There are an estimated 500+ veg box schemes in the UK. According to the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report, sales for smaller box schemes increased by 11% in 2015.
The wonky vegetable box, launched by Asda in February, is a different story. While it does attempt to address mounting food waste concerns by promoting ‘ugly veg’, it is certainly not about decentralising the market or supporting the organic movement.
The main players
While most local box schemes have a few hundred customers at most, Riverford and Abel & Cole have around 50,000 customers each. Debates have raged about whether they have done a great thing bringing organic veg to the masses, or have undermined the livelihoods of hundreds of other small-scale producers.
However, if you compare them to any supermarket where most people buy their veg – they both score much better on our tables. The highest scoring supermarkets are The Co-op with 5.5 and M&S with 5.
In the beginning
Veg boxes were only popularised in 1991 after a pair of successful growers near Dartmoor had a TV programme made about them. Tim and Jan Deane of Northwood Boxes found that instead of their vegetables travelling 50 miles to their regional organic co-operative, then 200 miles on to a retail depot, only to end up in a supermarket 10 miles from home at more than four times the price they had sold them at, they could build up their own customer base. Within two years they had 200 customers and a predictable income.
Finally, after struggling to survive in the world of supermarkets, small-scale organic growers had found a model that fitted. Supermarkets dominated 70% of the fresh food market, but working with them had pushed organic growers into a mass production system which favoured monoculture, and wasted up to 30% of produce for being the wrong size or shape. Risks and costs had been pushed onto the grower and many faced bankruptcy.
What’s in season?
With a box of locally grown veg, you are more aware of the seasons. But many of us are used to having year-round availability, and its common to hear veg box customers (like allotment holders) struggling with seasonal gluts.
Luckily, many schemes include recipe ideas, or you can find them online at Veg Box recipes. If there are one or two types of vegetable no-one in your household will ever eat, most schemes allow you to make a couple of exceptions.
To keep their customers happy, many schemes will also import some produce, especially fruit, if it is not available locally. In this case they will often draw the line at air-freighted produce, and will probably prioritise produce from Europe.
What is good value?
Many veg box customers are looking for value beyond simply the price of the box. They are actively supporting a different food system. They might want to know that more of the price will go to the growers, rather than to highly paid execs or shareholders.
To keep delivery costs down, some schemes have started dropping off to community hubs, rather than all the way to your door. And some are teaming up with other producers to broaden their range of veg and other groceries.
Box prices obviously vary from scheme to scheme, but Riverford do a monthly price comparison with supermarkets to prove they are better value.
Abel & Cole VS Riverford
Both companies sell organic fruit and veg. They both also sell meat: Riverford only sells organic and free range meat whereas Abel & Cole sells some meat and fish that is non-organic but ‘higher welfare’ or free range.
Abel and Cole
Abel & Cole grew from selling potatoes door to door in 1988 to an organic veg box scheme which, in 2007, was sold for nearly £40 million to private equity firm Phoenix. It then made losses of £27 million in 2010, and control passed to Lloyds Banking Group. Keith Abel bought back in, and remained a director when the company was bought by the William Jackson Food Group (WJFG) in 2012. In 2015 Abel & Cole turned over £73 million.
Abel & Cole lost half a mark for anti-social finance as WJFG paid its highest earning director over £1 million in 2015. WJFG also owns an insurance company based in Bermuda and operating from Guernsey, both of which are known to be tax havens.
Abel & Cole website >
Guy Watson started the vegetable growing business at Riverford in 1986. Riverford is a family farm, which started moving towards less intensive farming in the 1970s. Riverford told us that “The business will never be owned by venture capitalists... Riverford will never be sold, but instead will become a customer- and/or staff-owned business. We also support small scale veg box schemes both here and overseas. We... openly share farming information and business advice”.
Its £47 million turnover in 2015 included sales of produce to Riverford’s franchises. People running the franchises get training, branding and support from Riverford, but run the business as their own. Riverford supplies the produce, with most of the vegetables coming from its own regional farms in Devon, Hampshire, Cambridgeshire and Yorkshire, and local growers around them. A newsletter discusses all sorts from cutting meat consumption to the TTIP trade deal. Riverford plans to sell fish from April 2016.
In October 2014 there was a 48 hour boycott of Riverford after a fox hunt was spotted on land supplying its dairy. Riverford responded by banning fox-hunting on all Riverford land, not just the land run by the organic veg company.
Riverford scores better on the table as Abel & Cole loses marks due to its parent company. Although reducing environmental impact was clearly at the heart of its business, Riverford scored badly for its environmental reporting as its report and targets were 8 years old.
Riverford website >
Finding box schemes and local veg
There are lots of ways to access local veg, from box schemes that support new entrants to farming, to mobile veg vans. New models are springing up as we speak, but read the small print as they do vary. For example, an ‘Amazon Fresh’ delivery service now operates in an area of south-east England, and Amazon is not the most ethical business available. Not all schemes are organic, and directories are not always up to date, so do a local search too and ask questions.