, ammi, foxgloves, nigella, sweet peas, delphiniums, zinnia, amaranth,
sunflowers (in pink and red and fluffy yellow…) we also combine them with edible herbs, or unusual
things like trailing edible nasturtium flowers or gorgeous asparagus ferns and globe artichoke leaves, making use of the whole farm and meaning our bouquets are like nothing else! They’re wonderful for the wider biodiversity and overall health of the farm’s ecosystem and as word begins to spread with florists, folk getting married, as well as our flower subscribers and market customers, an increasingly important part of our income too. I was running a stall (our most successful yet!) at
Chiswick Flower market yesterday, and a customer exclaimed that they were the most beautiful
flowers she’d ever seen, which made my day.
I think I often experience a gamut of emotions most days. There is the constant pressure of too much work and not enough time - I now have a wonderful team and continue to have incredible volunteers, without whom this farm could not be. But we are very lean, and I’m the only full-timer, and it’s still early days as people still get to know us. When people discover us and taste our produce, or clap eyes on our flowers, they tend to want to come back for more, but we need to do more getting out there and spreading the word! And of course we’re competing in a system which externalises the true costs of food. There is no such thing as cheap food: someone, somewhere-and the planet- is footing the bill. But that’s what we’re up against. It’s hard balancing the actual demands of farming (with the pretty much never-ending list of jobs that need doing) with actually running a business…Running a farm and social enterprise means I have to dabble in everything from accounting to sales and marketing to website design to peddling my wares at market stalls to delivery driving to public speaking to fundraising, to managing staff and volunteers, to event management and running our social media…not to mention the actual farming. While I’m proud that we’re Soil Association organic-certified that does also bring extra work. And I haven’t mentioned that somehow over the last two years since we started I’ve also had a baby boy! He’s just turned one and is just the most wonderful creature. But it’s been challenging looking after both babies. Thankfully I had incredible maternity cover and actually it’s forced me to move the farm forward to its next stage of development- expanding the team and me no longer working 6/7 days a week, which wasn’t sustainable.
Truly though, I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I never tire of seeing the incredulity on people’s
faces when they taste our strawberries, or celery, or tomatoes. All of it has such flavour and is so
different from what is generally available. The feedback we receive ‘your salad is the best I’ve ever
tasted. My daughter/husband/partner thought they didn’t like it but they like yours. They didn’t
know it could taste of anything’. The wonder in the eyes of some of our visitors when they see 100s
of cucumbers suspended in mid-air on vines (‘they grow on vines?). The disbelief when we say this
was all started just over 2 years ago, on a field of pasture. The incredible community that has sprung
up so quickly around our farm, supporting us and each other in a myriad of ways. The stories people
have shared about how this has inspired them, given hope, got them back into cooking, or into
growing on their balcony, starting their own farm, improved their gut health, connected them with
their local community, changed their lives! Someone who took up one of our free places on the food
and flower growing course the other day wrote to us afterwards to say she’d had a very rough patch
after a divorce and with young children and that was why she was in a very unexpected and difficult
position financially. But that she now felt filled with hope and inspiration and the drive to start the
next chapter of her life, which involved teaching children and others to grow food - and she was in
turn going to pay it forward through providing free places on her community sessions. That made
We’ve got so much to do, but the journey has well and truly begun. Over the winter, as well as
easing up the pace a little, the plan is to start fundraising in earnest so we can build an eco-barn. This will be transformative: enabling us to have a proper facility for storage and packing of our produce right where it’s grown, as well as a venue for events, workshop and a little kitchen and toilet for volunteers! I’d love to find more really sustainability-focused restaurants to partner with and have a direct supply relationship with and we are also going to be developing a programme of work with schools. After that…watch this space!