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Meet the grower

Meet the grower
So in this unit, we’re exploring the realities of running a farming business. I’ve come here to Growing With Grace– a small organic producer in the Northwest of England– to find out about the challenges of running an unconventional business. And also, how you can make such a business succeed.
So Neil, tell me a bit about the history of Growing With Grace, when it originally started? Yes, we started in 2000 as a group of Quakers that were interested in local food. And I had involvement with box scheme before that, so the idea was to start growing our own somewhere locally. These glass houses were available, so we slowly grew from small beginnings, to a 250 box scheme. That’s 250 customers. At that time, we would have been employing about 16 members of staff, albeit part time. I think it was about eight full time equivalents at the highest. And we’ve got a farm shop on site which people can come and buy organic veg but also Whole Foods.
But our main businesses is box scheme. The great thing about boxes, is you can keep it seasonal. So when I’m building boxes on a weekly basis, I’m looking for what items are available from local producers. So that I can build a balanced box, where you’ve got your staples of potatoes, carrots, and onions, but you’ve also got some niceties in there and not always cabbage. Which is a perennial problem for box schemes, is that it’s easy chuck a cabbage in. A bit harder to put something like spinach, or chard, or those sort of items. So very much local, very much English as well.
So one of the advantages of buying from someone like yourself, is that you are likely to get something that’s very different perhaps from what you might find in the supermarkets? That’s it. With our grower Cara we can say, well let’s have this sort of crop for the boxes or for the shop. So that it gives something a little bit different to what’s the mainstream, and give it a little bit of a wow factor. So is the nature of what you’ve grown changed over the years? Have you had to experiment to find what things work well in this space? Yeah. Lots of things have been tried. Some of which have worked well, but don’t make a lot of money.
And other things that have not worked at all. So we’ve come to where we are with a lot of trial and error. Sure. I think that’s true of anyone. But we also try to be as ethical and as experimental as we can afford to be. We do try to use some open-pollinated or traditional varieties, and we mix that with using commercially bred sophisticated modern varieties. And we are try to contrast them to see what works for us. I wonder if I can point something out that’s in here? So this is purple sprouting broccoli. That’s just leaves at the moment. In the spring we’ve got– in the ground in this house– four different varieties of purple sprouting broccoli.
One’s the open pollinated, traditional, generic purple sprouting– which everyone will do– and then the others are sophisticated, modern, more expensive F1 seeds, that have been designed to produce broccoli at different points during the spring and into the summer. The idea being hopefully, we’re going to stay true to our roots with the traditional variety, and still make maybe that little bit of extra income by going with the commercial stuff as well. So obviously organic is something that’s really important to you and what do here at Grow With Grace, but in terms of your customers is organic something that’s also very important to them? Yeah. We’re all under glass. So we grow the more valuable crops.
There the certain crops like potatoes, carrots, and onions which don’t make a lot of sense. And brassicas don’t make a lot of sense growing under the glass, so we do have to purchase them from outside. There’s a strong wish that things are as local as possible. And so we do have a policy of own crop over local, over regional. Which we use Yorkshire and Lancashire because we are conveniently placed on the border between the two. And then, national. And then we will go overseas out of season, so that customers get balanced box. But there’s a lot of people pull us– there’s a lot of strong feelings in amongst our customers about whether it should be local, or organic.
But the quality and range of what they get is also important. And so we’ve got to try and balance that all the time. Sure, sure. So obviously in terms of the business realities as well– there’s been a lot of stuff in the press in recent years about farming crisis, farming having a hard time– what’s that been like for you here? The credit crunch affected organic farms in a very big way. I think quite a lot of farms went out of business. We certainly felt it. And in 2008 it was really difficult, and we had to start thinking about reducing the staff considerably and restructuring. Which had a further impact on our income.
And then we ended up with three full-time equivalents. I think organics were perceived to be expensive, and therefore the cheapest supermarkets have done quite well in a time when other people have been really struggling. It has been difficult. Where we would like to pay everyone a decent wage, but at the moment we’re on minimum wage. That is the facts of growing organically. And you have to look at that. It’s more of a lifestyle to be in the organic environment, rather than purely for a financial benefit. The future is brighter now. There’s been an upturn in the market in the last year. And now back up to five members of staff, so things are moving in the right direction.
But it’s a slow process.
So Growing With Grace is community owned. Can you explain a little bit about how that works? We have a share offer, that we have for people to join in with Growing With Grace, promote it, and to help preserve the way that we grow our fruit and veg. For now, for the future really. So is being community owned an important part of your business model then? Yeah. It’s the ethical background. That if it’s down to one individual and financially doesn’t work out– as with organic farms over the recession– there are fewer of them around now. But being community owned, it means that you have loyal customers that have put their money into the business, and they will continue to support it.
Brilliant. Thank you, sir. I’ll be in touch. All right, that’s great. See you again. Take care. What are you main survival strategies for enabling a business like this to work and be successful? You’ve got to give a personal service. Customers these days are looking for that little bit of extra help or information. You can go online, buy everything you need, everything you require, but customers need to know that there’s a person behind that website. Who will phone them up and say, did you need this? Did you need that? So the personal touch. So in terms of the balance between say, box scheme, wholesale, there’s different aspects of the business.
