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Good things that come in smallish boxes

Fifty-eight white cardboard boxes are laid out on the packing bench along the centre of the shed, each inscribed with the name of a customer in bold blue letters. Up and down the line ranges Mike Fisher, doling out organic vegetables harvested earlier in the day: three pounds of new potatoes dug an hour ago, onions, young carrots, courgettes, cucumbers, flat French beans, lettuces.

Mike is not yet quite at the stage of talking to his plants but sometimes, he admits, he is not far off it. A lean, wiry fellow of 36, he is in his first year as a full-time grower, and he is making a go of it - but only by dint of long hours and the hardest of graft.

He bought his site - a 12-acre field high on the Hampshire downs - in 1991, when land prices were low, and began to cultivate part of it in his spare time. He was then workng at the historic, water-powered silk mill in Whitchurch, where he maintained the machinery, and he kept his job there for the time being.

In 1994 he launched his box scheme, delivering fresh vegetables once a week to 30 households in his immediate area. Such was the response that by last year he had 60 customers, and he cut down his work at the mill to three days a week. Then, last December, he gave it up altogether and went into growing full-time.

He is now taking out 110 boxes a week, and living on-site. He is up and out at 7am every morning to open the polythene tunnels which house some of the crops, and he works at least a 12-hour day. One major expense has been the installation of a bore-hole, which gives him enough water for trickle irrigation: the drilling, pump and so on cost pounds 4,000. Apart from that, he has equipped himself on the cheap, picking up an old tractor and a few implements at farm sales. His long packing shed was once a battery- hen house which he himself brought from another site and rebuilt.

His success has been due largely to word of mouth, but he also benefits from being a member of the Soil Association, which publishes an annual directory of farm shops and box schemes, and puts potential buyers in touch with growers. The corollary is that his holding is inspected once a year to make sure that he is not using any artificial fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides.

On the contrary: his aim is to maintain his ground in the best possible condition by natural means - manure, compost and careful rotation of crops. The organic tag is certainly a help; but what seems to attract customers most is sheer freshness, and the fact that vegetables are delivered. Several people are so enthusiastic that they have designated themselves "collectors": in Basingstoke, for instance, there are three who receive a dozen boxes apiece, for friends and neighbours to pick up. This year, for the first time, several people paid for a whole season's boxes in advance, putting up over pounds 200 per household to provide the grower with a bit of working capital.

Many customers say the scheme has changed the way they plan their menus. Not only does it encourage them to eat more vegetables: it also makes them cook more, and rely less on packets.

Meanwhile, out at the ranch, this Friday's boxes are nearly full. They are of three values - pounds 8, pounds 6 and pounds 4 - however, Mike's aim is that all should look "abundant and good value". He reckons that the cost is about the same as that of conventional produce in a supermarket.

None of the vegetables is washed or individually packed: the carrots go in cheek by jowl with the potatoes, and a handful of parsley on top of them. Nor are most portions weighed: after putting one pound of mushrooms on the scales, Mike deals out the rest by eye.

Nobody, he says, complains that the goods are not presented in hygenically sealed in bags. Nobody has any guarantee about what each box is going to contain, and he likes to include at least one surprise. This week the novelty is kohl rabi, a form of brassica root.

At the last moment he pops out to one of the polythene tunnels to cut baskets full of basil and coriander. Topped up with a generous bunch of each, the boxes go into the delivery van smelling irresistibly exotic.

And does he eat the stuff himself? "Tons of it," he says happily. But then, you guessed it: he's a vegetarian.

The directory of farm shops and box schemes is available from the Soil Association, 86 Colston Street, Bristol BS1 5BB (0117 929 0661)