April and May are traditionally challenging months of self-denial for those living with a veg box. 20 years ago it was so hard to make a good box through the ‘hungry gap’ that many pioneering box schemes would close from March to July; some would limp through with repetitions of sprouting potatoes, woody swedes and blown cauliflowers, but either way it took a very committed customer to stick with them. However, this week’s boxes are fantastic. These improvements have come from a mixture of increased grower expertise, better storage, investment in polytunnels, our farm in France giving us a six week jump on the season, plus good, long term trading relationships with small scale growers in Spain and Italy. All in all it’s a long way from the first 30 boxes we packed on the barn floor 22 years ago.
Yet is this a compromise from the vision of those first tiny box schemes? Undeniably, but I would argue it’s a pragmatic, justifiable and sensible one; vision can be inspiring but seldom lasts without a fair degree of compromise. Most of those early box schemes have packed up; more have opened in their place but there seems to be a cycle driven by what a visiting academic writing her PhD on box schemes described as “mutual disappointment”. However ideological sounding and emotionally appealing, the veg box vision asked too much of growers and customers; the customers didn’t get the quality or variety of vegetables they wanted, and the farmers didn’t make the living they needed. It is very hard for one farmer to grow 100 crops well and even harder to do it on a small scale and produce food at an acceptable price without being ground into the dirt by the challenge. Even farmers like to take holidays now and then.
The relentless march to scale and specialisation in farming, like in everything else, is as depressing as it seems inevitable. At Riverford we have put the brakes on this trend with our farming co-op sharing machinery and expertise and thereby helping to sustain the viability of smaller farms. I do occasionally romanticise about our early days harvesting carrots and potatoes by hand or picking spinach with scissors, but there is no way back; the only people wanting to live like peasants are those who haven’t tried it.