A fundamental tenet of True Food's ethos is to buy from local producers whenever possible. Not only does this support the local economy, but it minimises the carbon footprint of transportation. Produce can travel from farm to shop quickly, ensuring that the food that reaches the customer is at the peak of freshness.
One of the local producers True Food supports is Greenbroom, a low-impact agricultural co-operative based in Crays Pond in South Oxfordshire. It is a not-for-profit group of 5 members, with all income paid to workers or reinvested back into the business. Although not certified organic, they subscribe to the Wholesome Food Association, an organisation whose members farm by organic principles, but are too small to be able to apply for formal certification. The co-operative farms on the Hardwick estate, which has been run organically for over thirty years.
One of the members and full-time grower at Greenbroom is Sam, who has worked there for the past three years. A man who has had a lifelong passion for the natural world, he started growing food in his parents' garden when he was only ten years old. He then moved on to growing his own produce on an allotment, and experienced the joy of cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients. After completing a permaculture design course six years ago, he felt inspired and confident enough to quit his office job to become a full-time grower. It was due to his involvement in several community garden projects that he met the son of Sir Julian Rose, manager of the Hardwick Estate, and was invited to join Greenbroom. For the 36-year-old, this opportunity means he can do what he loves as a job. As well as living and working in a beautiful environment, he enjoys being part of a supportive, like-minded community that value making a contribution to the local people and ecology.
I spoke to Sam, and asked him to tell True Food members and customers a little bit more about the organisation.
How and when did the company start?
We were invited to the Hardwick Estate for our first meeting on 14th August 2014. The estate has a policy of promoting rural livelihoods and preserving traditional skills and crafts. The aim was to create a sustainable agricultural co-operative to give young permaculture enthusiasts a chance to make a living off the land in a sustainable way. After several more meetings, we formed our Co-op and started renting the field (formerly used for horse grazing) on 11th March 2015.
Where does the name "Greenbroom" come from?
Greenbroom is the old English name for Common Broom (Cytisus Scoparius), a shrub in the pea family. We believe it used to be common in the area where we are located, hence the historic reason for the name of this piece of land. There is one remaining old "Greenbroom" shrub growing in the woods on the edge of the field.
How big is your farm?
The area we rent is approximately 13 acres in total. Four acres of this is woodland and nine acres is pasture, of which we are currently cultivating approximately two acres. Four acres are being left as a wild flower meadow, and we have a young orchard and forest garden spanning about an acre.
How many people do Greenbroom employ?
Greenbroom is an informal co-operative with five full-time members. We also welcome volunteers and currently have four working on site. We do not technically employ anyone, but members and volunteers get a dividend payment for food grown and sold at the end of each month. We work together to create common farm infrastructure and share the responsibilities of sales, marketing and delivering produce.
Do you have a philosophy behind how your company is run?
We like to think of Greenbroom as a sustainable agricultural community rather than a company. We use a co-operative structure with all members having an equal say in the running of the community. We work together to build communal infrastructure and often eat together as a community. However, we are not a commune, with individuals free to follow their own aspirations and dreams, and partnerships between two or more members interested in a project are welcomed.
We use organic and permaculture cultivation methods, using a combination of traditional organic techniques and more modern sustainable technologies where appropriate (e.g. solar power, electric bikes for delivery, cultivation tools), but do not use any fossil fuel powered vehicles or tools.
We have dreams of a sustainable future, where we are part of a resilient local network of organic producers, who together can meet all the needs of the local community. We want to improve people's health by providing fresh, nutritious and non-toxic produce that is simply not available in most shops today. We hope to raise the bar both in quality and diversity of local produce and in stewardship of the environment.
Although you aren't certified as organic, in what way do you stick to organic farming principles?
Our rental agreement with the Hardwick Estate requires that we manage the land organically. In addition, we are members of the Wholesome Food Association, which forbids the use of artificial fertilisers and sprays. It also commits us to selling our produce locally (within a 30 mile range). Most of our members have permaculture qualifications, and we aim to create sustainable food growing systems that work with nature, and enhance local biodiversity. In many ways we go beyond organic standards, with no till beds, locally sourced fertility and our commitment to not use fossil fuels. We cultivate the land by hand without tractors or deep ploughing, and try to minimise our use of plastics. Long term organic soil fertility techniques are used such as hugelkultur beds, charged biochar and woodchip mulching. Greenbroom promotes local wildlife and biodiversity by providing habitats such as ponds, hedges, nettle patches and wildflower strips.
We have a particular focus on cultivating perennial crops and on long-term crop rotations. There are many benefits of cultivating perennial vegetables. This includes less digging and ploughing, greater drought tolerance, greater resistance to pests, greater nutritional density than annual crops and often better taste!
How have the extremes of weather this year affected what you grow?
It has been a challenging year with the snow damaging some of our perennial crops and delaying the start of the season, and then the heatwave and drought causing scorching and bolting problems with our salads and delicate summer crops. We've also had to spend a lot of time watering to keep things alive!
What fruit and veg to you supply True Food with?
We always like to try something new, and over the years we've supplied over 100 types of vegetables and fruit to True Food. From the usual suspects like potatoes, beans, carrots, greens and salads to some more experimental crops such as Cape Gooseberries, Strawberry Spinach and Agretti. We also sell some of our perennial vegetables such as sea spinach, perennial kales and Jerusalem artichokes. We seem to get the most requests for greens and salads, so have tried to focus more on these this year, but we're always welcome to suggestions for something new to grow.
How long have you been supplying True Food?
We delivered our first order on 29th June 2016.
What do you like most about growing food for True Food?
True food is so much more than a normal shop or business. It feels like a community hub that brings together local people and organisations who want to see a more just and sustainable future. We are very proud to supply an organisation that really cares about the impact that food production has on people and the environment. We love your innovative, non-profit model and your members who are so friendly and passionate about fresh local produce. Also being able to go shopping when we make our deliveries is always a bonus!
How has your relationship with True Food benefited your business?
True Food has been buying from Greenbroom since we started production two years ago, and in the first year bought most of our produce. As a new business, finding a market for our produce was certainly a challenge as most high streets are dominated by supermarkets that do not buy from local producers. We have a small farm shop, but in the first year sales were slow and irregular, mainly due to people not knowing about us. So having such a regular, reliable partner to help distribute our produce really helped Greenbroom to get off the ground, and True Food is still our largest single customer today.
We have received valuable advice from True Food over the years about product preparation, labelling and packaging that have helped us develop into a more professional organisation. We also really appreciate the extra mile that True Food go to promote local producers like us. A lot more people know about Greenbroom now, thanks to True Food.
How do you see your relationship with True Food developing in the future?
We are hoping to increase production in the years to come, with more members and more land cultivated. This year we are investing in a new packing shed, which should allow us to process and ship larger quantities of produce and new poly tunnels which will allow us to push the growing season further into the winter. We have also been making long-term investments into our orchard and forest garden areas that we hope will bring more diversity (in particular more fruit and possibly also nuts) in the years to come.
A lot of True Food shoppers also like to grow a bit of their own fruit and veg. Do you have any tips for them?
Photo courtesty of Steamykitchen.com
I would start with something quick and easy like pea shoots. You don't even need a garden to grow them, just a tray of soil and a windowsill.
I recommend keeping plants well watered in dry weather like we've had this summer. Larger plants, such as courgettes and squashes can be mulched with woodchip which will significantly reduce the amount of watering you have to do. Also, buy seed from one of the smaller, organic producers. It will probably be better quality seed, and you can often get unusual varieties not in the big catalogues. We get a lot of ours from the Real Seed Company.