Click your own

Shortlisted for Food Writer of the Year, Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards, 2013, this article was first published in the Financial Times Magazine and FT.com on  14 September, 2012.

How often have you dreamt about growing your own vegetables or picking your own fruit? Most townies are prone to such thoughts, but the nearest most of us get to realising these fantasies is lingering in a farmers market on a summer’s day or picking blackberries on a country walk.   However, the reality of growing or picking your own produce is becoming much easier, thanks to a movement within rural England to link home-cooks with the land through a web of local food sources.

The latest scheme, Abbey Parks i-grow, can be found in the fens of Lincolnshire, near East Heckington.   It’s the brainchild of 26-year-old Harry Loweth. “I had one of those light bulb moments,” he says.   “There had been a lot in the press about the demand for allotments and sustainable living.   A friend of mine, an IT consultant, had been talking about how the future of shopping was going to be online and I suddenly thought, this could be the future – you rent an allotment online, click on to which crops you want to grow and we do all the work and send you the produce”.  

The allotments are planted in the middle of his family’s arable farm.  The Loweths grow a wide variety of crops, from asparagus and potatoes to sugar beet and onions. Their land is grade 1 silt, reclaimed from the sea 450 years ago. It’s perfect, if you’ve a mind to ask them to grow you peas, French beans, fennel, leeks or red chard.  For £125 you can rent a six sq m allotment for a year and plant six rows of herbs and vegetables. Loweth estimates that this will give you a minimum of five boxes from summer to winter, sent by next-day-delivery to your home.   Once a row is harvested, you can, for a small fee, replant it with another crop, such as spring onions, rocket or radishes.

“Of course, if people let us know, they can come and pick, or even weed their own allotments, but we’ll look after it the rest of the time, and email them regular updates on how everything is growing” says Loweth.   So far, he has rented out 38 plots with minimal advertising.   “It’s mainly been word of mouth and through the farm shop, although we did have an enquiry from someone living in Denmark”.

According to a report published in June 2012 by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the steep rise of shopping on the internet is one trend that rural communities can use to their advantage to link people to local produce.  

Michael Dallaway has already benefited from the power of the internet. Four years ago, he set up a website to rent out the cherry trees in one of his East Sussex orchards.   “Fifteen hundred people now rent a tree from us” he says.   For a mere £42.50 per annum you can choose the variety of your tree, picnic under it when the orchard is in blossom and harvest its fruit over a 10-day period in July. Heaven for his urban customers, who head out for their own personal cherryfests. 

In a good year, a cherry tree will yield about 10kg-12kg of fruit, but in a bad year, Dallaway has a few spare trees that people can pick to make up for the lower yield.   “A banking friend of mine says I’m dealing in cherry futures” he chuckles.   “Some years, I do better with the cherries that I pick and sell in farmers’ markets, other years I do better with the rented trees”.   Other fruit growers are now following suit.  

Another way to source your food is through Community Supported Agriculture schemes. This is where a local group funds a project and either employs others, or runs the scheme themselves. It can cover any form of food from shares in a pig or honey bees to fruit and vegetables. Many schemes offer a little slice of arcadia, such as Chagfood Community Agriculture in Devon, where the land is tilled by a working horse and every weekly vegetable box is topped by a posy of flowers.

Ed Hamer and Chinnie Kingsbury run the scheme for their local community. They’re surrounded by pastoral farmland, but little produce is grown for shops in their area.   “We wanted to give people local, affordable, ecologically produced vegetables” says Hamer.   “We’ve rented two fields which gives us four acres.” Some people help with the harvesting and packing of the boxes, others just come down to the gardens to hang out.   “Early in the year, there isn’t that much to put in the boxes, but from July to October everyone gets a full box” he says.   It costs £600 per annum for a large box subscription and £440 for a small one.   In summer, members can expect to find melons, peppers and tomatoes nestling amongst their new potatoes, carrots, French beans, basil and chard.

It is still early days, but according to the CPRE’s report, these new schemes are set to grow rapidly in the next few years. Eating your own fruit and vegetables could be much closer than you imagined.

www.i-grow.org;  

www.chagfood.org.ukwww.rentacherrytree.co.uk

If you’re keen to start living the good life, you can check out local schemes at: www.localfoods.org.uk and for CSA schemes, see: www.soilassociation.org/communitysupportedagriculture/findacsa


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