Boxes of delight

Claudia Cahalane finds out how to choose the right organic box scheme

Tofu, seaweed, shampoo, compost, wine and purple carrots – organic ‘veg’ boxes have come a long way since the 1980s. Back then, you could expect little more than a misshapen swede and some muddy spuds to see you through the week.

There are now about 600 schemes in the UK aiming to supply good quality, mainly British, seasonal produce, as well as a range of extras. But the way that they operate, including their green and ethical credentials, varies.

The original organic box schemes developed from grassroots principles: a farmer would box up any fruit and veg the family couldn’t eat and pass it on to neighbours to enjoy.

Booming trade

Now, as our intake of organic foods increases by 20 per cent year-on-year, the boxes have become big business. Everyone from independent companies that buy from a variety of farms and sell on, to supermarkets and milk companies wanting a bite of the apple.

The latest Soil Association study Organic Market Report 2007 states that sales of box schemes increased by 53 per cent in 2006. While this figure is impressive, it only applies to farmer-owned schemes. The rise seen in ‘non-producer’ services – those not run by the people who grow the produce – is actually 93 per cent.

The organic plateau

The Organic Research Centre, a charity based in Newbury, says that non-producer schemes are likely to continue to further dominate the market, too. It adds: “small box schemes and farm shops are not experiencing anything like the growth levels recorded in the Soil Association report. All the farmers interviewed reported a plateau in sales in the past year.”

People like Ian Tolhurst, who runs a box scheme from Tolhurst Organic Farm in Reading, says the big schemes – those that serve in excess of 25,000 customers to his 450 – are threatening smaller local businesses.

“They capitalise on the farmer’s image and the lifestyle we’ve had for 50 years by leading customers to believe that they’re local companies,” says Tolhurst, who only serves customers within a 25-mile radius.

Key players

To give the bigger box schemes their credit, they are sometimes more organised, flexible and reliable. Also, they often support a number of farmers, not just one. In fact, Abel & Cole is supplied by 85 farmers around the UK and abroad.

Riverford, another one of the big names, grows a significant amount of its own produce but also buys some in. It is currently looking to franchise out around the UK.

Smaller schemes sometimes add to their produce with the wares of nearby farms too. And a share of fruit in the vast majority of boxes is imported via road or ship but very few schemes use air-freight.

Choose the right supplier for you

When choosing a scheme, the key is to do your research and see which would work best for you. Perhaps you want one that is strictly vegetarian, such as Woodfield Organics, based in west London.

Or you could go for a supplier which goes that extra ethical mile. For example, Growing with Grace near the Yorkshire Dales works as a social enterprise cooperative supplying 150 local customers. The organisation takes customers’ garden waste to make compost and also uses biodiesel in their delivery vehicles.

North East Organic Growers in Beddlington, EPO Growers in Glasgow and Green Ventures in south London also work on a social enterprise principle. Green Ventures allows people to work for the company in exchange for produce, and delivers using a bike and trailer.

Supermarket competition

Last year saw Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Marks & Spencer all controversially come on board with their own boxes. There were concerns that they would drive original schemes out of the picture.

But market consultancy, Organic Monitor, says that while they are proving fairly popular, these schemes aren’t posing a major threat to existing schemes.

The Soil Association encourages customers to support their local scheme in the first instance, but says supermarket ones could be useful in areas where no scheme exists.

However, it adds a note of caution: “Supermarket box schemes should deliver some food-mile and climate-change benefits [they have pledged to source more of their organic food from the UK].

But given their main business of sourcing, distributing and retailing conventional food from around the world (often by air-freight), and from wherever it’s cheapest, the overall negative impacts on the environment will outweigh the benefits.”

On top of this, the Ecologist has reported that organic farmers get five pence in every pound from a supermarket, but about 40 pence from independent box schemes.

Choosing a scheme is fun – if you don’t find one you fancy from the suggestions here you could ask at your local farmers’ market. And if you’re stuck on an ingredient or are looking for a new way to eat carrots, you’ll be pleased to know that there are various net forums out there.

Going seasonal

Boxes that offer only seasonal produce are actually very few and far between. Ian Tolhurst says that “British seasonal produce is too limited to meet customers’ expectations these days”.

The recent Soil Association report also noted a growing trend that new box scheme customers were “expecting less seasonal produce and more visual perfection”.

But the vast majority of produce is seasonal. The Soil Association says that farmer owned schemes source 91 per cent of vegetables, 60 per cent of fruit and 93 per cent of salad from the UK. Non-producers manage 83 per cent for vegetables, 80 per cent for salad and 49 per cent for fruit.

And if you’re wondering why a box contains carrots from Europe when they are in season here, Ella Heeks, chief executive of Abel & Cole, explains. “Just because something has come into season in the UK, it doesn’t mean we can supply it in the boxes immediately. Our farmers, and we, need time to ease into the season.”