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North East Phil

JO: I’m standing with Phil, of …

P: North East Organic Growers …

JO: Hello Phil

P: Hello

JO: We’ve just met. I’ve walked up to the gate, made a nervous phone call and you’ve welcomed me in and we’re now stood at the first of a number of …

P: 5 polytunnels.

JO: 5 polytunnels. And what are you growing?

P: … there’s Chinese cabbage, and Pak Choi, and some French beans, which we’re starting to take down to put the next thing in

JO: yes. It’s all pretty tidy.

P: oh well. Nice of you to say so.

JO: having been a member of Bath Organic Group for many years …

P: Could be tidier but yes ..

JO: it’s in the middle, yes?

P: yes

JO: it’s pretty tidy, I think. Who are you supplying? It’s quite a decent size, isn’t it? It’s a fairly big polytunnel.

P: we supply approximately 250 customers in the area

JO: are they households? Or are they businesses?

P: households

JO: households. How far out?

P: We go as north as Alnwick, west to Hexham, south to Sunderland. All points in between.

JO: Are you responsible for delivery?

P: No. I am this week but I’m covering for somebody.

JO: … but I mean the business?

P: the business delivers. Yes. We deliver to drop off points and people collect.

JO: so you have a scheme and people …

P: yes.

JO: and what sort of size is … you just said the subscription …

P: I think it’s about 250 …

JO: 250

P: 200 that’s approximate. I don’t know the actual …

JO: sorry, I am a bit tired. I might miss a few things.

P: … number off the top of my head.

JO: and it’s keeping a team of what, 10 ?

P: 8

JO: 8

P: people in the co-op …pretty much everyone is part time

JO: so, it’s a co-operative business

P: and we have volunteers …

JO: and that’s been a steady presence here at the Earth Balance or what used to be called the Earth Balance site …

P: it still is called Earth Balance … for 20 years, yes.

JO : so, just before the millennium … got going

P: I think 96-97 is when this business started

JO: is it .. I mean .. if I may ask … is it sort of making a meaningful contribution to all of your existences financially? Or is it a partly …

P: it could be more. It’s not as much as it ought to be.

JO: but surviving at all is no mean feat, yes?

P: Yes. I mean … people … we don’t have much of a turnover of workforce .. so I think people enjoy working here.

JO: and you are all presumably fairly local, yes?

P: well, Tyneside, and a few Ashington … more local

JO: ok. What else … what’s this mean bit of kit?

P: This is a planting machine. We have a field out there … we do lots of field scale crops. This is a machine which is supposed to plant easily but our soil is pretty heavy and clayish so … the machine would work lovely on fine, sandy type soil …

JO: not so good ..

P: struggle a bit here … so nothing’s as precise as it’s meant to be …

JO: You mentioned when I first spoke to you that you don’t feel there are as many of these sorts of enterprises up this far …

P: up here. No, not at all.

JO: because of the soil structure

P: yes, because of the soil type …

JO: and the weather? Is that related to the …

P:the weather is … I don’t know about the weather … we manage with the weather ….

JO: so, it’s more to do with the soil

P: this year, we’ve had a bit of flooding but that happens down South too …. it’s the soil, yes.

JO: ok. What else shall we have a quick look at? So, this is another polytunnel .. this one’s full of …

P: we’ve had onions drying and garlic has been drying in here but that’s gone now … I wonder what all this stuff is actually …

JO: again, it’s a pretty good size, isn’t it?

P: yes, I can’t .. I don’t know the dimensions …

JO: Do you have to do a … I’ll take a couple of pictures … that’ll save us the pain of working it out … do you have to do rotations or?

P: yes, everything in one polytunnel moves to the next one …

JO: ok, so it’s effectively stepping … ok … and that seems to work pretty well … you’re not .. ’cause you’re an organic site, yes?

P: yes … not too many pests

JO: and pest control …

P: not too many pests …

JO:that means using actually …

P: well, if we get a pest, we’ll have to see what we can use to deal with it but we don’t get too many …

JO: yes … why is that? Is it just .. ’cause the model of farming tends to not attract that sort of problem?

