Five reasons to subscribe for a veg box

As autumn draws in and we start to feel a chill in the air, lots of people across the country decide to opt in for a weekly veg box delivery. It’s the time of year when veg box sales peak so I thought I’d give you a little insight into why.

Veg boxes are not exactly a new thing – farms have been offering them since the seventies, and certainly the more established ones like Growing Communities, Riverford and Able & Cole have been delivering weekly boxes to British food enthusiasts for the last twenty years.

What’s different now is that there are so many more to choose from, and lots of small, community-based schemes, like the BFT’s have popped up all over the country.

Here at Better Food Traders we’re big advocates for the veg box model – and here’s why:

1. You’ll become a bit of a connoisseur

summer veg polenta

It’s a great way to get really in tune with seasonal eating –you get the very best selection of what the farmers have to offer. It’s not all hairy root vegetables like some people fear – you actually get introduced to a whole range of produce you probably wouldn’t think to buy for yourself and you develop a taste for more unusual vegetables that other people have probably never heard of. It makes your cooking more varied and interesting.

2. You’ll feel more healthy

Eating with the seasons means you get a variety of nutrients. This supports good health and gets you into good veg-eating habits. What’s more, many of these schemes will get your produce to you within a day or two of it being picked, so it’s still fresh and nutrient-rich by the time you get it. The majority of veg box schemes are organic, which means you won’t be served a side of pesticides with your dinner, which can have cause cancer and adversely effect reproduction, immune or nervous systems. And you’ll eat more greens! Veg boxes like the Better Food Traders will always include at least one portion of leafy greens each week – things like kale, spinach, chard and cabbage are really good for you and are the sort of thing that get left out of a conventional British diet.

large veg box

3. You don’t have to think about what to buy

If you care about what you eat and want to make the most eco, ethical choice possible, it can be time consuming checking the labels on products to try to figure out where it’s from, if it’s organic and if it’s fair trade. Veg box business do this work for you so you don’t have to think about it.

4. You’re supporting good farmers

Ripple farm organics

In the UK, as well as a lot of Europe, farmers are having a tough time of it competing in the global supply chain. This has led to many farms closing down in the last 10 years. On average British farmers earn 10,000 per year. No wonder the next generation aren’t choosing to take over the family farm! Box schemes are a lifeline to many farms that cannot survive on the supermarket dominated commodity market. Box schemes like the BFTs pay a fair price and help them to stay in business and in some cases, expand.

5. Autumn is a great time for British veg

At a time of year when you want to hunker down and make hearty soups and stews or colourful salads the harvest season is churning out superb produce. A whole variety of squash, peppers, aubergines, chillies, sweetcorn and multi-coloured carrots await you.

Sarah Green’s Organics: a small farm success story

Sarah Green’s Organics is a family run organic horticultural enterprise in Tillingham, Essex.   Sarah’s the third generation of Greens to have farmed in Tillingham, and currently there are still four generations living on the farm.  When Sarah was 19 years old she decided that she wanted to work on the family farm.  At that time the farm was producing primarily conventional cereal crops and Lucerne.  Then, in the late 1990’s, Sarah’s mother Sally, who ran a greengrocers in the local town, noticed an increased interest in organic produce but a lack of supply.  The family started to explore the idea of growing organic vegetables. Sarah’s father, Steven, had previously grown cabbages, potatoes and cauliflowers conventionally for the traditional London markets.  Coupled with this experience the Green family were also sympathetic to farming in an environmentally and wildlife friendly way.

Sarah Green and family

Sarah, Steven & Sally Green

Sarah went to agricultural college, determined to work on the land that she loved so much and came back even more determined and armed with knowledge and new ideas.  In partnership with her parents they converted 25 acres to Soil Association certified organic standards, growing a range of produce including kales, cabbages, broccoli, potatoes, salads and tomatoes and Sarah Green’s Organics was born!

Sarah Green's kids

Sarah’s children overseeing beetroot planting

Finding markets for her produce was essential – her proximity to London meant she could easily make the one and a half hour journey into the capital to sell her produce to a wider audience. She sells her high quality vegetables through her own box scheme, delivering to customers around Essex, and then to other box schemes, predominantly from London – Growing Communities in Hackney and other small independent box schemes.   These box schemes provide a regular and reliable source of income.

Growing Communities really stands by it’s ethics, which, as a grower, is a huge benefit because not a lot of people appreciate the effort that goes into producing food, especially organically. I’m able to employ more local people so I’m providing jobs with my village

Farmers’ markets in London and Essex are also vital to their success and a great way for them to connect directly with their customers.

Steven Green

Steven Green picking sweetcorn

The growing demand for her produce, partly due to the increase in small independent box schemes like the Better Food Traders, means Sarah has been able to expand.  She’s gradually put more land into conversion and is currently growing on 40 acres. This is classified as a small farm by UK standards. Due to her scale, Sarah doesn’t sell to supermarkets – it just wouldn’t be economically viable. They drive down costs for customers by passing on the risks and the costs to the farmers. The unpredictable nature of their sourcing practices can leave a farmer with a whole field of unsold produce if a supermarket decides to pull out of the sale at the last minute, with no recourse. Through selling direct to customers or wholesale to other box scheme she can set her price and ensure she’s getting enough to keep going. She’s also not held to strict grading standards of the supermarkets. Her wonky and sometimes enormous parsnips would be outright rejected by supermarkets, but box schemes and market customers accept them despite their size and shape because their sweet earthy floral flavour is unequalled by the perfectly straight white but rather tasteless supermarket equivalent.

Being a talented grower and an astute business woman has enabled her to carve out a space in the niche organic market. Proximity to London and access to land have also been an advantage.

Sarah Green's Organics: a small farm success story 1

Across the country the picture is quite different for many farmers – over the last 10 years farms have been going out of business at an alarming rate. While organics is a has seen consistent growth over the last five years, it still only represents 1.5% of the food & drink industry. Yet demand is outstripping UK supply. According to data, we’ve lost over a fifth of English farms in the past ten years alone. In particular, the number of farms below 500 acres is falling. The latest blow to the organic sector is the imminent closure of two of the UK’s largest organic farms, who have just sold up due to fears about Brexit and the potential loss of government subsidy.

There are various reasons for this – CAP payments favouring large landowners, farm gate prices falling consistently over the decades (driven down by supermarkets and global commodity prices), economies of scale – 80% of our food is controlled by supermarkets who typically trade with large-scale suppliers and drive farm expansion and intensification.

Sarah’s model works because she bypassed the supermarkets and found alternative markets to sell her produce at a price that works for her. Better Food Traders are part of that alternative market. A new food system needs a new kind food retail. If we want to support small farms to survive we need similarly scaled retailers who are willing to work with them, in a spirit of fairness, transparency and sustainability. This requires people to change their shopping habits and get back in touch with seasonal local eating. The benefits are not only that we save our farming heritage, and our food sovereignty along with it, but the food itself is better, healthier and more tasty.

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