How have you gone about working out which aspects work best for you? The best balance for us, is obviously if we can get it to people in the box scheme, that is the best way. Because you’re not then dependent on people coming into the shop for your revenue. So wholesale is different. It’s consistent, and that’s where we probably move on– so if I overflow of what we’re not getting through on our box scheme in the shop. So are there any other avenues that you have or would consider selling to? So farmers markets for example, or supermarkets? Farmers markets, yes. It opens an avenue and gives you multi-levels of sales.
You’ve got the sales on the day, but you’ve also got the knock-on sales through the box scheme, that you can then backup customers. And supermarkets, is that an avenue you’d ever go down? With this scale we are at the moment, no. We couldn’t keep up demand for what they wanted, and to give them the price of produce that they would expect. Quality is not a problem, but it really comes down to the price that they would expect to have it for. Our founding ethics rule that out to some degree. But as a wholesaler, I think we would look to supplying a supplier of box schemes, before we looked to the supermarkets.
It might be one day that we need to go down that road, we can’t rule out that option, but we feel that we will be feeding the problem rather than providing an alternative to the supermarkets. I did feel that during the early 2000s– as home deliveries and box schemes– were starting to make an impact on the supermarkets, but they got smart to that. Home deliveries and things, and they’re having an impact on us now. So originally home deliveries and organic box schemes were something that organic growers pioneered, and then supermarkets moved into that space didn’t they? Yeah. Through the 90s and early 2000s, the box schemes were growing rapidly.
The numbers of customers on each box scheme was growing, and there’s a lot of publicity around negative food reports. That was having a very positive impact.
Through that time, the growth rate of the organic sector was something that the supermarkets became very aware of– and wanted a bit of– so they started stocking organic in the supermarkets. Promoting it quite strongly. But they still realised that they were missing a trick with home deliveries. And so in the late ’90s, Tesco started– being the first one– started doing that to begin with. Because it didn’t have the link to the farms and things that the organics have it didn’t have much of an impact. But now in this area, we see all the main supermarkets with delivery schemes. So that has had an impact on our home deliveries.
Because there’s lots of options– and of course the supermarkets have their marketing power, and their massive range of stock– have an advantage over us in many ways from that point of view. Not a sustainable point of view– No. –from the choice to the customer, and the convenience. And of course the biggest thing for us, was trying to get a system– and ordering system– that was anywhere near as good as theirs. Which it’s been difficult. What we have, is direct from farm to– you know– you’re dealing with the farmer in the process as well. So it’s that direct link. And other things– more structural things perhaps– that you feel could be done to help support smaller organic producers such as yourself?
It really comes down to customer preference and customers saying, we are going to support local rather than national companies. Otherwise the big boys are going to get on top. And they’ll be less and less of us around for local people to promote, and enjoy fresh produce that is two days old versus a week old. Salads nowadays can last three or four days in the fridge, whereas our salads will last a week, 10 days, because they’re freshly picked. And the health implications are enormous as well. Of course, the other thing to bear in mind– is in our current economy– petrol is cheaper than people. And it’s probably cheaper than horses too.
And if you want people to have jobs in agriculture– and to keep being trained and skilled to take over agriculture for when oil gets scarcer and scarcer– then we need to start having those people working on the land now. So we can start training the next couple of generations. And at the moment, when you get that kind of cheap food, that’s dependent on cheap oil. So it’s not as if there’s someone out there who’s rubbing their hands together thinking, I’m so glad I’ve got that middle class market, I’m getting rich off organics. That’s not happening. No, no completely.
And you were saying obviously, as well, that you’re part of a soil association scheme that’s trying to get more– the next generation of people into it organic farming. Can you explain a bit more about that? That’s really exciting. So I am an apprentice at Growing With Grace, and I’m trained through a scheme called Future Growers. Which is run by the soil association. And it’s in it’s third or fourth year I believe. And what they’re doing especially working with growers, growers especially– it’s in horticulture mainly, rather than sheeps, pigs, dairy, that kind of thing– to encourage them to take on new, younger people. Train them up.
And we go away for seminars with soil scientists and other growers, and talk about rotations, and propagation, and fertilising, and everything that we need to know. With the idea that we are going to be here to take on those farms as the current generation of organic pioneers are getting ready to retire. And I think that is really important, because there are– all these farms are here. And for many of them, if the children don’t want the farm, then there isn’t actually a skilled workforce. And there is no other way of learning organic horticulture. Which is amazing.
So if you think, when I wanted to go and learn organic horticulture, you can study horticulture– which tends to focus on amenity horticulture like shrubs and flowers and round abouts– and football pitches. You can do a whole course about how to look after a football pitch. There’s nothing almost about organics. I think there’s a couple of colleges, and very little about food. So yeah, the future grower scheme is a really good scheme. And it’s a really good way of getting people into growing the stuff we eat.
Having started to think about the pressures facing farmers across the world, we take a more detailed look at the situation facing small-scale producers in the UK.
How real are the difficulties confronting growers and what strategies are producers using to counteract these?
We travel to Growing With Grace, a local organic grower in the North West of England, which is committed to producing food in a socially and environmentally responsible way, to find out how it is possible to survive in the midst of challenging times for farming.
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