This week, Amy and I visited one of the longest standing suppliers to the box scheme: Grahame Hughes of Hughes organics, based in village of Attleborough, Norfolk.
Grahame Hughes has been supplying the box scheme for over 10 years: with produce from his own farm and as coordinator of a cooperative of farms. The approach was designed to ensure that the farmers involved are paid a fair price for their produce and by working together they make a greater range of produce available.
Grahame originally hailed from a family of social workers and teachers in South London. A university place took him away from the urban sprawl to study social studies at the University of East Anglia. However, a chance part time job as a parks gardener led to a moment of epiphany that was to shape the rest of his life. “I realised that I loved working outside and that I had a natural aptitude for growing”. From there Grahame worked on a small ½ acre organic growing site: a pioneering project back in the 80s and quickly was headhunted by a local farmer that wanted to switch to organics. Soon Grahame was running an 80 acre site and the rest, as they say, is history.
Grahame and Lizzie Hughes are unsung heros of the organic movement, people that have continued to demonstrate a tireless commitment to organic growing as well as providing a fairer, alternative way of getting this type of produce to small scale projects and box schemes that would otherwise be ignored by larger industrial scale food distribution systems. Grahame is also a bit of a legend amongst Growing Communities staff: several of whom have worked for him in the past. As Amy puts it: “Grahame is calm, dependable and a great teacher. Working for Grahame changed the direction of my life and I wouldn’t be at Growing Communities if it hadn’t been for him”.
We visited Grahame’s three quarter of an acre glasshouse, to see where some of the watercress and annual spinach will be grown for the GC box scheme next year. From there we went down the road to Breckland farm, where Grahame now has his office. Breckland Farm is a medium size organic farm, with 180 acres given over to organic vegetable production. At it’s helm is another Graham: Graham Negus, who alongside his son Chris grows organic carrots, broccoli, leeks, sprouts and butternut squash (in your bags this week).
Like Grahame Hughes, Graham Negus didn’t originate from a family of farmers. “I started in farming when I was 16 and my family bought the site. Many farms around here are passed down from generation to generation, so as newcomers we were understandably viewed with a little bit of suspicion. 30 or so years on I think we’ve been accepted”, he said with a twinkle in his eye.
Breckland was originally a conventional farm, supplying supermarkets but this changed 5 years ago “To be honest the original motivation to change to organics was commercial, however, 5 years on it's proved to be a rewarding experience in terms of learning to farm in a different way as well as seeing the benefits to the local environment… If I think back to some of the agri-chemicals we used to use on the land 20 years ago I’m relieved that we are no longer in that business”.
The other positive aspect of supplying organic produce to organisations other than supermarkets is that there isn’t so much waste: Graham N estimates that up to 50% of a perfectly good crop can be rejected by supermarkets obsessed with conformity of look.
On the train ride back to Hackney we reflected upon the real and tangible difference that supporting GC style box scheme can make to issues such as the environment and food waste. We may not always have perfectly formed carrots, but they taste good and with every bite you know you're making an impact.