Organic Foods: Farmers are boxing clever

Independent growers are revitalising rural; areas by supplying food direct to the doorstep

ONE OF Phil Haughton's abiding memories is the day he turned a consignment of ex-pet shop guinea pigs into fresh meat. It happened when he was manager of the Windmill Hill City Farm in Bristol and it created, not surprisingly, something of a stir. He did it, he says, to demonstrate that people were becoming too distant from the food they eat. More than 15 years later, his enthusiasm for local produce remains undimmed.

Phil is the founder and head of the Better Food Company, which delivers organic produce in boxes to households within a 30-mile radius of Bristol. The company employs more than 20 people, has a turnover of less than pounds 1m and until not so long ago operated from a kitchen in the family home. It is, in short, a small business but it is also typical of a retailing revolution which is distinctive to organic food but now promises to spread far beyond it.

Last year the Better Food Company won the national vegetable box scheme category in the Soil Association's Organic Food Awards. As well as supplying local households it operates an overnight national delivery service and a Christmas hamper selection. Its boxes of produce are sourced from local growers and supplemented by deliveries from a big co-operative in Gloucestershire.

Up in Bridgefoot, near Aberdeen, a slightly different pattern prevails. Twelve years ago Colin Ward, another award winner, fulfilled his dream of running a small farm when he was able buy the 17 acres of land next to his house. From the food grown there he now supplies 100 households locally with a box of fresh seasonal vegetables every Friday between July and February. All the boxes are different, since customers can specify what they want and how much they feel like spending, but they're straight from the soil - the lettuces and salad leaves are cut immediately before packing.

The organic boom, in the views of experts, can't and won't progress without the giants of retailing, the supermarkets. According to one recent market analysis, the presence of a major supermarket "is vital to make the foods widely available to the public"; the marketing support supermarkets can supply is "crucial" in raising public awareness of organic foods. But it wouldn't have got off the ground without small, evangelical entrepreneurs like Phil Haughton and Colin Ward.

There are an estimated 200 vegetable box schemes in the UK, delivering to between 30,000 and 40,000 customers and involving about 30 per cent of the country's organic growers. Virtually all have sprung up since the late Eighties and together with farm-gate sales and farmers' markets they now account for roughly a fifth of the sales of organic foods, far more than is the case with conventional foods and highly unusual in retailing. Supermarkets account for over two-thirds of sales, a proportion that has been rising fast, and independent outlets for about one tenth.

But the humble vegetable box represents more than an attempt simply to supply fresh food directly from producers to consumers. It is seen as one way of reinvigorating the local economy and turning back the tide of globalisation that has washed over the world in the past two decades - bringing with it, for many communities, job losses, bank closures, and the leaching out of economic wealth. It is part of a wider movement that has seen the sometimes phenomenal growth of credit unions - a form of self-help alternative to banks - local exchange and trading systems (LETS], where people exchange skills and services instead of money, and many other forms of economic DIY.

Globalisation has had a significant impact on food, where, critics argue, it has destroyed seasonality, disconnected people from farming and vastly increased the "food miles" total - the distance food travels from farm to plate - at a high environmental cost. Repairing this damage accords with two of the organic movement's important principles - working in locally organised agricultural systems and taking account of the social and ecological impact of farming methods.

Box schemes are one part of this local food economy, which is known generically as "community supported agriculture". Others are food co-operatives, community- owned farms and gardens, allotments, farmers' markets and local cooking businesses.

In the UK, the number of farmers' markets, where producers sell direct to customers, has increased dramatically in the past few years. There are now 120 of them, held regularly from Penzance in Cornwall to Perth in Scotland. Many local authorities are helping to establish farmers' markets as part of their sustainable development strategy, known as Local Agenda 21 since being agreed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In Bath, a pilot market was set up by the city council and the Bath Environment Centre in 1997, with up to 30 farmers and producers selling to 3,000 customers every month. The stallholders have now formed their own association and hold the market fortnightly.

Community-supported agriculture began in Japan 30 years ago - it was known as teikei, meaning "putting the farmers' face on food" - and more recently has spread to the US and Europe, notching up remarkable growth.

In 1990 there were about 60 such schemes in the US, mainly "subscription farming" in which customers commit themselves to buying produce from a local grower: the grower receives a fair price, the customer can even help out with the harvest. Today there are more than 1,000 involving over 100,000 families. And with support from the National Lottery Charities Board, the Soil Association is now setting up 15 Food Futures projects around the UK - all aimed at generating new networks for producing and selling food. Three are already operating, in Leicestershire, Cumbria and Powys.

The doorstep economy has pointed a different way forward for local producers. So far, at least, it's proving extraordinarily popular.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.


ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic and Motion Designer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Do you get a buzz from thinking up new ideas a...

    Recruitment Genius: Media Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

    £14500 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Female Care Worker

    £7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This expanding, vibrant charity which su...

    Recruitment Genius: Parts Supervisor & Advisor - Automotive

    £16500 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones