“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.” Albert Einstein
On a Sunny day in April I set off on my bike in search of Hill Cottage Market Garden. I pedaled up. I pedaled down. I met sheep. I met a car. And at last I found, at the edge of Rhos-y-meirch, four acres of organic vegetables and fruit, including busy poly tunnels , fresh plantings of broad beans, onions and shallots, raised beds with leaf beet and spinach cropping well, a lovely old tractor of friendly size and four figures, toiling ‘neath the sun … Mick, Alice, Adam and Rolly.
In 2008, experienced organic growers Mick and Alice began renting four acres of farmland between Knighton and Presteigne. This land now has full organic status. They grow a wide range of vegetables, salad, fruit and flowers, run a popular veg box scheme and a lovely stall in markets across the Marches including Knighton and Presteigne. “Its not just the luxury of having a reliable source of affordable organic vegetables,” said a customer, “it’s Mick and Alice, they’ve got a kind of magic. Everyone wants to support them.”
And that spirit of local support is central to the Hill Cottage success.
A lot of supermarkets and food brands use advertising to focus people’s minds on, for example, “bargains” … thus drawing our attention away from where that food came from, how it was produced, and the longer term impact on food security, on our health and on the environment. But across the Marches there are better options and our local farmers and market gardens need our support as much as we need them. Community Supported Agriculture is formally described as “a partnership between the grower and the local community, connecting people to the land where their food is grown.” In my common way, and having talked to Mick and Alice, I thought a rewrite was needed:
“Community Supported Agriculture is important because food is important. Not only that, but the way people grow food is important. And land is important. In fact without it we are stuffed. There is a link between what we choose to buy and what happens to land. If we choose to believe adverts made by people we don’t know, we may think buying food is all about saving money and the importance of attractive packaging. On the other hand we wont know what the long term effect will be on our food supplies etc.
So, if hard working people, closer to home… ie part of our community … are producing good food in environmentally friendly, healthy ways, why not buy food from them instead? And if we have time, we might even help them and get to know the land better for ourselves.”
For Mick and Alice, CSA is central to their business. So, for example there is an optional voucher scheme where you can invest £200 – £400 per year which will be returned in fruit and veg. This is about paying for your food in advance and doesn’t work for everyone. I have a share of £400 . Each week I get a box of veg which is equivalent to one of my vouchers. Very simple and flexible, because if I want to cancel my order , I just keep the voucher for another time or spend it at the market. In this way, Hill Cottage can plan ahead in terms of production and employ extra help to expand. And I get organic produce, which I don’t have time to grow myself. The voucher scheme runs alongside the box scheme and market stalls. Take your choice.
“An organic system is the most sustainable way to grow food” says Mick, as I join them at coffee time after a walk around the farm. “Its all about balance. At this time of year … the hungry gap … we use fleece and polytunnels to extend the growing period and the best natural methods of storage we can develop. But we also have to balance supply and demand ,so sometimes we supplement our own produce with that of other organic growers. This helps keep the business on a firm footing. Each business choice is made in the most sustainable way possible.”
In order to thrive, our local and eco-friendly businesses have to balance environment, people, and the accounts at the end of the financial year. The trick is to find sustainable business models that survive even in unsustainable financial systems. Which is quite enough existentialism for one day.