Whilst some may battle with a triffid-like harvest of weeds and vegetables, Simon Ford emerges unscathed from his vegetable garden and wonders how the economic downturn is affecting those that pioneered the sale of local veg.
Anyone who grows veg is familiar with how garden veg plants operate at least one step behind their natural cousins. Wild food plants get going quickly and deliver their bounty early. That their tamed relatives are late developers is odd. Since we lavish so much care and attention on them you would have thought they would thrive like hot housed children.
Suddenly as summer mellows into autumn the late developers spurt and the vegetable harvest catches up and is rapidly almost too bountiful. The plants you willed to grow tall and strong enough to swerve the slugs in March and April start throwing out more courgettes than one of those annoying books boasting ‘100 recipes for…” could even cope with. Let alone setting the task of passing on the surplus yards of runner beans that dangle from every upright structure in the garden. The “hungry gap” can yawn for a surpirisingly long time – from April into July – but when the harvest arrives it is amply filled. It is a surpirse how quickly plenty satisfies the craving for fresh greens.
But now many of us are getting used to seasonal gluts as more of us sow and reap our own. In 2008 vegetable seeds outsold flower seeds. The first time that had happenned since we were told that our only chance for national survival was to “Dig for Victory”.
The root cause of this switch around: the credit crunch. As hard times shone a bright light on the rising costs of food we got the carrot crunch. If you want tasty local food then it certainly makes sense to grow it as locally as you can, get it into the pot as fast as you can, and eat it while it tastes at its best.
But I believe the ground had been well prepared for the new allotment holders by a previous generation of locally based small scale commercial growers. These oganic market gardeners fed an increasing appetite for local fresh food which in turn released an underlying unease many felt at the industrialised supermarket food which is the alternative. But hard times visited on us by bankers may have created a difficult paradox. The hedge fund hunters are preying once again on the gentle argrarian farmers. Our local growers are in danger of becoming a new squeezed middle. Caught between hard up home growers and cost conscious consumers, the rapid growth in the market for their produce has checked.
There are a number of objections to supermarket veg. The overlit supermarket veg counter laden with swollen peppers tomatoes and aubergines comes at aesthetic, environmental, and human costs besides the financial one. The products are perfectly formed and boldly coloured, like children’s plastic toys at a nursery, but bland and pumped up with water and nutrients. They reward the eyes at the expense of flavour and texture in the mouth. You buy them to make the gaudy Mediterranean dishes created in minutes on telly, on the plate they nearly match the pictures on looks but the dishes slightly dissapoint as they fail to burst with flavour. Despite the disappointments the easiest thing is to keep returning to play with them.
But this year vegetables joined the club of so many other food stuffs, they had their own full on food scare moment. Who could forget the images of literally hundreds of tonnes of Spanish cucumbers being destroyed blameless, but probably tasteless, victims of the latest food panic. An entire sector of the Spanish economy nearly taken out despite the Gummerish attempts of the Spanish Minister of Agriculture to prove food safety by consuming whole cucumbers in front of the cameras. At least she didn’t use her children as potential sacrificial victims at the altar of public hysteria.
After the photo opportunities passed it was a shame the media glare didn’t switch to the story of how this industrial glut of cucumbers were actually produced. Southern Spain is now covered with so many polytunnels they are visible from space, in them migrant workers toil in conditions that would shame a nineteenth century mill owner. They slave in high temperatures magnified by plastic, while the plants are drenched in pesticides and fertilisers. Of course that means the workers are also constantly exposed. Most are so poor that they have no proper housing and sleep in plastic shanty towns in the midst of this agri-industrial complex.
This food scandal left me torn. I felt sympathy for the workers whose jobs might go and whose conditions would undoubtedly worsen as the owners lost money; and hope that the scare would teach us that there must be a better way.
Eventually that nasty outbreak was put down not to cucumbers, but to a batch of infected fenugreek seeds that scatterred deadly food poisoning throughout Germany. (One high value veg niche I wouldn’t want to be in now is sprouted seeds business…). It was a telling moment on the food miles debate. A demonstration of how despite the severity of the symptoms and the extent of public panic, the product of one farm could spread across an entire country, and so make it impossible to trace exactly what was making people so ill.
Where you get your five a day, as ever, comes down to the question at the root of all food politics. Do we want to know more about what we are putting into our mouths? Are we worried about poisonning ourselves? Do we mind supporting unwholesome ethically challenging and wasteful industrial production? Are we prepared to pay a little more or put in a bit more effort to eat well?
Buying vegetables direct from producers at the farm gate, from market stalls, or from box schemes provides a good answer to all those questions. No wonder the number of people who insist on real food have burgeoned.
Selling direct is also a smart solution for the producers as instead of receiving twenty per cent of the retail value for their crops they get to keep the lot. Though to get the benefit it entails a lot more work packing endless boxes with just the right number of carrots and leeks or standing at a stall on a freezing February day preaching the virtues of mudcaked root vegetables amongst the non believers.
The curse of the cucumber may now have lifted, but even for the non converts the long distance freighted supermarket veg counter may now seems a little less attractive. With the craze for grow your own in full spate there is a fresh alternative which is to go ultra local and do it ourselves. If the trend continues what of the champions of local production who do it for a living? I asked around amongst some of the Dorset producers to see whether their businesses were still growing.
