Vegetable magic

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Fancy some asparagus, mange-tout or baby corn? No problem. It was picked thousands of miles away yesterday and it will be in the supermarket tomorrow

When you next buy baby corn or asparagus from the supermarket, look at the label. If it says Gordon's Country Fresh, your veggies have come from Zimbabwe: 60 hours previously they could have been growing under the warm sun of the high veldt.

This is globalisation working at full stretch. Some - particularly environmentalists and food writers - call it globalisation gone mad. But the fact is that in a free trade world it makes perfect economic sense to bring tiny vegetables over 5,000 miles to market. The story of the baby corn shows why.

The tale begins at Hilbre Farm, a 5,700-acre spread near Norton, about an hour's drive west of Harare. To the untutored eye, the country looks desiccated. But the miles of wheat and maize tell a different story. This is prime arable land and Ian Gordon, Hilbre's owner, is one of the country's most successful and best-known farmers.

The 52-year-old Gordon is a Zimbabwe farmer straight out of central casting. Tall and burly, he is dressed in shorts, long socks and a beaten leather jacket. A broad-brimmed hat half conceals his tanned face and thick grey hair. Sitting in a colonial-style guest house, watching the springbok, this is surely a man from another age.

But Gordon is no traditional whitey farmer. Where others have preferred to stick with tobacco or grains, content with familiar markets, he has developed a booming business exporting fresh mange-touts, asparagus, baby carrots, baby corn and sugarsnap peas to Europe, Australia and the Far East.

In little more than two years his horticulture operation has gone from nothing to being one of the most dynamic in the country.

Whatever the season in the northern hemisphere, Gordon can grow crops competitively. Even at the height of the northern summer and with air freight costs of Z$2m (pounds 130,000) a month, he can easily undercut the market gardeners of the Vale of Evesham. Hilbre is blessed with a climate that allows different crops to be produced around the year: there are seasons but they vary by humidity, not temperature. It also has its own plentiful supply of water, the most precious commodity in Zimbabwe. Labour is plentiful and cheap, and Hilbre has huge economies of scale. It is bigger than any arable farm in Britain, and dwarfs the biggest market garden.

These elements have always been there. What has changed recently is the cost of two vital links in the chain: transport and information. Air freight is now so cheap to make the shipment of humble vegetables economic, and computers enable Hilbre and its customers to make, track and record orders all the way from field to dining room table.

Seeds are planted every four days, according to a schedule laid out by Hilbre's biggest customers in the UK. The key man here is Dorian Perry, marketing director of Gordon's agent, Arbor International of Ascot, Berkshire. "We take responsibility for his product from the seed to the shopping basket," he says. Using historic buying patterns provided by the supermarkets (he handles Gordon's sales to Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury, Waitrose and Safeway), he can work out planting patterns.

In fact, Gordon plants 50 per cent more than the amount he expects to sell to the chains. This allows him to select the best produce for them, and also gives him a cushion if bad weather cuts the crop. Excess vegetables can be sold at New Covent Garden.

If you are buying baby corn from Marks & Spencer tomorrow afternoon, it may have been picked in Zimbabwe yesterday. The process started at 6am when Hilbre's managers linked their Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) system to Arbor's computers in Berkshire and downloaded the packing schedule for the day. Arbor had been fed two hours earlier with data from the retail groups, showing how much had been sold the previous day.

The supermarkets have invested heavily in their out-of-season goods operations. Britain has long imported hard fruit from the southern hemisphere - but it comes by sea, and can ripen en route. It is only in the past 20 years that the chains have set about expanding the selling season for vegetables and perishable fruit. At first they encouraged UK growers to grow more intensively: British strawberries are now available 30 weeks a year. Then they began importing. Twelve years ago, M&S started buying from Geoff Perlman in Zimbabwe: he is its biggest out-of-season bean supplier. Now it buys from around the world. As Gordon is rare in offering year- round supplies, M&S rotates its sourcing. Salads, for example, come from Kenya, Portugal, Arizona and Florida at different times of year.

The chains have been aided in their marketing efforts by the willingness of British consumers to change their habits. Urban dwellers do not see the produce ripening around them, so they are not offended by the idea of eating a fresh peach in February. Southern Europeans, by contrast, have yet to accept out-of-season produce - for which many food writers applaud them.

