Who we are
There are three of us growers working on the site – Carl, Rob and Stuart. We are a workers’ co-operative, meaning that we own the business ourselves and share all decisions and responsibilities. We are tenants on the 21 acre growing site. The land is owned by Unicorn Grocery – they are not only our landlords but also our major customer. They bought the land in 2008 as a way of increasing their local supply of vegetables and ensuring long-term food security. Rob and Stuart have spent a number of years working at Unicorn, and have learnt all about selling vegetables, customer demand, pricing, and quality thresholds, but were complete newcomers when they took on the tenancy and started growing commercially. It’s been a steep learning curve for all of us, and we’d still consider ourselves inexperienced. We’ve been amazingly lucky to receive substantial support for our new business (from Unicorn and other funders), and a lot of voluntary help from Land Army and others. Now the business is up on its own feet, we’re looking forward to building our veg growing experience and, if possible, helping any others wanting to set up a new growing site like ours.
Where we are
Our 21 acre site is situated near Glazebury, a village to the south of Leigh. We’re in Wigan Borough, part of Greater Manchester.
What we grow
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What we are about
We’re aiming to supply our vegetables to customers as locally as possible, as directly as possible and using the most ecological farming and distribution methods. Ultimately, along with other growing sites and forward-thinking retail outlets, we want to help develop a model for sustainable urban food supply for Greater Manchester.
- Local – we recognise that the argument for local food is not as simple as ‘the more local the better’. It’s no good if a local supply of tomatoes (for example) is using lots of fossil fuels to heat the greenhouses – it might be better to buy outdoor-grown tomatoes from southern Europe instead. The whole environmental footprint of vegetable production and distribution needs to be taken into account in order to assess sustainability. However, we believe that our outdoor field-scale production – grown using a stockfree-organic system – is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to produce food, so only supplying locally sits hand-in-hand with that. Having spent effort growing our vegetables in as low-impact a way as possible, we don’t want to then consume lots of fossil fuels distributing it hundreds of miles away. For some growers, that’s the only way to reach a market. We’re very lucky to be so close to a big urban population.
- Direct – the mainstream supermarkets have a surprisingly long supply chain for most of their vegetables. At its simplest, the produce goes from farm to a washer / packer, then to a regional depot, before reaching the supermarket shelf. It’s often a week after harvest, and there’s often more steps in the chain (e.g. separate washer and packer). Apart from adding costs with every step, it’s just not fresh. We want to keep things affordable and truly fresh, so we minimise packaging and wherever possible deliver direct to customers, so that produce is delivered on the day of harvest. We also sell a lot through a co-operative marketing and distribution group called Manchester Veg People – there is an extra cost to cover the running costs of the co-op, the orders are collated at a central storage unit, and deliveries are the day after harvest. Still a lot more direct and a lot fresher than the major supermarkets.
We’re aiming to be a great example of ecological farming, by following stockfree-organic principles and growing methods, managing biodiverse habitats and installing the lowest-impact infrastructure that’s possible.
- Organic principles – essentially, working with natural systems rather than seeking to dominate them. We add organic matter in the form of compost, and turn in green manures in order to maintain a biologically active soil rich in earthworms, fungi and bacteria that recycle nutrients making them available to our vegetable crops. We rotate crops to help avoid the build up of pests and diseases, and control weeds by mechanical means. This approach avoids the use of chemical biocides (herbicides, fungicides, pesticides etc.) and fossil-fuel derived fertilisers that are used in conventional veg production, which harm soil life and the wider environment.
- Stockfree-organic growing – this means we avoid the use of any animal products (like manure) in the production of our veg, thereby avoiding all the greenhouse gas emissions associated with livestock farming. See below for more on why we do this.
- Habitat management – we have a long-term programme of increasing biodiversity, whether it be through improving and maintaining the agricultural fringes (e.g. ponds and hedges) or through rotations to help increase diversity within a field. This means that the essential services that nature provides such as pollination and natural pest-control from beneficial insects, birds and other wildlife can then be utilised.
- Low impact infrastructure – wherever possible, we’ve chosen the most environmentally-friendly options, from big installations like the 60 solar panels powering our irrigation system to smaller decisions like using biodegradable plastic bags and box liners for our produce.
