Tolly’s rambles: 21 years later…

The other day, we found a record from 18 January 1994, showing what we were selling in Small and Large Veg Bags, and the price. So, we asked Tolly to remember those days, and reflect, especially that we are now at the point of our annual price review. Here is the story…

It is more than 21 years ago that we established the box scheme initially in Reading and then adding Oxford as things expanded. We were the first growers in either Berkshire or Oxfordshire to decide to try and take control of the marketing of our produce. Until that time, we had continually struggled to find reliable outlets for what we grew and were often forced into selling to conventional outlets at rock bottom prices just to clear the stuff away. Selling fresh produce does not follow much logic or laws of marketing – there are too many unknowns such as difficulty in predicting what will be harvestable and when – nature controls a great deal of that. Then there are the demands of the customer, again often dependant on the weather; if it hot, people want lettuce, if it’s cold and wet, they want cabbage. TV chefs create demand for produce, which may not even grow in this country, let alone in this season.

By the mid 80s the organic market was beginning to develop. Although it was fragmented and unreliable, at least it was there. So, we developed outlets primarily through regular fruit and veg shops, that were keen to sell organic produce and by the start of the 90s we had quite a regular business with around 5-6 such shops and things were looking up. Any surplus we produced went to Choice Organics in London, people we still do business with today.

However, within the space of a year all but one of the shops went out of business, due to the massive competition from out of town supermarkets, the small shops could not compete with the service that the big boys were able to offer. So once again we were without reliable markets to service and wondering what to do.

For a season we cut production, laid off some staff and just pottered around our main outlet had become “The Old Dairy” farm shop that Elizabeth and Julian Rose, our landlords, had set up on the estate farm. If this had not existed, we would have been in dire straits.

We had heard tales of “box schemes” started in Japan and now with one or two growers starting up in the UK, we had nothing to lose. So we did a bit of very elementary advertising and found 4 Neighbourhood Reps in Reading, and started with 35 customers and two different size bags – small and large.

It became clear within a very short time, that this system of sales had great potential and we were expanding at a fantastic rate. It felt like Manna from Heaven. Suddenly people actually wanted to buy organic veg and actually pay us for it! Never before had we experienced such a thing, this was indeed a new concept, getting paid that is, and we were feeling pretty chuffed about it.

The business continued to grow until we were selling almost 500 units weekly by 2008 and quite happy we were to be able to do so. The expansion had improved our equipment and facilities and we were in the rather unusual position, for us that is that we were now paying income tax, something we had rarely done, due to lack of profitability in previous decades.

The Box Scheme continues to be at the heart of the business, but again we find ourselves challenged by the development of the market, and especially by the large national box schemes, just two of whom between them produce over 100,000 units weekly. National companies have a different business ethos to ours. They are quite happy to provide imported and out of season produce to cater for the demands of the customer, one of them now has a farm in the south of France to extend their seasons.

We continue to improve our service and retain our core values which is to grow the most organic and sustainable in season produce using the least energy and carbon footprint that is possible. We know, that you greatly value that service and our love of doing so for you and for your families. Thank you!

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