Mike Hughes goes behind the scenes with engineering pioneers Cummins at their Darlington plant to find out just how deep their community links go.

When you are a pioneering force in one of the most exciting and innovative sectors in the North East – the net zero economy – the principles of green shoots and growth are a natural part of the conversation.

Companies like Cummins, a landmark presence in Darlington with its iconic building on Yarm Road, know that if the right ideas are planted in the right places and are nurtured, then they can grow into supporting pillars.

If you’ve been lucky enough to go inside that building as often as I have, and meet the people who work there, you will know how deep that feeling goes that every single one of them can contribute to Cummins’ success. It just takes that first seed to be planted.

Take Sarah Parsons, for example. After seven years at the company she now has what sounds almost like three jobs in one title: global off highway marketing finance manager. But she has shown there is room for another role, and is now instrumental in bringing all those themes together – the growth, the innovation and the community.

Equal to Cummins’ reputation as an engineer, its bond with its community remains unmatched.

In 2022 more than 70 per cent of the company’s employees across its European sites participated in the Every Employee Every Community (EEEC) programme, which enables each employee to use at least four work hours to engage in their communities. The staff contributed more than 14,500 hours volunteering to support their local communities.

The Northern Echo: Join us at Ramside HallJoin us at Ramside Hall (Image: Newsquest)

From that global view people like Sarah help bring it all down street level, running the Cummins allotments on land at the side of the main building, growing food for a community struggling to cope.

The project also goes into schools and volunteers time and resources to get youngsters involved in growing their own food, which has even led to some schools building their own allotments.

Farmer’s daughter Sarah is loving the work, and her enthusiasm and passion for it is spreading across the campus, with staff volunteering their own time and learning how to make the most of their own spaces as well as the Cummins plot.

Their hard work has resulted in van loads of produce being donated to support those in the community who need help and support.

The allotment space is perhaps the size of a small tennis court with a number of raised beds and a polytunnel greenhouse. As we talk in the pouring rain, she reaches down for a watering can that has been left to fill up and makes sure the dry patches inside the polytunnel are looked after.

She’s clearly at home here, but I know that within a few minutes of me leaving – and with one last check – she will be back at her desk working on multi-million pound European projects.

She tells me: “It all started with an email at the start of 2022 asking for volunteers to help project manage an allotment on-site. The idea had been around for a few years, I think, but hadn’t really got off the ground.

“The whole idea just sounded so appealing to me. We would be able to grow produce, which means not only getting employees out in the fresh air, but also the food they would be helping to grow would help community groups. So it was basically a double whammy for us all.

“It needed to be flexible if it was going to grow so colleagues could just pop out at lunchtime, or before work, or after work, whether they wanted to do. Now I think it encompasses everything we hoped for.”

Her background explains her enthusiasm. Her family has always grown food on their farm near Sadberge.

“Growing was in our lives all the time,” she said.

“I had grown up around either commercial farming or growing something for home on dad’s allotment, but then we had Covid and I wanted to do more at home so dad let me have a bit of a field to grow my own – very similar to the beds we have here, but I only have four at home compared to 16 at Cummins.

“But I learned to build my own cold frames, chicken huts, chicken runs, whatever I needed.

“I’ve got some more fruit trees in, strawberry beds, raspberry canes, a pumpkin patch, I’ve got sweetcorn, courgettes, beetroot, swedes, turnips and lettuce.

The Northern Echo: Sarah ParsonsSarah Parsons (Image: Newsquest)

“I’ve also started an honesty box at the front gate for any of my produce that I have too much of whether that’s plums, apples or pumpkins, it goes out in the front gate on a stall.”

For a few minutes, I think I’ve lost her as she mentally slips her wellies back on and wanders round her own allotment, then she’s down the A66 and into the space she is nurturing at Cummins. This is very special to her, and to be able to do it all at her workplace and get the support the company gives her is a dream result.

“I love growing our own produce and actually building the structures as well – it’s very satisfying to do all your own work from scratch. I think it’s just in the family DNA to get out there and dig and grow, so being stuck at home because of lockdown was the opportunity to do that because I’m quite a busy person and usually wouldn’t have had the time to do it.”

When Cummins said the allotment work would be included in its Every Employee Every Community programme, there were quite a few volunteers who wanted to get involved, but didn’t necessarily have green fingers, so Sarah was a natural choice to bridge that gap.

