Organic farming: Fields of dreams

Forget vegetable box schemes. One idealistic group of residents has gone a step further - they've clubbed together and bought shares in their local organic farm. Sanjida O'Connell reports
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The Independent Online

Just a few minutes from Stroud's busy town centre is a farm that could be straight out of a Laurie Lee novel. The steep-sided hills provide stunning views over the neighbouring valleys, the rolling fields are sprinkled with buttercups, ox-eye daisies and cow parsley. Cows, spangled with light from broad beeches, wallow in a stream and the workers in their floppy hats hoe between rows of wild flowers. The air is thick with bees. At first glance, it might appear like a museum-piece, a show-case for agriculture in a bygone era, but this Cotswold farm is fiercely modern. It's run by a group of locals who weren't content with a simple veg box turning up on their doorstep once a week, but wanted to control the whole production from field to fork.

More of us than ever are buying into vegetable box schemes: there are now 379 such schemes in the UK, which sold fruit and veg worth £38.5m last year. But as we sign up for our weekly deliveries, how can we be sure where our vegetables come from? Are our carrots and kohlrabi really ethically farmed, wildlife-friendly, organic, locally sourced and delivered in the correct season? Well, what better way to know what has gone into your vegetables than to have your own farm just down the road?

Stroud Community Agriculture is a 23-acre farm based in the grounds of Hawkswood College. It is owned co-operatively by a hundred members who pay an annual subscription of £24 and then £30 per month for one " vegetable share", which entitles them to a box of vegetables a week, approximately enough to feed two people. This week they're getting courgettes, carrots, beetroot and chard, but at other times of the year when winter veg is mostly over and the summer glut has not begun, potatoes and cucumbers are bought in from outside. There are also twelve beef cows and a Gloucestershire old spot, Dulcie, whose piglets are destined for rashers. Members are entitled to buy the meat, too, whenever it's available and they want it. The farm is certified organic and biodynamic and run by a group of core members, all of whom have the chance to help out one day a month. The farm also offers children's activities, from building a scarecrow to naming the piglets.

"We joined when we moved up from London," says John Dougherty, "because we wanted the children to see where our food came from. So many people are disconnected from this process - I didn't want our children not to realise that apples grow on trees." John's children, Noah, five, and Cara, three, love coming to the farm and John enjoys the volunteering, describing his excitement at driving a tractor for the first time. " I've always been a bit frightened of gardening, but the farmers take into account that you may be incompetent. It doesn't take that much skill or supervision to rake a big, steaming pile of manure, but they do work with us if we're hedge laying." Much as they love the pigs, the children have become incredibly matter-of-fact. John once brought Noah, then four, to the farm and he couldn't spot the pigs. When John showed him where they were, he was pleased to see them but remarked that he thought they'd been turned into sausages.

Kim Richardson is another member who joined SCA when it started three years ago. "I used to take my veg and run," he says. He had thought that his whole family would get involved working on the farm, but his three children weren't interested. Recently he's taken time off from his job as a writer and editor and now works on the farm two days a week. "At home I connect with my computer and it's very isolating. But here I connect with the earth, and I have a very real connection with where my food comes from," he says. His wife has complained that he could put the time into looking after their own vegetable patch, but he says: "I feel that I'm part of something bigger here. For me, working here is a therapy, it allows me to be more in the moment. Today I've spent all morning weeding this one thin courgette bed, but I've been so connected with what I'm doing that the work is an end in itself - I'm not worried about what I'm doing or how much money I'm making." Naturally Jack, his 15-year-old son, doesn't understand his dad's new job since Kim doesn't get paid, even in vegetables.

Bernard Jarman was the driving force behind the farm, arranging a public meeting to gauge people's interest back in 2001. Many were so enthusiastic that they paid for a farmer, Mark Harrison, to start work even though no one would receive so much as a spring onion for a full six months. Bernard's motives were as much to do with his concern for the environment as for farmers. Having worked as a farmer and a gardener himself, he knew from first hand experience how difficult it is for small-scale farms to be viable. He is also acutely concerned about the way the general economy works, with the rich becoming wealthier at the expense of the poor. Today the Stroud box scheme, which costs £7.50 a week, is comparable with other such schemes and supermarket prices for organic produce, but for those who really cannot pay, there is a bursary available, while people on low incomes can work on the farm for a few hours in return for their vegetables.

Of course a farm run not by the farmers but by a bunch of townies with high ideals could run into problems. Not all the vegetarians like the fact they're supporting the killing of cows and pigs and people often have ideas about what they want in their boxes. "For instance, a few people wanted more aubergines," says Bernard, "but we can't grow them outside and there isn't room to plant many in the polytunnels." Ultimately Mark makes the decisions about what is grown. "Someone suggested that we grow flowers," he says, "and I'd never even thought about it. I thought, 'Well, why not, let's give it a go.'" Mark sowed cosmos and sunflowers and left out a pair of secateurs so that members could pick their own flowers when they came to collect their veg boxes. Being bossed around by a committee might not seem ideal, but Mark welcomes the way the SCA is run. "For me it's an ideal balance. I love growing vegetables, but what is really satisfying is the immediate feedback I have from people - whether it's positive or they want something done differently, it's valuable and fulfilling. I like working in a team and having support from the volunteers. I can do what I want - grow vegetables - while the members do all things I don't like doing such as dealing with the finances, marketing and tedious issues like insurance. And I don't even have to deliver the vegetables anywhere - the members come here to get them from me."

www.stroudcommunityagriculture.org

Get closer to your food

* The Soil Association has a list of farms that allow you to visit. ( www.soilassociation.org; 0117-929 0661).

* Visit your nearest farmers' market to meet local producers. To find one near you, look on the Soil Association's website, go to www.farmersmarkets.net or send a SAE to: National Association of Farmers' Markets, Envolve, South Vaults, Green Park Station, Bath, BA1 1JB.

* Riverford Organic Vegetables in Buckfastleigh, Devon, supplies 8,000 people with veg boxes ­ but you can visit and see for yourself how they grow theirs. ( www.riverford.co.uk; 01803 762 074).

* Sheepdrove sells "meat boxes" with a variety of different meats and cuts. You can visit the farm on open days. ( www.sheepdrove.com; 01488 71659).

* Neil and Amanda Camp allow you to pick your own rare-breed pig and will send you photos of it as it grows before you receive it as meat in the mail ( www.numberonepig.co.uk; 01246 591 946).

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