Two Peas in a pod

Features Posted 01/02/21
This month Nigel Akehurst visits small-scale organic growers Abby Nicol and Thad Skews at Pea Pod Veg market garden in Hailsham, East Sussex.

Abby and Thad are passionate about growing delicious, seasonal organic vegetables for local people and are making it stack up financially.

“Often people think you can’t make a living from small-scale farming, but our small business supports two full-time growers and one part-time grower,” said Abby.

Over the past four years they have built a viable business model that feeds hundreds of households. Abby and Thad started Pea Pod together in June 2016, supplying vegetables grown at Little Pannel Farm in Pett to the Hastings community.

At the time of establishing Pea Pod Veg, Abby was working for Pannel Organics, a six-acre market garden with around 4,000 square metres of indoor space run by Metske Van der Laan (now of Bore Place, Kent) supplying the majority of their vegetables to veg box schemes and food shops in Brighton.

Abby and Metske decided that there was potential for Abby to start a small veg box business of her own, using produce they grew together from Pannel Farm, to supply the local community in Hastings. Thad started as the delivery driver and began to help out on the farm more and more. From supplying 25 people, they quickly grew their customer base to 85 customers, all through word of mouth. Then in 2017 they found out they would need to find a new growing site. The lease on the Pannel Organics market garden at Little Pannel Farm came to an end in May 2018.

Land quest

So began their Pea Pod land quest. Abby and Thad created a ‘land wanted’ poster and letter detailing their business model, growing experience and wish list for their ideal plot. They began circulating these through various farming and growing networks in December 2017.

It wasn’t easy finding suitable land but their search resulted in a few potential sites.

“The big issue is lack of land for growers,” said Abby.

They visited the different sites and narrowed it down to two suitable locations, eventually deciding on a two-acre field at Longley Farm in Hailsham. They signed a 10-year rental agreement and so the process of planning their own market garden began.

Factfile

Farm facts

  • Two acre organic market garden at Longleys Farm in Hailsham
  • Two full-time growers and part-time help with harvesting
  • Growing over 40 varieties of seasonal veg
  • Direct sales via Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box scheme with 110 shares to households in Hastings
  • Wholesale veg to farm shops in Hastings and Brighton (accounting for 50% of veg production)
  • Active members of the Landworkers’ Alliance and Organic Growers’ Alliance
  • Helped to co-found South East Growers’ Group to build the network of local growers and encourage more on-farm learning through farm tours and skill shares

Blank canvas

Presented with a blank canvas (a field of pasture), they designed the farm around their veg boxes and the different varieties of veg they grow through the season. They drew on a mixture of experience gained by working on different farms and design tips from books. Of particular help was The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming by JM Fortier, a Canadian grower and author. He outlines how it’s possible to make a living wage from farming without big capital outlay or acreages. They also listed Joy Larkcom, Kate Collyns, Charles Dowding and Elliott Coleman as helpful sources of information.

Abby and Thad were able to use many of the farm design tips and techniques. By using standardised vegetable beds 100ft long by 4ft wide, they were able to use many of Fortier’s tables for sowing and estimating crop yields and values. The standardised beds also allow them to maximise productivity by using appropriate small-scale tools and harvesting by hand. This allows them to use more of their land for veg production compared to a larger scale site, where bigger tractor spacings would be required.

Abby and Thad also found being connected to growers’ organisations helpful. “The Organic Growers’ Alliance magazine and the UK Organic Market Gardeners’ Facebook forum were invaluable for advice and speaking to farmer friends,” said Abby.

Crop planning and planting

With the majority of the 40-plus varieties of vegetables being grown outside, the two growers start crop planning each year in January. This involves transforming spreadsheet data (sowing dates, days to maturity, estimated harvest dates etc) into a visual block diagram crop plan for the year. Each bed will often have at least two crops or more during the season. Abby and Thad order seeds through a variety of organic seed suppliers: Tamar Organics, Real Seeds, Vital Seeds, the Seed Cooperative, Kings Seeds and Moles Seeds among others.

Their heavy clay soils take a while to warm up and they often find themselves frustrated as they aren’t able to start planting until well into spring, though Abby adds that, on the plus side, clay is very fertile. To improve the soil they use a mixture of organic farm yard manure (sourced from Hook and Son) and green waste compost. They also use small amounts of organic chicken manure, an effective fertiliser for their crops. To further build soil organic matter they grow green manures, which also helps keep the soil covered through the winter months.

Tunnels and low tech tools

In addition to growing in beds, they have three polytunnels for Mediterranean vegetables such as French beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and aubergines in the summer. These polytunnels are also used to extend the season in the winter months by being used for salads and leafy greens.

Abby and Thad use hand tools for the majority of tasks, alongside a small BCS two-wheeled cultivator. This is used for shallow cultivation of the top few inches of soil to create a tilth to plant into and form raised beds, which helps to improve drainage of the clay soil and maintain the permanent beds. They don’t plough the land each year, instead using black tarpaulins to kill off green manures and weeds before reshaping into beds and planting.

