The view from a mountain; an organic food grower's story

 Inspired by the joy of growing, Colette Haynes started Ashurst Organics in 1994, but growing commercially is not without its pitfalls and challenges.  Here is an excerpt from a talk she gave to the Brighton & Hove Organic Gardening Group. It's an inspiring manifesto for organic living, so make yourself comfortable and read on...

About Ashurst Organics - We grow on 15 acres, have 3 large polytunnels and started our box scheme in 1994.  In our first year we ran from June to November and went from 10 boxes a week to 35.  We had our first child in the November (based on the belief that we could just strap it to our backs and carry on).  Then in June 1995 we went from 50 boxes to 100 in just one week.  In 2003 we peaked at about 480 boxes which have slowly declined for a ‘number’ of reasons to about 300 in 2012.

The Veg Box idea was taken up by growers in the late 80’s. Until then there were few other ways to sell organic produce.  The advantages for the customer are: that you get freshly picked veg (home grown without the effort) at affordable prices; the seasonal surprise of what is in the box and a freedom from the burden of choice which pushes the culinary boundaries beyond the predictable broccoli and carrots.   For the grower, the advantages are that we can sell nearly all that we grow, we have a secure market, and a loyal customer base.  It’s a form of unofficial CSA (community supported agriculture).  We know who we are growing for and it’s our scheme members’ enthusiasm which keeps us going.

The disadvantages from our point of view are that we are both growers and retailers.   We have to do two jobs for the price of one - which is a lot of work.  It’s also a hard concept to sell to the unconverted.  A box of veg runs counter current to our culture of convenience and choice.  Seasonal eating is anathema to most people – cabbage again in the winter! Consequently you have to spend a lot of time evangelising – to change people’s expectations and eating habits.  

2012 – What a year! One that will hopefully go down in history as the year the slugs were as big as pigs!  Suffice to say 2012 was the first year in the 19 years we've been growing that the weather felt sinister.

The bigger picture of organic growing - All of us gardeners are connected by our love of food and growing but it’s important to look up from the ground now and then and see why and where we fit into the organic movement; to see how we are also connected in our quest for a better food system.  To understand how important, now more than ever, it is to support organic.

Organic used to be a buzz word - In order to view the bigger picture we need to go back to the ‘rise and fall’ of the box scheme.  In the late 90’s when we first began, Organic was a popular buzz word.  It was ‘in’.  We used to boast that we didn't need a marketing budget.  Our Soil Association membership was advertising enough.  And we used to joke about a ‘backlash’.

While we had our heads down growing the stuff, we failed to notice the markets motives for buying organic.  In retrospect we now realise that a lot of the interest came from scare stories, self interested health issues and simply because it was in fashion.  We had a marvellous put down once from a German artist who shared a studio with a customer who on seeing the delivery remarked dryly ...“what’s this? An organic vegetable box?  Tch....What’s wrong with you?  Do you want to live forever?”...  She did later become a loyal customer on the grounds of flavour and freshness, but it served to highlight what would become one of the main threads of the backlash.  Organic gradually fell out of favour so much so that by 2008 when Monty Don took over as President of the Soil Association he said publicly what we all knew: “Organic had become a dirty word”.

This put everyone in the organic industry in chaos - the market was shrinking.  Our belief that all we had to do was keep selling organic for the countryside to return to organic husbandry was withering.  Other labels became more popular for ethical purchases such as ‘Local’ and ‘Fairtrade’.  

So why did this happen?  The conventional farming sector took our existence personally.   Slogans like ‘food you can trust’ implies that other food you can’t trust. The organic movement preferred caution and rejected the use of GM for a host of reasons.  But the GM lobby consequently played its cards extremely well and slowly allowed organic to become synonymous with anti-science.   And then of course there was just good old fashioned ‘fashion’.  If we were in, it would follow that one day we would be ‘out’.

But why did people suddenly no longer see the benefits of organic production?  To understand this we have to zoom out and get a broader perspective.  From a distance you can see that the enemy of global organic farming is not slugs, pests or disease.  The reason making a living from organic is so hard is 'the system'. By that I mean the way we conduct our economy.  Our socio-economic values - which in our case is our unregulated, free market economy. 

How is our current economic system a problem for Organic? We live in a global economic system and it is globalisation that has created our current food culture.  Competition is the key - we let the market decide - and this is sold to us as a kind of democracy.  We are told that we have control and choice over our destiny.  The theory being that competition will lead to affordability which in turn will lead to equality. We are told that we have power as consumers – we have consumer rights and consumer choice.  But is it real power?  Real choice?  Real equality?   Are equal shopping rights the same as equal distribution of wealth?  

How does organic shape up from a consumer perspective?
Expensive? Yes
Unrealistic? Yes, if you don’t maximise production how can you feed a growing world?
Anti science? Yes, why not take up labour saving weed killers, pesticides, GM seeds?|
Not much better for you? Yes, non organic wont instantly kill you.
Elitist? Yes, It’s more expensive and only the rich can afford it.

Guilty as charged!

