Todmorden's Good life: Introducing Britain's greenest town

'Grow your own' fever has gripped the Pennines community, which is aiming for self-sufficiency

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It's an ordinary small town in England, but its residents claim they've discovered the secret that could save the planet. And with world leaders preparing to gather in Copenhagen in just over a week's time to debate how to do just that, the people of Todmorden in the Pennines this week issued an invitation: come to our town and see what we've done.

In under two years, Todmorden has transformed the way it produces its food and the way residents think about the environment. Compared with 18 months ago, a third more townspeople now grow their own veg; almost seven in 10 now buy local produce regularly, and 15 times as many people are keeping chickens.

The town centre is dotted with "help yourself" vegetable gardens; the market groans with local meat and vegetables, and at all eight of the town's schools the pupils eat locally produced meat and vegetables every lunchtime.

"It's a complete turnaround," said Pam Warhurst, a former leader of Calderdale Council, board member of Natural England and the person who masterminded the project – called Incredible Edible – and motivated her friends and neighbours to join in. "Our aim is to make our town entirely self-sufficient in food production by 2018 – and if we can carry on at the same rate as we've done over the past 18 months since we had our first meeting and set this initiative up, we're going to make it."

And the scheme's leaders are now hoping to export their idea: two weeks ago the town held a conference on how to make Incredible Edible-style initiatives work elsewhere, and more than 200 people from across Britain attended.

They heard the story of Todmorden's transformation, starting with what Ms Warhurst calls the "propaganda planting" of vegetables around the town centre 18 months ago. Nick Green, who runs a converted mill that provides workspace for local artists, took on the job of doing the planting. He said he chose the first venue – a disused health centre – because it was in the middle of the town and would attract plenty of attention. "We wanted everyone to see what we were doing, so they could ask questions and ultimately join in," he said. "The old health centre has plenty of land in front, so it was ideal. I didn't ask anyone's permission: I just went there with my spade and my seeds and I planted cabbages and rhubarb."

Incredible Edible was originally funded out of the participants' own pockets. "We were very clear that we didn't want to look at what grants were available and mould our projects to suit them," said Mr Green. "We felt that what would work was to start with the town and what it needed. We'd look for money later on." What the project leaders found was that a lot could be achieved with small amounts of cash. And awards and grants have followed – the latest is the Kerrygold Farmers' Co-operatives Awards last week, when Incredible Edible won the "most inspirational community project" and £1,000.

One of the founding principles of the movement has been to make it as inclusive as possible; in this it differs from transition towns, said Ms Warhurst. "We are working with people who would find transition towns hard to identify with. Our project is all about finding the lowest common denominator, which is food, and then speaking in a language that everyone can understand. Plus we don't have strategies; we don't have visiting speakers; we don't have charters and documents. We just get on with things: this is all about action."

The project has been moulded to fit with where people in Todmorden are and the lives they lead. Many live in homes without gardens, and the local social housing landlord, Pennine Housing, has given out more than 1,000 starter packs of seeds and growing troughs, and invited tenants to cooking and gardening classes. "There are people here who don't own a recipe book and who don't have a garden, but we want to show them that they can still cook and grow vegetables," said Val Morris, the tenant involvement officer for Pennine Housing.

Other town-wide initiatives include a foraging course, on which participants learn how to find food for free, and then how to make preserves, jams and chutneys with their findings – and, more controversially, a workshop on how to kill and pluck your own chickens. "It's not for the faint hearted, but there's something entirely honest and right about killing the chickens you're going to eat," said Lynne Midwinter, a physiotherapist in the town who took her eight-year-old daughter along. "For my daughter, it's entirely normal to see chickens being killed and to help pluck them. "Some parents might think you can't let your kids see that, but what I'd say is, what kind of a life did the chickens your child usually eats have? Our chickens have a good life; they die a quick death, and seeing all that teaches the connection between rearing animals and eating them, which has been lost in much of the Western world today."

Ms Midwinter has also helped persuade local businesses to support Incredible Edible. "One of our early initiatives was to give all the stalls in the covered market a blackboard on which they could advertise any local food they were selling, to encourage them to sell more local food and to shout about it when they did," she said.

"And it's definitely worked. You now see most of the stalls advertising the fact that they're selling local beef and lamb, pork and bread, vegetables and even cheese – the first-ever Todmorden cheese, which is called East Lee, is now produced by the Pextenement Cheese Company at a farm on a hillside above the town."

Another venture has been the planting of apple, pear and plum trees at the town's newly built health centre. "The PCT was all set to grow the usual prickly bushes around it, and we said – hold on a second, why not food?" said Ms Warhurst. "They agreed, and we're going to encourage people to pick their fruit whenever they're passing the doctor's. Apart from giving them fresh fruit, maybe putting the trees there will help people make the connection between healthy eating, and being healthy."