P: [ ] well, we get a few now and again but we tend to just either deal with them by …you know … if we get like red spider mites, well you can put moisture in the air … they don’t like it so much … you can water a bit more … but then you get some kind of mould developing .. it’s too moist so you’ve just got to keep on top of things like that …

JO: yes … but you can generally tinker your way around those sorts of things as and when

P: yes

JO: have you had any sort of problems that people might think are associated with organic farming

P: like what?

JO: well… what would they be … to someone that is not too versed in it all?

P: I don’t know .. I don’t know really …

JO: nothing springs to mind …

P: yes .. the problems .. do you mean pest type problems?

JO: Well, I guess I’m asking on behalf of people who have got not a lot of experience with it .. at Bath Organic Group, I think there’s a sign somewhere that’s probably in the back of a shed now that was used at a fete or an event and it said “Organic food. Come and see organic food! Or, as your grandparents used to call it …

P: “food”

JO: … food” …

P: yes

JO: so, what are you not using?

P: well, we don’t use chemicals mostly … I mean manmade, brought in fertilisers and things like that …

JO: pest control

P: pest … pesticides …

JO: fertilisers …

P: let’s say … we use manure … that’s fertiliser … there are things you can use but they have to be approved …

JO: do you use comfrey tea?

P: well, no is the short answer … we do grow comfrey but we’ve found we just bung it in the compost and it goes in the ground that way ..

JO: that does the trick …

P: so, that’s a bit faffy. Some of these things are gardenery things … you do it on a big scale and it’s not really practical

JO: and when we say big scale … this is obviously a pretty serious scale

P: we call this … I call this middle-sized. We’re not huge.

JO: yes .. it’s twelve acres …

P: we’re not the Riverfords of this world.

JO: yes. They seem to be like … are they the most obvious of the large scale organic delivery schemes?

P: I think so, yes. We kind of refer to them as the Starbucks of the organic world … you can edit that out if you want …

JO: no, I’ll leave it in. I think it’s quite funny. Why do you say that? Are they … are they a bit too sharp?

P: well .. I don’t know if I should …

JO: say what you like … what’s your impression?

P: the people who …if you … Starbucks … you buy a franchise …and then … as far as I am aware …. you buy a franchise … you get the veg .. you send it out …. you’re not the grower .. you’re not … when you buy from us, you buy from the grower …

JO: ok

P: they’re about moving into areas and, you know … they don’t really care if the local people are already growing locally suffer or will go out of business because they’ve come in …. that has happened in places I know of …

JO: ok … and this is actually a very interesting thing to reveal because I am sure there are a number of people who are looking to switch to things like Riverford because it’s better than … what they …

P: I mean … it’s better than .. it is organic … it is …

JO: but, of course, it doesn’t automatically mean that they’re not being in their own way …

P: there are levels … there are levels, you know …. are you part of the problem or part of the solution?

JO: yes, sure … well, that’s an interesting thing to think about ….

P: I mean … you know … if I didn’t know … if I didn’t work in this field .. then “ah Riverford! Great!” but start delving deeper and you … there are nuances everywhere

JO: yes … life is not simple

P: yes

JO: now, we’re looking at a … is that a wind turbine?

P: it is but it’s ancient and doesn’t work …

JO: it’s symbolic?

P: well, I am sure the owners of the site right now would like to get rid of it … or even get one that works … it’s not worked for …

JO: who does own the site? Is it still the council?

P: I don’t know. We don’t really get involved with higher than we are.

JO: as little as possible …

P: cucumbers and peppers … everything’s starting to fade at the end of summer but they’re still producing …

JO: and they’ve been producing for how long?

P: June maybe …

JO: wow

P: July

JO: that’s a long …

P: July, I’d say

JO: long, long harvest, isn’t it?

P: yes .. it’s not bad .. and soon we’re going to … like everything will come out and the winter stuff will come in …