There is another way to look at organic: the ecological perspective  - The pioneers of the Soil Association were ecologists.  An association of people from all walks of life and occupations concerned with health.  They weren't selling products.  Eve Balfour, the co-founder was a farmer and friend of Rachel Carson, author of The Silent Spring.  They saw the world from another place on the mountain.  Weed killers, pesticides, oil-based agro-chemicals are all very effective, but they saw the big black clouds forming on the other side of the mountain.  They saw the destruction of biodiversity, poor diet, water pollution, and dwindling wildlife.  They came from the premise that the health of the soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.

They were farmers, scientists, doctors – all looking at the world from a perspective that understood the connectedness of all things.  We are all part of the planet and the universe.  But this is science not mysticism.  We are all connected.  Pollute one thing and you potentially pollute it all.

The organic movement is a broad church.  But the thing that binds it all together is the IFOAM PRINCIPLES of Health, Ecology, Fairness and Care.  These principles are shared values across cultures, yet our economy is based purely on economic growth and profit.

Organic from a producer's perspective -  As a producer of organic vegetables I can categorically say that producing food for the elite is not my motivation.  I do not farm in a labour-intensive way just so I can feed rich people!

Neither do I grow and sell organic for the ‘organic premium’.  Any slight increase in cost is soaked up by the costs of production.  I do it because I believe size matters.  I know that a handful of healthy soil can have more life in it than all people on the planet.  I grow organic because I love life and seek to preserve it in all its diversity. 

So how do we get consumers to care about the environment? We need a food system that supports the collective long term health of ALL living systems, because: NO SOIL – NO NOTHING! We have to counter the negative consumer perspective of organic and back it up.

Can organic feed the world? - In 2008, 61 countries took part in an international research project as part of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) and produced a report: Agriculture at the CrossroadsThe findings were surprising.

Their response to the question: Can organic feed the world?  was answered with another question:  Can conventional industrial agriculture feed the world? The answer is no. They found that we produce enough calories in the world today to feed 14 billion people. Yet we have 1 billion hungry in the world and 1.5 billion obese.  We are literally stuffed and starved. We grow the wrong stuff, in the wrong place and waste too much.  The problem is not lack of food but distribution and inequity.  The IAASTD report found that social, economic and agricultural inequalities are all connected. The problem is systematic; our profit and corporate driven food system does not recognise planetary boundaries or equity.  

Other useful facts from the IAASTD report:

  • Conventional agriculture takes 10 calories to produce 1 calorie of food.
  • On average, organic farms have 30 % higher biodiversity, including birds, insects, and plants, than conventional farms do. 
  • 47 – 55% of Green House Gasses are produced by the industrial agriculture and current food distribution system.  Organic husbandry techniques could sequester up to 40% of current carbon emissions.
  • 70% of the world's food supply still comes from small holders; 50% of the world's hungry are rural smallholders
  • Research shows that adopting organic agricultural methods, rather than staying with traditional peasant methods, increases yields by over 100%. 

Just as those BIG Thinkers – Marx, Engels, Kropotkin and Carpenter attempted to in the 1800’s, we need to rethink our system.  Farmers and peasants cannot borrow when banks are unregulated.  Regulation should not be a dirty word.

Can organic make a comeback? People often think that 'Local' is enough of an environmental ticket to qualify as an ethical purchase. My defence is that carbon emissions aren't from transport alone.  Synthetic fertilisers and chemicals are mostly oil by products.  The CO2 footprint of conventionally produced crops is 40% higher than organic.  Also industrial battery farms and mega dairies where cows will never touch grass are local to someone.  So which is more important?  And why pollute your own wildlife and waterways?  Why surround yourself with biologically dead fields?  Why kill off your own local biodiversity?

We organic producers are at the mercy of the market.  So how the market thinks is important.  And we are small scale producers.  How can we compete in a price competitive market?  Some people cannot afford to pay more.  How therefore do we survive whilst serving our community with the common goals of local, fresh, healthy organic food?

We need to abandon the passive role of consumer and become citizens.  We need real power not consumer choice.  We need to become Food Sovereigns.  There is an emerging global movement called Food Sovereignty.  It is endeavouring to reclaim real control of the food system.  Being informed and being part of such efforts is just one way to help change things.  We need solidarity.

We need to unite behind the ecological principles of Fairness, Care, Health and Ecology. We need to co-operate to achieve a fair food system not cut our economic throats with competition.

So let’s look at organic from another perspective - an alternative view from the mountain:
Expensive? No, because it tries not to cost the earth.
Unrealistic?  No, it can feed everyone in the world and be sustainable for future generations.
Anti science? No, it’s just science on tap not on top.  It’s Ecological science.
Not much better for you? It’s not just about you.  It’s about the health of all including the soil microbes, wildlife and biodiversity on which our lives depend.
Elitist? No, organic agriculture is characterised by fairness, respect, justice and stewardship

Rather than being a middle class, hippy, elitist occupation it is an ecological, social, political, economic, spiritual and agricultural resistance movement to a culture hell bent on personal profit and environmental destruction.

So while you are tending your organic allotments know that you are part of that.  While you are creating an oasis of wildlife know that you are part of a much bigger movement to bring the planet into our care.  Let’s not be puritan or burn anyone at the stake (that wouldn't adhere to the IFOAM principles of fairness, care, health or ecology!).  But let’s keep an eye on the bigger picture so that ecological farming and growing can be supported.  

We are not elitist.  We are diggers.  We are levellers. So comrades, keep up the good work!