Other projects in the pipeline include a 50m-long polytunnel being set up to grow bigger amounts of food and vegetables on a site just outside the town, a drop-in jam-making centre, a woodwork shop to supply chicken huts and greenhouses, and a vegetable garden at elderly people's care homes in the area which will be designed so that residents will be able to garden and pick vegetables from their wheelchairs.

There are also two herb gardens, one beside the main road and one at the new health centre. "Anyone can pick the herbs. They're a great way to get people enthused about cooking," said Helena Cook, who looks after the gardens.

She is also involved in trying to infect other local communities with the Incredible Edible spirit. "I'm a primary school teacher in a neighbouring town, Littleborough, and I've set up an Incredible Edible growing project with my pupils," she said. "The great thing is that it pulls the parents in as well, and I know some of them have already started growing their own vegetables at home. All of us who are involved in the Todmorden project try to export it to other neighbourhoods we have contact with."

The next project on the horizon is a fish farm that's being set up on land adjacent to the high school. Incredible Edible has applied for a lottery grant of £750,000 to set the farm up, and Ms Warhurst says she's confident their bid will be confirmed soon. There are also plans to offer a diploma in environmental and land-based studies to 14 to 19-year-olds, using local growing and food production initiatives as a resource. "That's fantastic because it's making our school a centre of excellence at teaching this vital skill – and it's kids who go into this kind of work who are going to be most useful to the world of tomorrow," said Ms Warhurst.

"The vital thing about Incredible Edible, and the thing that sets it apart, is that it involves everyone in the town and it's genuinely a grass-roots project. I honestly believe it's a blueprint for every neighbourhood. What we're doing here could easily be rolled out anywhere. It's all about involving people, giving them ownership, letting them realise it can be fun and interesting and that the food is delicious, and giving them space to set up their own ideas and run with them."

Ms Warhurst and the rest of the Incredible Edible team are now looking forward to their Christmas treat – a home-cooked dinner of turkey and all the trimmings in a local church centre, with every ingredient sourced locally. "We're growing the potatoes and sprouts on a special piece of land we call the Christmas dinner patch," said Helena Cook. "All the food, including the turkey, will be from Todmorden.

"There are even crumbs from locally baked bread, and local fruit, in my secret recipe Christmas pudding!"

SJ Clegg, 42

Smallholder

"Three years ago I gave up my job as a designer in London and moved to a converted barn above Todmorden to run a smallholding. So I was already here and keeping my own pigs, sheep, chicken and goats, but Incredible Edible has given a huge boost to what I do because it's made people in the town so much more aware of issues around locally produced food. The eggs I sell, for example, aren't watery like a lot of supermarket eggs: they've got big, orange yolks. And, perhaps most surprising of all, they're cheaper."

Pauline Mullarkey, 39

Mother of three

"I'd never grown a vegetable in my life and I had absolutely no idea how to do it, but when I heard about Incredible Edible from another mum in the school playground I knew it made sense. I started in my own garden by growing vegetables. It was far easier than I'd expected it to be. This year we've had potatoes, leeks, carrots, cabbage, strawberries, onions, garlic, peas, parsnips and sprouts, and I don't spend more than two hours a week in the garden.

"I also keep chickens. I've now got 15, and I'm currently putting together a map of everyone in the town who has them. The eventual aim is for every egg consumed in Todmorden to be a local one. We're working towards producing 30,000 eggs a week, and it's entirely possible that by 2018 our egg production will be at those levels. And people catch on quick – you often hear people in shops asking for Todmorden eggs."

Tony Mulgrew, 46

Catering manager at Todmorden High School

"There was some wasteland beside the school and one day I looked out at it and thought, we could grow the vegetables for the school dinners on that! I asked the governors, they agreed, and we started growing in February 2009. Year 8 and Year 10 pupils helped, and by the summer term we were able to serve tomato soup made from our tomatoes, as well as potatoes, courgettes, runner beans, lettuce, endive and chard.

"The fruit was amazing – we had blueberries, gooseberries – and the strawberries went on for ages. What was really good was the pride the pupils took in seeing the food they'd helped produce on the menu in the school dining room. I also source all our meat from local farms. I'd say that all the meat we serve here is produced within a half-hour's walk from the door. Plenty of top restaurants can't make that boast."

Nick Green, 52

Sculptor and owner of local mill that provides workspace for other artists

"In April 2008 they told me: you're our guerrilla gardener! So off I went and started planting vegetables. I started with rhubarb because the great thing about it is that people recognise it, so they know when it's ready to pick. At that stage I put up a sign inviting people to pick whatever they wanted to take home. And people did. We wanted to show that it's a project for anyone, that it's about ownership for the whole community.

"I've now got lots of food growing all over Todmorden – chard and kale as well as rhubarb – and we've recruited people from the mental health inclusion scheme to help with the planting. That's been a good move because people with mental health problems appreciate the chance to do meaningful work, and what could be more meaningful than growing food for the whole community?"

What do you expect from the world's leaders in Copenhagen next week? sundayletters@independent.co.uk

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