Gordon sells 120 tonnes of vegetables a month to industrial countries. He is the main supplier of baby corn and out-of-season asparagus to M&S, and also

of baby corn and out-of-season asparagus to M&S, and also supplies Sainsbury, Asda and Safeway in the UK, as well as stores in France and even Australia. His turnover is Z$100m (pounds 6.5m) a year. He will not give away the precise economics of his operation, but he can survive - unsubsidised - on a payment of Z$14 (91p) for a kilo of vegetables. By the time its gets to the supermarket, pre-packed baby corn is selling for pounds 8.20 a kilo.

As soon as the order comes in to Hilbre, the operation swings from high to low tech. The most striking difference between this and a European farm is the sheer number of people. It employs more than 1,000 workers, most of them on the vegetable export side.

As a Marks & Spencer supplier, Gordon says, "Your standards are the highest in the world." If he fails to deliver the right quantity, through his own fault, he is liable to pay the group the retail price in compensation. Quality is carefully monitored: the barcodes on each pack tell Gordon and M&S which group of workers has picked it, and where. As well as quality, the chains demand consistency.

Those who like their vegetables gnarled and organic will have to look elsewhere.

Most of the workers are women. They are given free food, fuel and lodging for as long as they want to stay. There are also recreation facilities. Retired workers receive a pension and are allowed to remain near the property, where many have families. Hilbre's employees are paid by piece work, and earn up to Z$900 (pounds 58) a month.

By rich country standards these are dismal wages indeed. But by Zimbabwe standards, Gordon pays very well. His workers all earn comfortably more than this poor country's minimum wage, without taking their free benefits into account. His "social policy", which he has had for 20 years, favourably impressed M&S. Gordon is proud of the fact that so many of his workers are women. The culture across swathes of Africa is that women do the work and men keep the money. A woman trying to buck the system out in the bush risks isolation, prostitution and worse. Gordon believes Hilbre gives poor women dignity and independence.

In the late afternoon, the day's harvest is put on refrigerated trucks that trundle off to Harare Airport. It is only a one-and-a-half-hour drive: proximity to an international airport is an important element in Hilbre's competitiveness. The vegetables are packed in containers, cooled with cold air, and loaded on to a plane. At nine o'clock the plane takes off and heads north.

Tony Wright, multinational sales manager for British Airways World Cargo, says that airlines played a key role in getting the perishable import business off the ground. He explains that in the late Seventies they were wondering how they could fill up their cargo holds on flights coming in from developing countries: there was plenty of high-value cargo to carry out of Europe, but shipments the other way tended to be low value, and therefore carried by sea. BA started to work with growers in the Caribbean to produce mangoes, which it then carried back to the UK. Wholesalers - at first supplying specialist shops - started buying the produce, and soon the more adventurously palated Britons were gobbling up everything from papaya to baby corn.

As supermarkets became involved in the Eighties, importing perishable fruit and veg became big business for the airlines. BA now imports about 35,000 tonnes a year, and can no longer rely on spare capacity on scheduled flights.

Last winter, for example, it was chartering five freighters a week to bring produce in from Kenya. It is this sort of operation that environmentalists object to: the Sustainable Agriculture, Food and Environment Alliance has pushed for food to be labelled with "food miles" to show how far it has travelled.

Conventional economists argue that the trade is anything but harmful. The World Bank has been encouraging countries such as Kenya and Zimbabwe to move into high-value crop exports, and to use the cash generated to import cheap wheat from North America. To followers of Adam Smith - and Ian Gordon - it makes perfect sense. "Zimbabwe needs foreign exchange," he says simply.

Now the travelling baby corn is landing at Gatwick. It is six o'clock this morning, Sunday. But at this stage its progress is sharply braked, and it is made to wait in its container in a chilled room until cleared by Customs. This could be midday or even later. A lorry belonging to the BOC subsidiary London Cargo then picks it up and takes it to another depot near Heathrow. Here the container is broken down and the packs are sorted for regional distribution. At 11pm, lorries move out to take the baby corn and the rest of the consignment to depots around the country.

Ian Gordon, meanwhile, is putting on a cynical front. "If I had known four years ago what I know now I would have thought hard about doing it," he says. "I should be slowing down but I'm working harder than ever before."

But his actions belie his cynicism: he is planning to buy a farm in Zambia to give him true all year round coverage. And he clearly gets a kick from what he is doing. "Anyone who starts a business needs to employ as much labour as possible," he says. He believes he has saved many women from prostitution: at least in his eyes, there is no doubt that the out- of-season produce business wins on moral, as well as commercial grounds.