As a community-centric organisation, Cummins allows a budget to get projects like this under way, but one of the first challenges she took on was to test her skills of persuasion and the strength of the business community in Darlington by seeking out offcuts, leftovers and freebies – the circular economy at its best.

As farmers with acres of work to do outside their front door, the family are used to making the most of what is around them.

“We will always try to use what we’ve got, which is just a natural part of having a farming background,” said Sarah.

“You can’t just go out and buy the list of things you need, because the budget is usually zero. So we’ve adopted that principle here from the start. The company’s support has been there when we need it over the last two years, but the less we spend, the more we can pass on to the community.

“One thing that we know is definitely looked after is health and safety. Cummins has very high standards, so anything that takes place on the campus has to pass some strict rules, but that’s a really good thing for us because it makes us think carefully about what we are reusing and what goes into the ground and the quality of what we send out to the community.

The Northern Echo: Sarah ParsonsSarah Parsons (Image: Newsquest)

“So when we needed to make sure the beds have a long life, we looked for pressure-treated wood. The first option we looked at was recycled plastic, but it was just too expensive, and even when we looked at wooden flat packs, it was just too much money for a bit of timber and some posts.

“So I contacted local builders merchants and got some timber and some wooden posts and designed the beds myself – pretty much following what I’d done at home with some old sleepers.”

Another benefit of working for a company like Cummins is that there are plenty of skills on hand that can be adapted for different projects. So a student on an engineering design placement was soon drafted in to translate Sarah’s Excel and Word plans for the site into a full CAD blueprint with perfectly placed screws and joints.

That fine detail also meant that when the idea of more allotments at schools and hubs started to catch on, there was a good set of instructions to follow.

The food they grow goes to the Eastbourne Community Hub, who cook it and pass it out to residents who may be struggling to get a good meal.

The hub is a strong force for good in the area, with coffee mornings, craft afternoons, food banks and a range of community projects, including maintaining the gardens around the site at Eastbourne Park.

The hub is also used by other charities when they need it, including The Bread and Butter Thing which targets communities who are struggling to afford the everyday basics. With all that, regular breakfasts and school holiday clubs, the Cummins allotments are helping make a life-changing difference with more than 180 kilos of produce last year.

So what about the future?

Sarah says there is scope for the plot to expand, and the enthusiasm from volunteers and commitment from Cummins is deep-rooted, so there could be more to come.

“Even before I started with the allotment there were always opportunities and the feeling that if you want to put yourself forward and start a community partnership you can talk to the CIT (Community Involvement Team), who are really good at listening and allowing people’s suggestions to come to light.

“After getting that initial support, we’ve built on it and had a really successful year,” she tells me.

The Northern Echo: The Cummins allotmentsThe Cummins allotments (Image: Newsquest)

“The amount of work and the amount of produce is probably more than we imagined because a lot has been trial and error, so some things haven’t done as well and others have done really well.

“But I think everyone’s just impressed with how much everyone’s benefitting at Cummins as well as in the community and we do have capacity to get more beds in just at the top of the site once they have finished the building work up there.

“Then we just make it bigger, because Eastbourne lets us know what stuff they’re using more of and what’s more popular, so we’re tracking the feedback every week and supplying what they can’t get from the local shops that support them.

“For us, that also means variety – it wouldn’t be as interesting if we just grew beds of potatoes and carrots.

“I just love cracking on with it on and if there’s something to do, you do it and make sure you utilise every second. So in summer I’ll pop out at lunchtime, just making sure everything’s watered. Or on a night after work, if I know there’s something to look after I’ll nip out there.

“It’s a passion for me and having the opportunity to do this alongside my main role is a dream thing. At home, my dad loves homegrown produce and always says it tastes so much better, so he loves it when we’re getting food out of the garden.

“This year we tried some raspberries. I put them in what would have been the perfect bed for them, but they didn’t enjoy it there. So I stuck them in the garden somewhere random, which was not ideal conditions for them – and they thrived.”

That’s the way it works at Cummins. The right people in the right places works perfectly, but it is so rewarding to find that they can also rise to a new challenge and learn how to grow no matter what they are facing.

That means stronger, deeper roots and an even more productive team.