Unfortunaetley the carrot crunch is afflicting the market gardeners and small scale mixed farms that pioneered local and organic.
Although there are now more than six hundred box schemes, nationally sales grew by only 1% last year. This might be put down to a losing struggle with the intensely seasonal and therefore glut prone contents of their boxes, something all box buyers sometimes experience. I am a victim too, once aware that I was in denial about accumulating large quantities of brassicas, I carried out a quick audit. I shocked even myself to find twelve cauliflowers tucked away in every part of the fridge and larder: each with their tight creamy curdy heads opening out into sulphorously pungent yellow dreadlocks.
Small scale growers are aware of this problem. For exanple they know that foodies fall on the first purple sprouting broccoli of spring. We take it home and lovingly bathe it in hollandaise sauce, whilst comparing it favourably with asparagus. After the fourth week of availability our enthusiasm quickly palls. While PSB is still classed a treat you’ll never drum up much enthusiasm for a swede, let alone the exotically named but prosaically performing Kohlrhabi.
Unearthing the seasonal staples is one thing, even the most dedicated new digger is unlikely to plant enough main crop potatoes to last a year. But it is hard for the market gardener to charge much of a premium on these basics. A nutty and newly dug ratte can be sold as worthy of being a dish in its own right, a King Edward is unlikely to sell on its ability to rule alone.
The trick is to find a few niche highly prized crops which reward the labour that goes into them. The most extreme example I have come across was an intrepid American couple who had researched the perfect latitude, temperature and altitude for growing macademia nuts. This is a nut so posh it only turns left on planes. The only hitch in the plan that the perfect place was in the middle of the guerilla controlled Chiapas region of Mexico. And they were in peril of being seen as the Yankee invaders. Nevertheless they had planted their nuts and were patiently waiting for the trees to grow. Meanwhile they scratched a living offering horse trekking to a few others holidaying in a danger zone.
My brother too did his research before he moved to Agen in Southern France. He found a region which is not just perfect for plums but where the conditions converge to suit both the fruits of the South – the olive and the tomatoe and those of the North – the apple and the pear. Visits to his place always result in fantastic feasts but he has found that for every crop he grows he is matched by what is in the market.
A few years ago an enterprising peasant discovered the local conditions were also perfect for kiwi fruits. Now these foreign fruits are everywhere and available for cents.
Closer to home the problem is that it is harder to sell high margin vegetables This new wave of growing isn’t the Tom and Barbara 70 ‘s nostalgia of self sufficiency. People now want a good life and a cheaper one, they are growing more and therefore buying less of the expensive stuff. You can see this demonstrated by the seeds which have seen the biggest increase in sales the last two years. Zooming to near the Top of the Charts is rocket, followed by pak choi and purple sprouting broccoli, with the chilli pepper topping the lot. A testament to our exotic tastes but bad news for those who were previously selling them to the more food aware consumers.
This bunch of vegetables perhaps more than others have a sort of charisma, you feel good when you know you’ve nurtured them yourself precisely because they are not “common or garden”. The labour feels worthwhile as you can probably also work out the money you have saved.
It is more than a coincidence that two of the list also go into many of the mixed salad leave bags. Of course if you really want to taste what a salad bag should taste of, search out some of the many local producers. Ourganics, Tamarisk Farm or Bothenhampton Organics all sell salad bags which leave you wondering why anyone bothers with the supermarket equivalent. The supermarket ones seem to be bought on the principle that they are reassuringly expensive and so must be good for you. But remember as well as the inflated prices the leaves have been grown with artificial fertilisers and pesticides washed in anti bacterial chemicals and then the bags have been filled with inert gas to extend their shelf life. Or if you are not put off by the process ask yourself why on contact with fresh air or dressing they collapse so quickly into compost.
Thankfully the small enterprises are finding a way back. Ready sprouted seeds may be bad news at the moment but selling seeds for grow your own can be a good business. Michael and Joy Michaud sell seeds carefully selected for flavour. If you are going to lavish months of loving care on a plant you want it to reward you. This year I can recommend their mange tout. Most towns now have market stall holders, greengrocers and flower shops who have cottonned on and where you can indulge in a little cheque book gardening by buying baby plants at a premium on the costs of seeds.
The Michaud’s of course founded one of the great Dorset niches. They developed a set of conditions for the chilli pepper so perfect they have breed the Dorset naga. Comfortably the hottest chilli in the world. They use poly tunnels on a human scale to cheat the latitude of optimum pepper growth. Whatismore most of their plants are grown for taste not heat.
It is ironic that the poly tunnel which is a prime instrument in the industrialised food chain is also one way for the small scale professional grower to keep ahead of the amateur, by advancing the seasons a month or so at each end they swerve the gluts. But I am afraid even this competitive advantage can be lost to the really enthusiastic amateur (like me) who sets his heart of having one himself in pursuit of good food and a good and healthy life.
Despite tough times I hope we will continue to turn away from ersatz veg and buy everything we can’t grow from ethical local producers. It would be sad if one consequence of the carrot crunch was that the only poly tunnels visible from space in Dorset were those of the grow your own enthusiasts.