The real cost of intensifying the system

The farming co-op laying down the gauntlet to 'cheap' food

Clapham, North Yorkshire

“Why is saving money focused on food? Everyone, regardless of income, has been pulled into supermarket advertising that persuades us 'cheap' is what we should strive for when it comes to food.”

Located on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales in Clapham, Growing with Grace is a community cooperative farm that supplies sustainably grown produce to local people and businesses. Their growing site covers almost 2 acres, all of which is under glasshouses to prolong the growing season. They primarily supply customers through a veg box delivery service but also have a farm shop on site. Growing with Grace is committed to sustaining local communities and safeguarding the environment through sustainable agriculture. It also has strong sourcing principles in the following order of priority; own crop, local producers within 40 miles, Yorkshire, Cumbria and Lancashire, UK, Europe, rest of the world.

Neil in the glasshouses at Growing with Grace

We met with Director, Neil Marshall, who co-founded Growing with Grace over 20 years ago, “The way we sell our produce hasn’t changed radically, we sell mostly through a box scheme over a 50-mile radius, organic produce is our main angle, with local and fair trade where possible.” Neil and others set up Growing with Grace after he’d been working in a similar organisation in Lancashire, “I lived in this area and these greenhouses came on the market, so I went into business with another couple. We took greenhouses that didn’t look like they could grow anything - the ground looked like concrete – and using green manures we started to improve the soil. It then took 2 years to convert to organic.” Yorkshire is renowned for its sheep but not its vegetable production; “When we started, we were unique. I believe we are still the only vegetable producers in the Craven district.” Growing with Grace serves a large area; “400 customers regularly order from us... and that takes us up to Sedbergh in South Cumbria then as far south as Otley.”

“Through lockdown we were overrun with interest. We were a go-to answer for people worried about where their food was going to come from.”

Growing with Grace were positively impacted by the pandemic, with customer numbers initially soaring; “Through lockdown we were overrun with interest – but mostly during the time that supermarkets were emptying. We were a go-to answer for people who were worried about where their food was going to come from.” Their supply lines were more resilient than some of the bigger supermarkets meaning “the number of people ordering doubled, so we had a crazy couple of months.” Neil explains this did settle down eventually, with some people returning to their original supermarkets, although notes that their customers have permanently increased since 2020. Whilst the pandemic demonstrated that people started to rely more heavily on their local communities and increasingly supported local food businesses – with many local veg box schemes experiencing a rise in customers – the recent cost-of-living crisis is starting to force people to once again prioritise ‘cheap’ food over other options.

“We can grow more of what we need in this country, if we change our diets.”

Interestingly, Neil sees parallels between the years following the credit crunch and the years following the pandemic. “In 2008, customers who had been shopping ethically stopped for a while. It became more important to source things cheaply. Budget supermarkets became huge players in the food industry.” The advertising of ‘cheap’ food won the battle at that time in the UK – although it’s important to note “other European countries did not follow this pattern to the same extent, countries such as Germany and France maintained the links with local and organic food.” Similarly, today, as the cost-of-living increases and many people are experiencing financial hardship, the price of food becomes more important than the sustainability of production. “But why is saving money focused on food?” says Neil, “Everyone, regardless of income, has been pulled into supermarket advertising that persuades us that ‘cheap’ is what we should strive for when it comes to our food.”

Neil harvesting in the glasshouses at Growing with Grace

As with many veg box schemes in the UK, the organisation must also balance their ‘local’ principle with the need to import. “Choice is expected... and it's not as clear cut as local is best. Because if you're growing local tomatoes at this time of year, climatically, you're causing more of an issue through energy intensive heating than bringing them in from Spain where there is free sun.” Neil thinks whilst self-sufficiency is desirable, we must rely on a certain amount of trade with other countries. “We’ve become used to eating bananas so straightaway you’re accepting the need to rely on other countries for a weekly staple. Even with potatoes, which most people want all year round, there’s a couple of months when they will need to come from the Mediterranean. Here in Yorkshire, we’re on the same latitude as the Hudson Bay in Canada which freezes every year.” Neil alludes to the fact the UK climate cannot produce all our domestic food demands; “Not utilising the access we’ve had to the Mediterranean climate is not intelligent.” To a certain extent, Neil thinks trade is a beneficial thing but “we can grow more of what we need in this country, if we change our diets.” He explains that pulses are a good example of this necessary change and companies such as Hodmedod’s are “tackling that problem head on, growing protein that we can grow in the UK.”

“The external cost of conventional agriculture is largely taken on by the taxpayer rather than by the polluter.”

Neil also notes his concerns with intensification. “There's a perception that the intensive farms are somehow efficient. For example, there are farms with massive buildings full of dairy cows that never go outside. Huge amounts of energy go into the machinery, heating and feed. Now, one thing we can grow round here is grass, but those cows don't even go out and eat it. I don’t know where that sort of intensification in places like this comes from. Somehow it makes someone more money than letting the cows eat grass that is growing just 10 metres away.” Neil believes producing food should follow sustainable agricultural principles; “The external costs of conventional agriculture are largely taken on by the taxpayer rather than by the agricultural sector. The nitrates in our water and hedgerows, the chemicals on our food, all these things have a cost which isn't paid for in the agricultural process, making products appear ‘cheap’.” Neil signposts a quote from Jules Pretty’s book Agri-Culture - “The side effects, or externalities, of food production systems are substantial; yet these do not appear in the price of food. The costs of lost biodiversity, water pollution, soil degradation and ill-health in humans are shifted elsewhere in economies.”

Neil in the potting shed at Growing with Grace

Looking to the future Neil iterates the need for small scale producers. “I’m coming to the end of my time, but I’ve got to pass Growing with Grace on to the young. Getting healthy, sustainable, and local produce out to people is a priority. We should continue to compete against the big multinational companies, with dubious ethics.” Small-scale producers, with more direct supply chains, build resilience into food systems, which is arguably exactly what is needed in the future. However, Neil acknowledges that people are finding it extremely difficult to set up a business like Growing with Grace; “Unless you’re coming to it from having sold up a decent house in somewhere like London, you’re going to struggle to find the opportunity – it's either very expensive or the opportunities don’t exist.” Neil explains, “We rent the ground from a landlord in the village who owns 3 or 4 outlying farms. So originally, we were just purchasing the structures [greenhouses] which we relied on a loan for from Triodos and the Coop.” At the time, Growing with Grace was still a workers’ cooperative which the two banks are “very sympathetic to.” However, Neil thinks if you are committed to this line of work “you might need to think outside of the box and go for land that’s not ideal – possibly degraded land that you can improve. This site didn’t look growable when we got here.” In the UK, land is tied up with “a massive amount owned by very few people.” The reality for people who are enthusiastic to grow local crops is that it’s difficult to get a foothold.

More stories of hope and action from people across the UK working for a fair and sustainable future feature in our Field Guide for the Future.