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BOXING CLEVER

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					                        BOXING CLEVER
      Debbie Shimman Green discovers a unique service that brings

           fresh, organic vegetables to your door in a ‘veggie box’.
                            Published in Cotswold Life, March 1999

                    When green boxes were a relatively new phenomenon!

Imagine getting a big box of vegetables, fresh from the fields, delivered to your door for no
more than you’d pay in the shops. If you think this sounds like a good idea, you’re not alone.
Over 50,000 families in the UK (including my own) now enjoy what has become known as the
‘box scheme’.

       Conceived in the early 90’s, it has been a godsend to small growers weary of the
supermarkets’ dictates and to the discerning consumers keen to eat good food. Already over
400 producers run box schemes, around half of which are organic.

       With all the food scares we’ve had lately, this success is no real surprise. Knowing your
vegetables have been grown locally by someone you trust is considerably reassuring. And it’s
hard to resist the scent and taste of a tomato that was on the vine only hours before.

         But the quality of food is not the only issue. For those who care about our countryside,
it’s a bonus to know that your box is boosting rural employment and local trade.

       Indeed, you may be persuaded to join a box scheme solely for reasons of social
conscience. But once you’re in, you find that such virtue brings many other rewards.

        First, there is the pleasure of seasonal eating and cooking – a forgotten joy for many,
thanks to the supermarkets’ habits of sourcing the same products all the year round, from
whatever they can be forced to grow. Because your vegetables are grown locally, you’ll be
getting what is naturally at its peak – and every box is different, adding an element of
excitement and surprise.

        You’ll discover new culinary experiences. Many boxes include recipe leaflets. Once
taken aback by unidentified green objects, I am now a connoisseur of roast acorn squash and
celeriac mash. As to soups, I’ve discovered a whole new world. And I no longer have to work at
eating the famous ‘five portions a day’ – it’s a piece of cake!
       The veggie box does wonders for your budget, too. A £5 box of vegetables goes a long,
long way. In fact, the box is such a bargain that you wonder how suppliers make it pay, even
though you can reason that by selling direct to the public, they cut out the middleman’s profit
and reduce transport costs.

        But for many growers, political and environmental motives can be just as important as
financial viability. Falling into this category are the Prince of Wales’ Highgrove estate, gearing
up to launch a box scheme this spring, and Badminto Natural Vegetables, run on the Duke of
Beaufort’s estate by the Marchioness of Worcester.

      For two years, Badminton Natural Vegetables has offered doorstep delivery to
customers within a ten-mile radius and recently opened a bi-weekly market stall in the village.
The new Bristol Farmers’ Market has also provided a useful outlet for any surplus produce.

       An experienced environmental campaigner, the Marchioness recognised the value of
the box scheme in maintaining the local farming economy. She also saw itas an obvious way to
cut down on polluting food miles (i.e. the number of miles any food must travel between
grower and consumer).

       “Why buy mange-tout from Kenya when you can get it fresh from a farmer down the
road?” she points out.

         Committed to chemical-free farming, she retained a professional grower who was an
expert in natural cultivation methods. Their starting point was a disused walled garden, warm
and sunny but full of stones. As the scheme grew, it expanded into a large field, much more
fertile thanks to its previous use as allotments.

       Here were planted dozens of kinds of vegetables, from artichokes to zucchini (oh alright
then, courgettes in English, but the A-Z gives you an idea of the range!) Polytunnels added
further possibilities in the walled garden.

        The results was a rare sight in the modern English landscape – multiple crops in a single
field. Densely planted to keep down pests, the field in the height of last summer was a
picturesque patchwork of every imaginable shade of green. Bright splashes of colour came
from flowers such as nasturtiums, nicotiana, marigolds and sunflowers used in ‘companion
planting’. Such flowers either attract helpful insects who obligingly pollinate the crop or strip it
of pests, or they deter the less welcome kind of bug.

        Between seasons, clover and green manure were grown and rotavated into the soil,
fixing nitrogen as a natural feed for the crops to follow. Crop rotation helped maximise yields
without artificial aids.
       As the scheme took off, local labour was brought in to help tend the crops, while an
administrator took care of customer service. All along the way, there were important decisions
to be made.

        Even the nature of the box was a stumbling block. Most schemes use a box rather than
a bag, because boxes are easier to pack and store, and they travel better. Putting everything in
a single box certainly cuts out wasteful packaging – but the box question wasn’t entirely simple.

        “We had a long search for the perfect, sturdy, reusable cardboard box – we don’t want
to use plastic for environmental reasons – and we’re not sure we’ve solved it yet,” reports the
Marchioness.

       “We’ve also had to educate customers to return their empty box each week, to keep our
running costs down.”

       They’ve also had to decide exactly what sort of business they wanted to be.

        “We needed to think whether to be entirely box-based, or to diversity with market stalls
or to sell in bulk to local caterers,” she explains.

       The exact mix of vegetables to include was also a complex decision.

       “Some people liked having an exotic mixture, while others preferred more staples, such
as potatoes.”

       Hitting on the right quantity was also difficult.

       “Large families and vegetarians get through a lot of vegetables, while households of just
one or two may struggle to empty a weekly box,” she says. “Offering different size boxes
makes the administration more complicated, so keeping everyone happy is quite a balancing
act.”

        So far, the scheme has gone for variety. Instead of the ubiquitous marrow, there were,
last summer, all shapes and sizes of squash. Conspicuous by its absence was the iceberg,
replaced by a pretty and tasty assortment of lettuce leaves. Fragrant herbs proved popular,
and the basil was simply to-die-for.

        For more information about Badminton Natural Vegetables’ scheme, telephone 01454
218491. But if you live too far away to use its service, don’t despair – it’s just one of many such
schemes now emerging. The Soil Association produces a useful directory of organic suppliers
including box schemes – Where to Buy Organic Food costs just £4.50 + £1.50 p&p.
        If you still can’t find a box scheme in your area, you may even wish to set up your own.
Many are run not by growers, but by third parties who simply get the growers organised. The
Soil Associatin’s handbook Local Food for Local People (£10 + £1.50 p&p) will help you there.

      If, on the other hand, with spring upon us, you’re inspired to try natural growing
methods in your own garden, the Gloucestershire Organic Group can offer useful advice.
Telephone 01452 862524 to find out more.



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