"Agroecological food is competing against subsidised, industrialised food that is artificially cheap. How can we compete with that?"
We visited Max as part of our #LandUnlockedTour to find out how he got started with a veg box scheme that puts healthy and affordable food onto local plates.
The Wash House Garden is tucked away in Parkhead, an ex-industrial area in the east end of Glasgow with high levels of deprivation, where Max has started an agroecological market garden. “Agroecological basically means we try and farm in a way that's good for the soil, for wildlife and for people as well. We're trying to benefit the community and benefit the people who work here on the project, too.”
Max Johnson grows healthy, affordable veg for his community
Growing for the community wasn’t always the plan. “We used to just supply cafes and restaurants, we'd really focus on high value crops, like salad and herbs. I was getting up really early in the morning, delivering to these restaurants way away from the east end of Glasgow. We never really got to meet the people who were actually eating the food.”
And then COVID hit. “We switched to a veg box because all the cafes, restaurants closed, but it actually turned out to be lovely. Now we're growing 50 different types of veg and do veg boxes for local people. It’s really satisfying: we're meeting the people who actually eat the food, and we're getting all this lovely feedback too.”
His passion for his work is obvious, but like many start-up horticulture enterprises in the UK, starting up and finding finance were the biggest challenges.
First off, he acknowledges, they were lucky to find the land to grow on. He reflects, “It's just hard to get access to land, especially if you're a new, young grower. There's red tape, and it's hard to know even who to talk to. It’s a fairly new thing for Glasgow City Council too, for them to have growers coming to them saying we want to grow fruit and veg. It doesn't fit with their current model, which seems to prioritise more money-driven projects. Hopefully, we're on the brink of that changing with their city food plan.”
For growers, the quality of the land matters too: “Our soil wasn't breathtakingly good, but it was ok. But if you're trying to convert a bit of ex-industrial land or something, it can be a real uphill struggle.”
Max recognises that the system is currently stacked against smaller scale community growers: “We’re lucky – we don't pay any rent on this land. I think that's a huge thing. If you have to factor in rent and business rates, it's really hard to make a good living growing veg, especially when you're competing with this subsidised, industrial food system.”
“We had to get funding to start out – that’s a barrier for some people. There is a lot of funding out there for some types of organisations like charities, but otherwise, you're looking at loans and interest rates which can be quite kind of overwhelming when you're setting up a new growing business.” In the end, Max relied on an unusual source of funding: “Parkhead Housing Association were really generous and gave us some start-up funds.”
But even then, getting the business started was a financial challenge. Max continues, “We paid ourselves for probably like a quarter of the work we did in our first year, you know, so I think that's a real barrier as well. You have to resign yourself to the fact that for your first couple of years, at least, you're going to need another job. That's fairly true of farming generally, especially in those early years of it.”
The Wash House Garden set up shop in Glasgow's east end tenements
For Max, the most significant issue is that his business model includes environmental accounting, whilst other business don’t, which he feels puts him on an unfair financial footing: “Agroecological food is competing against really subsidised, industrialised food. So how can we possibly compete with that? You know, the perception that agroecological food is expensive, it isn't true. It's that the other stuff is just artificially cheap: it's heavily subsidised and the environmental cost of it is concealed.”
He recognises that this doesn’t mean much to the people he knows who are struggling to afford healthy food, but he sees the issue differently. “I'm under no illusions that our stuff is as cheap as Lidl, or the veg that they're able to provide down at the fruit barras, down there in Bridgeton. But for me, food poverty is poverty – it’s people not being paid enough or on insecure contracts. We forget we need to look outside the food system too, to solve these things, rather than with cheap food.”
Luckily for Max he was able to persevere. What started out as a good business has rapidly become an enterprise with soul. “It's now our fourth growing season, and I’m really loving it. I get asked a lot, are you going to expand? People assume we want to be the Starbucks of local veg. But why would I want more overheads, more risk of burnout? I want to prioritise making the most out of this land, spreading the values of this business, trying to create ripples, you know? Eventually, if we are to expand it has to be for the right reasons, to be done in a way that ensures we don't dilute our values or create unhealthy working environments. Business should be good for the people who are working on it. And good for your community. It's like having family around you. And that comes back to agroecology."