IN CONVERSATION  : PHIL AT NORTH EAST ORGANIC GROWERS, BEDLINGTON

 

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Phil on North East Organic Growers’ site in the Earth Balance complex, near Bedlington.

 

AUDIO Coming soon

Phil presents North East Organic Growers’ small, mixed farm and discusses the challenge we face.


TRANSCRIPT

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 …

JO: there’s some borage, look …

P: yes … gets everywhere ….

JO: is that … crept its way in here ?

P: yes, yes

JO: … but bees as you say .. in evidence

P: yes … not a problem .. [ ]

JO: sweetcorn to our left … container ships … container ships? Containers …

P: they’re not ours …

JO: container ships I’m sure I would notice container ships … that might be it there … and … is this the main part of your work … these … keeping these tunnels ticking over …

P: well there’s a field over there as well … with larger scale crops in … a little orchard

JO: yes … what sort of scale .. crops … give … give us an example of the sorts of things that are being grown …

P: well … we’ve got pumpkins … we’ve got beetroot … garlic .. onions … potatoes …

JO: and they are all out in the open …

P: well they are or they were … [ ] some of them have been harvested now …

JO: you know

P: chards … spinach …

JO: so quite a variety … and one of the things I’m … one of things I can see … honey yes? 4 hives

P: there are bees on site … that’s … we don’t do that ourselves … there’s a beekeeper who comes in and does it .. has them on there

JO: ok … one of the things that I’m wrestling with is … ok … if million acre farms are clearly not right … and maybe 100,000 acre … 10,000 acre so on and so forth … what size of monoculture is still a monoculture? You know the argument about monocultures …

P: well, define a monoculture first … you know

JO: so .. yes … that’s what I’m not clear about ….

P: yes … I’m not [ ]

JO: is a mixed farm of 12 acres allowed to have a field half full of one crop, for example? Or is that .. [ ]

P: we have … we have a portion that is all brassicas … within that we’ve got different kinds because we want to grow them … now if it was all the same kind of brassicas doing a rotation … I don’t know .. if the monoculture in that sense …

JO: yes

P: there must be a size … you know, this is a monoculture here of courgettes … you know .. but it’s so small

JO: it’s like a swimming pool

P: that nobody would actually call it that … yes … so … you end up using words that we don’t have proper meanings for quite often when we talk about stuff

JO: but you would say you feel quite comfortable calling this like a mixed, medium sized …

P: I would say a small, mixed [ ] farm, yes

JO: yes … if I may, I’ll take a few photos ’cause …

P: that’s alright, yes …

JO: the argument I’m hearing from the likes of the Campaign for Real Farming is this is the sort of thing that needs to become the norm

P: that would be good

JO: they even talked about … do you know a third of British households within .. you know … two decades … working the land again to produce food …

P: well

JO: that sounds like an enormous change, yes ?

P: yes … I mean we sometimes think … you know … every town would have a few of these surrounding it … you know .. then you do get places down in Lincolnshire or … wherever … Worcester … whatever .. [ ] … where they grow a lot of food really good … and there may not be lots of towns there … it does make sense to grow it there and send it to the places … you know

JO: I think

P: if we [ ] around Newcastle, Newcastle wouldn’t get as much .. you know … if you can, grow it somewhere good … there’s nothing wrong with transporting some food to some places …

JO: yes .. yes

P: it’s just when it’s .. it’s all about scale .. you know … the same with monoculture … it’s obvious when you see a … that’s too big … that’s too far … you know … flying beans from Kenya or something … then again, once you start thinking about that, they’re only growing beans in Kenya ’cause we’ve asked them to. If we suddenly turned around and said “we don’t want your stuff any more … that you’re doing for us .. that we’ve … you’ve set it up just for us”

JO: yes

P: you know … what are they going to do?

JO: I won’t keep you too much longer … just to finish up … can I use that as a segue into a sort of … do you involve yourself …. |I mean I personally think politics is two people … so anything one does in life is political .. but thinking about politics in the widest sense … are you head in your hands about the state of things or do you think there are signs of hope, or … how are you feeling?

P: It depends what that is. I’m not really a head in my hands type person too much … beyond that I think … gone through that stage … I’m not exactly an activist but aware… you know … of a lot of things and … interesting question … where does one stand on the head in hands spectrum?

JO: well, I’m …

P: yes .. I think we’re .. you know … up shit creek but …. kind of …

JO: just to come back on that I’m arguing that we are in an emergency situation where we have to sort things out probably within 5 years ….

P: … but how many people know that? How many people are aware of that? There’s no … you know ….

JO: what do you think?

P: hardly anybody thinks about it …

JO: would you agree we’re in … from the point of view of the Earth System …

P: yes … yes I would … but I think a lot of people don’t know and don’t care … the average person in the street is not very far along this route before they put their head in their hands and then they get out of it because they realise [ ] things you can do .. you know … talking about 2/3 of people working on the land … you tell those people … they don’t want to know right now … there’s … the process … the journey we’ve been on … people like you and I … to get to where we are … the mass of people are … haven’t even set one foot on it …

JO: yes and I appreciate that …I mean … it has taken me most of my adult life …

P: and it might take a hurricane to … or something … even … some people it won’t take … they won’t do it …

JO: what percentage of people do you think are needed … you know like the argument that there’s a critical mass … that can …

P: to make something … I don’t know …

JO: … if they coordinate their activity … successfully …

P: I don’t know

JO: that’s what I am trying to figure out …

P: there are so many … so many things linked in … you know … just culture and society … destruction of the tabloid press … you know … that would be … that would be the best thing .. you know …

JO: I’ve come to realise actually how much … more recently .. how much people seem to be quietly programmed by the big … the big media voices

P: and you get people who might “yes, I read something about climate change” … and “yes, that’s good” and they won’t change what they do .. so that takes another … you know .. for us, it’s second nature but I think for a lot of people it’s …for the vast majority, it’s nowhere near .. and then you think well, do you coerce them? Government force people … right, you will have to do this because we have to do it .. you know … wartime … it’s .. you know … a wartime, blitz-style government which says “look this an emergency, so you’re going to have to stop doing this and start doing that”

JO: that’s what I feel … I don’t think necessarily it’s .. it’s a bad thing … ’cause unlike in a war, we’re doing something that is very positive and creative potentially … but I agree with the level of effort required … we’re talking about wartime mobilisation, aren’t we?

P: that yes, yes … [ ]

JO: if you are going to take it seriously …

P: it’s like … “other countries are not going to do it so why should we do it?” … so …

JO: do you think … do you think people can achieve it without the state? Or do you need the state and the big structures to …

P: you probably do need the state to be on board but you see the trouble with government is they just want to get elected again … so if they think there are votes in it, they’ll do it .. it’s short term … you know … if they suddenly think “ [ ] do this, but we won’t get in again” they won’t do it … so, we need the state but the state won’t do it …

JO: well I … it looks to me … it looks to me like a critical mass of people has to force the state to do it …

P: … but the vested interests against that …

JO: they’re huge, yes?

P: Big Money and Oil … and .. you know … Capital …. they don’t want to know … until it affects them … then if they suddenly think “all our customers are going to be dead” so …

JO: but it does affect them, doesn’t it?

P: it does … but they haven’t realised it yet …

JO: because it effectively means Donald Trump Jr III or whatever is not going to exist …

P: yes

JO: potentially …

P: There are enlightened businesses who do … you know … who do understand it too .. so it’s … yes … give me my crystal ball …

JO: thanks very much Phil.

P: ok


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