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, 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’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 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.
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.