Favourite varieties

Abby loves peas, which she enjoys grazing on in the spring. She is also a massive fan of Tokyo turnips, which she describes as “golf balls of deliciousness”. They also both like squashes, such as Crown Prince, Red Kuri, butternuts and Delicata, which are low maintenance to grow and very tasty in the winter months. Thad’s favourite veg are sweet red peppers and he has an ever growing appreciation of the brassica/cabbage family, whose members are full of healthy nutrients. The pair trial different varieties and crops each year, including Agretti (land samphire) and Aztec broccoli, both a hit with chefs. Their seasonal salad mix varies throughout the year and always includes at least five different leaves. It features the likes of summer purslane, little gem, lollo rossa, crisp red and green lettuce and amaranth in the summer and frizzy mustards, mizunas, corn salad and mibunas alongside cold hardy lettuce in the winter. The smaller independent seed suppliers like Real Seeds in Wales were great for providing trial varieties, they said.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

At the beginning of 2020 Abby and Thad decided to change their direct sales model from a veg box to a CSA box share scheme. It was a subtle but important distinction, they explained. Whereas previously they were buying the vegetables from Pannel Organics (where Abby worked), they are now responsible for the planning, sowing, harvesting and delivery of all the veg to their customers. From June to December, 100% of the veg box contents comes direct from the farm.

Instead of customers being able to pick and choose what they get and when (which is standard for large corporate box schemes), a CSA box scheme means customers are signing up to be part of a community that supports the farm, and receive what’s in season throughout the year.

“There is a mutually beneficial relationship between consumer and producer. The producer is growing fresh, seasonal veg and the consumer is receiving super fresh, local veg and enjoying a greater connection to the farm, where their veg comes from and those who have grown it,” explained Abby.

During late summer they hold an annual open day for customers and, Covid-19 restrictions permitting, they plan to have more community days at the farm.

Abby and Thad have three sizes of CSA boxes; small (£11), medium (£14) and large (£17). The medium and large size are by far the most popular, containing between seven and eight items and nine to 10 items respectively. Each week Abby sends customers an e-newsletter containing updates from the farm, musings on the food system and recipes tailored to the seasonal vegetables in the box. Thad hand delivers the boxes to their customers every Thursday, dropping off over 110 boxes across Hastings.

Typical work day

No two days are the same at Pea Pod Veg. Abby and Thad work long days from spring through to the autumn to keep everything running smoothly. Spring is busy with seed sowing, preparing beds and planting; summer means plant care, weeding, watering and harvesting alongside sowing and planting; autumn is full on harvesting. The pair had part time help this year, with harvesting supported by Charlotte Still and Anne-Marie Watson.

Marketing

Thankfully their produce speaks for itself and they haven’t had to do any marketing since they started out, relying solely on word of mouth to grow their customer base. They have a simple website, www.peapodveg.co.uk, which details more about their ethos and the seasonal veg they grow. At the time of writing they have a waiting list of 150 people. Their produce can also be bought through several local shops in Hastings, Lewes and Brighton (Trinity Wholefoods, The Season’s, Lewes and Infinity Wholefoods).

They also have an Instagram account (@peapodveg), where they post the occasional photo of the Pea Pod growing team having fun, along with lots of beautiful veg. They also post weekly “What’s in the box” photos from the market garden with a list of seasonal vegetables.

For a more immersive visual insight into the inner workings of Pea Pod, check out their YouTube short film The Story of Pea Pod Veg, artfully shot and edited by Thad’s nephew, Saxon Bosworth and co-directed by Thad.

Covid-19 and building a more resilient and local food system

Both Abby and Thad point to the recent food shortages on supermarket shelves brought about by the first lockdown in March. Pea Pod was inundated with ‘panic’ sign-ups to the CSA box scheme and had to start a waiting list as they were unable to meet demand.

“For years we’ve let the industrial food system and cheap food become the norm, but the recent crisis shows how fragile it all is,” said Abby.

They believe the solution is to value local food growers, along with a more agro-ecological approach to producing food in harmony with nature. “We need more small scale, agroecological farmers to grow better food for our communities,” she added.

Encouraging new entrants into farming and food production

Abby, herself a new entrant to farming, is passionate about improving the perception of working on the land. After graduating with a degree in Geography from Edinburgh University back in 2009, she worked in the charity food sector, becoming disenchanted with a largely screen-based role.

She felt disconnected from the food she ate and decided to get hands on and cycled around Spain spending time volunteering on farms through the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) network.

Abby returned to the UK determined to build a career in growing organic vegetables. She built up her practical skills by working on different farms, often alongside seasonal workers from Europe – many of whom couldn’t understand why she wanted to be a grower.

Despite the naysayers, Abby reveled in the physical and mental challenge of growing veg. To build her knowledge she took several part-time courses through the Soil Association. Then a growing opportunity took her to Hastings in 2012 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Abby and Thad are active members of the Landworkers’ Alliance, a UK-based union of farmers, growers, foresters and land-based workers who work together to campaign for better food and land-use systems.

To build a network of small-scale growers in the South East, Abby and Thad helped set up a growers’ group to share knowledge and skills. In the summer of 2020 a small group of growers attended a meet-up at Plaw Hatch Farm. They look forward to being able to organise more events and continue to build the community of small-scale growers in the South East. For more details, get in touch via southeastgrowersgroup@gmail.com.

Plans for the future/

Having worked hard over the past three seasons to set up their market garden from scratch and develop a successful CSA box scheme, Abby and Thad are looking forward to a better work/life balance this year. They have no plans to increase the amount of veg they grow, apart from ‘making a few tweaks’ said Abby. Like most of us they are looking forward to things getting back to ‘normal’. They’d like to host farm walks and ‘grow’ better growers through their South East network. Mostly, they just want to demonstrate that small scale farming can be a valuable and exciting career choice for young people.


Tweets from @southeastfarmer