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.

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