We’re aiming to provide as many learning and training opportunities as we can, by hosting school visits, volunteers, training and courses.
- School visits – we see public education as one of the greatest challenges for the food & farming industry, and it all starts in schools. More and more children are growing up with little understanding of where their food comes from, how it’s been produced, and what the implications of their food choices are – for their own health and that of the planet. In our own small way, we want to address this, by providing an educational space for schools.
- Volunteers – the vast majority of visitors to the farm so far have been volunteers. Since our first growing season in 2010 we have been very reliant on volunteers – especially with our hedge-planting (nearly 2km now planted!) and clearing the site of docks. We have benefitted hugely from all the time and effort people have given us; hopefully, in return, we have given all our volunteers an interesting experience learning about veg growing and the creation of a working farm. In the long-term we don’t want our business to have to rely on volunteers, but we will always be open for people to come and give their time in exchange for a day talking and working alongside us, learning and experiencing what we do. We hope that the experiences volunteers have with us go on to change the way they grow, eat or buy their vegetables.
- Training and courses – one of the things we discovered early on in this project was a skills gap in organic horticulture. We are evidence of that ourselves – inexperienced growers starting a new business. There’s a good demand for local fruit and vegetables, and quite often the growing skills aren’t there to match that demand. We have participated in the Kindling Trust’s Commercial Organic Horticulture course alongside other local growers and hope we will be able to run more training courses in the future.
- People not profit – we are a non-profit-distributing co-operative, which means that we cannot give any profits we make to ourselves. We can either reinvest it in the business or donate it to social or charitable causes.
- Co-operation – we believe very strongly in the co-operative model of business, where there are no shareholders to serve, and where the ownership and management is democratic.
Why we’re stockfree-organic
We believe that, whatever your philosophical stance on killing and eating animals, the world needs to radically reduce livestock farming in order to feed a continually growing human population. This is because, firstly, the global amount of land is finite and, secondly, you get far more nutrients per acre from growing plants for direct human consumption, than you do from growing plants to feed to animals to then feed humans. Direct plant-derived nutrition is a far more efficient use of land. There are, also, some worrying issues in relation to animal feed. Most of the protein fed to livestock in the EU, for example, is imported from outside the EU with a lot of it coming from South America – which, as this article highlights, contributes to deforestation, exploitation of workers and suffering of indigenous small scale farmers. Another reason to reduce animal farming is its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Having used cow manure once, in our early years, it is for these reasons that we now avoid animal products in our method of production.
The issue of fertility building
In practice, one of the key differences between different forms of farming is the approach to fertility building – what form of fertiliser and where it comes from. Most vegetable growers add fertility to their soil from outside of their farm. For non-organic growers this will often be artificial fertilisers, the manufacturing of which uses a lot of fossil fuels, or it will be animal manure, often bought in from another farm. The nutrients in that manure will have come from the soil and plants grown on someone else’s farm – so if it’s not returned to the soil of that same farm, then they’ll be losing fertility over time and be reliant on importing fertility rather than working within a closed system.
Organic farmers, on the other hand, aim to work within a closed system. It is part of the organic standards that the primary source of fertility should be the growing of leguminous plants – these plants (such as clover, vetch, trefoil) have a unique ability to take nitrogen (a key soil nutrient) from the air and fix it into the soil. Organic veg growers on mixed farms will also add fertility to their soil in the form of manure from their own animals, so they are not reducing someone else’s soil fertility, although in some cases some organic farms will import fertility in the form of animal feeds.
Being stockfree-organic means, above all, not using animal manure. Thankfully there are some great alternative ways of enriching your soil, which is what we do:
- Green Manures- we grow a variety of ‘green manures’, building fertility through ‘nutrient-fixing’ leguminous plants such as clover, and also minimising bare soil and holding on to nutrients over winter by growing grasses and other ‘nutrient-retaining’ plants. We grow these green manures for two out of our six year rotation, as well as in between vegetable crops.
- Green Waste Compost - we buy in local green waste compost, made from the material collected from domestic green bins. Although this means we are ‘importing’ fertility on to our site, we do this because fertility is always being taken away in the form of vegetables, and it seems a fair way of getting some of that fertility back. (In times gone by human excreta would have been returned to the land too – organic standards don’t allow this at the moment, but this will surely change in the future.)