Q&A discussion on organic fruit and veg boxes in Scotland with Mike Callender from East Coast Organics.
Mike is Farm Managing Director of East Coast Organics Ltd. He runs a wonderful organic and biodynamic farm in East Lothian with partner Fu Aykroyd supplying Edinburgh, East Lothian and Midlothian (by electric delivery van) with beautifully fresh, nutrient-packed, packaging and chemical-free, truly delicious organic fruit and veg boxes. This is the future (hopefully): quality, local, organic, sustainable.
Over two hundred different varieties of fruit and veg are grown on the farm, thanks largely to the extended growing seasons facilitated by 4000m sq of polytunnels. Prices are competitive also. Mike makes regular comparisons with the major supermarkets and publishes them via the East Coast Organics Blog and newsletter. More often than not prices of the East Coast Organics organic fruit and veg boxes come in significantly cheaper than similar produce offered by the likes of Sainsbury´s and Waitrose.
In addition to the delivery of organic fruit and veg boxes, East Coast Organics also has an award-winning stall at the Edinburgh Farmers’ Market which we urge you check out if you get the opportunity. It is a privilege to have East Coast Organics operating in South East Scotland. Hats off to them! Mike Callender and his team are extremely passionate about sustainable, chemical-free growing and are proving that Scotland´s harsh climate does not have to stand in anyone´s way.
You can get in touch with Mike via his website.
Q.When did East Coast Organics first start offering its delivery service of organic fruit and veg boxes?
A. We took over the 2 1/2 acre smallholding in 1996 and started the process of converting the land from conventional to organic and biodynamic. For two years we grew and sold produce as spray-free and then later as, organic in-conversion. We started as ‘Skylark’, then became East Coast Boxes, supplying a few ready-made boxes, some wholesale, and attending the Friday Market at the Rudolph Steiner School.
Q. How much land do you currently have for growing fruit and veg?
A. We have expanded the farm to include 121 acres now and all the land has had to be converted to organic. We grow fruit and veg on about 30 acres and the remaining land is used for grazing and for cereals for hen and animal feed.
Q. As well as being organic, your farm is also biodynamic. Can you explain what biodynamic agriculture exactly is?
A.Biodynamic agriculture was developed by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. It was the first organic movement and is practised worldwide. All our produce is certified under the BDAA (Biodynamic Agricultural Association) The most common certification body in the UK is the Soil Association, but the BDAA is better known throughout the world. For info’ on BD practices go to biodynamic.org.uk.
Q. What is your delivery area organic fruit and veg boxes and how many customers do you currently deliver to?
A. We have tried to stay as local as possible keeping our delivery area within a 30mile radius. So most of East Lothian, some of Midlothian and all of Edinburgh. We deliver about 1200 organic fruit and veg boxes a week, but have about 2000 customers as some people just have fortnightly deliveries.
Q. For sure your organic fruit and veg boxes offer fantastic quality in terms of being local, fresh and chemical-free, but how do they compare for price against the big supermarkets?
A. We do regular price checks which show we are normally about 40% cheaper. However the last one we compared with Waitrose showed us to be less than half the price!
Q. What kind of packaging do you use for your organic fruit and veg boxes? Do customers end up with anything that is not recyclable?
A. All the boxes we use are returnable for us to reuse. We trialled corn starch packaging for individual items, but found that it needed an incredible amount of energy to produce. I don’t think it is possible to use corn starch any more as it can not be proven to be GM free. We now use paper bags where possible and LDPE plastic (low-density polyethylene) if a product requires it. All plastic can be returned to us for recycling if customers cannot re use and recycle it themselves.
Q. Is it difficult to grow a varied supply of fruit and vegetables all year round in Scotland or do polytunnels allow you to grow pretty much anything you want?
A. Polytunnels increase the season length and give better yields and improved quality. Everything still stops growing in the winter, but crops can sit there until they need harvested. You would need a lot of artificial heat and light to really keep growing year round.
Q. I understand that as of 2016 you are now making all your deliveries of organic fruit and veg boxes using emission free electric vehicles. How is this working our for you?
A. We now have three electric vans and are committed to utilise them for all our home deliveries of organic fruit and veg boxes. This means clean air for pedestrians and cyclists in our streets. Some European cities have now banned non electric vehicles from their centres. Unfortunately the electric vans available are too small and we need to top up with a conventional van during the day. This is only temporary as the race is on for manufacturers to produce affordable Transit sized vans.
Q. Please sum up why we should all be buying organic produce?
A. On a global point of view, organic farming is far better for the environment and wild life than chemical farming. On an individual, personal and selfish point of view, the more organic food you eat the, the less pesticides you piss! Certain pesticides now have proven link to be a probable cause of cancer. Pesticides are now found in all human bodily fluids including breast milk. Corporations / governments state that the levels are safe or within limits. That does not explain why cancer cases continue to rise so that now 1 in 2 of us will get cancer at some stage and that’s just up from 1 in 3.
Q. What do you think about Genetically Modified Food? Is modification of plant DNA vital to ensure the survival of our rapidly expanding global population?
A. I believe that recent evidence has shown that in general GM crops don’t produce much higher yields. The cancer causing glyphosate they use to eliminate weed competition is also now banned in many countries. If you do increase yields you have to increase inputs such as manufactured fertilisers. These are made from oil, which we all know is running out. If you allow the global population to expand to match that of food supply and then the artificial fertilisers cease there would mass starvation. Corporate genocide on an unbelievable scale. Much better to aim towards sustainable farming now and stop wasting so much food and resources and allow the population to stabilise naturally.
Q. How do you feel about Brexit? Could it be an opportunity to make drastic changes to the Scottish style of agriculture and move away from subsidised large-scale production towards a greater number of smaller, more sustainable, organic ventures?
A. I think it would have been better to create change from within. The farming subsidies were certainly unfair against non EU countries. There is too much bureaucracy though, with EU, Westminster government, Scottish government, local councils and like the USA we don’t really have a real democracy. In a survey, only 11% Americans thought that Clinton and Trump were decent honest people! Scotland could change drastically and push for real land reform. Break up the huge estates and give the land to the people. End poverty, end unemployment, create affordable home options on affordable land. It can be done! Check out the city of Marinaleda in Spain.
Q. How would you like to see Scotland move in the future in terms of the way we grow and consume our food?
A. We need action and commitment from the Scottish Government to promote natural, pesticide free food. Until they admit that there is a probable link with pesticides and cancer then nothing much will change. There needs to be education and encouragement to steer the public to eat more local produce. We need to ban these artificial chemicals that poison our land and wildlife. The climate in Scotland is probably the biggest challenge to being self sufficient in food, unless you pickle everything like in Finland, which has an even shorter growing season than us.
I would like to thank Mike Callender for getting involved with this Q&A on organic fruit and veg boxes in Scotland and wish him and East Coast Organics all the very best. If you fancy speaking more with Mike on this topic or about other things related to organic/biodynamic food/growing you can visit his website.