A Mini WWOOF: What’s Inside Your Veg Bag

Cat Öz

The Honey Tree

Origin stories are immensely popular these days, from Wolverine to Star Wars. It seems the question Where did that actually come from? is being asked more and more by consumers who are increasingly interested in where their favourite commodities are produced – especially when the origin story is alarming or unpalatable for the buyer, as in the recent case of the Bangladesh factory collapse that killed over 1,000 workers who were diligently stitching – in massively unsafe conditions – clothing that was ultimately destined for our backs. However, one fount of origin stories that remains generally unplumbed is that of our food: in a recent survey of almost 30,000 five-to-sixteen-year-olds, 10% believed that tomatoes grew underground and potatoes grew on trees – despite over three-quarters of them being well aware of the good old ‘Five A Day’ motto.[1] Effectively, these kids may have known that they should be eating something without really knowing what that thing was or where it came from – which strikes me as odd, having grown up  (along with many others, I’m sure) with the chastisement, ‘Don’t put that thing in your mouth! You don’t know where it’s been!’ ringing in my ears.

            Perhaps sometimes it takes a tragedy like the one in Bangladesh for people to be roused into asking these pertinent questions. Personally, I think that 30% of five-to-eight-year-olds thinking bread and pasta are made of meat[2] is a pretty tragic statistic. But don’t get me wrong: I am just as guilty of consuming without consideration; this is a girl who once asked, ‘Chips are made of bread, right?’[3] It’s all too easy to pick things up in a grocery or supermarket without questioning exactly what that neatly packed, pre-shredded lettuce has been through, or how bacon rashers get into those wavy rectangles.

            The thing is, it’s also all too easy to find out, too: recently I drove 20 minutes down the road and discovered the exact, secluded patch of farmland where many of The Honey Tree’s vegetables are grown. The tomatoes I saw (on vines, not underground) could soon be sitting in one of our baskets in the shop. The super-shiny pointed peppers growing next to them could in a matter of days be in one of our customers’ veg box deliveries.

            The site is tended by NEOG (North East Organic Growers),[4] an organisation run by a group of individuals dedicated to providing fresh, organic fruit and veg to the people of the North East. On their annual open day they invite their customers (and any curious folks who don’t know their cavolo nero from their rainbow chard, like me) to have a nosy round the site: a twelve-acre plot of veritable vegetable delights, fringed by trees that block out the sights and sounds of the motorway not too far along the dirt road. In one of five poly-tunnels, each housing different crops, a tiny pond frosted over with bright green algae nestled in the corner. This, our guide Phil informed us, was to attract toads and frogs, which would then take care of any slug problems – no pesticides or fancy chemical repellents can be used on an organic farm such as this, although Phil did say they formerly used the slightly more technical beer-bucket method of slug-control (something which another member of my tour group thought was a terrible waste of beer).

Outside, past the compost-heaps that are created using waste-produce, lies a sea of green: different varieties of root vegetable stretch out in neat rows, their leaves swaying gently in the breeze like ripples in a verdant ocean. It was pretty perfect, really – and even though admittedly I couldn’t identify many of the vegetables just by their protruding leaves (most of the group could, I must say, chatting away amongst themselves about the scourge of the white cabbage butterfly and methods of pear-tree pruning. I felt like an utter rookie) I could appreciate the sense, the simplicity, and the beauty of it all: a heavy September sun blazed overhead, and in the distance Phil’s kids ran barefoot through the fields, giggling. It could almost have been a scene from a Constable painting, except the kids were shooting NERF guns at each other.

What I took from the experience were answers to questions that, previously, I had never had the inclination to ask. I was happy to buy and consume without really thinking about the effort, the time and the dedication that goes into producing the food that we all toss into our shopping baskets without a moment’s thought as to where it came from. People like those at NEOG deserve to have customers, because they not only put such effort into what they do, but they also make it ridiculously easy for their customers to access them: you don’t need to drive 20 minutes and go pull your carrots out of the ground; you can collect them at a time and place convenient to you from one of several shops which are part of the scheme, The Honey Tree being just one.

To find out more about how NEOG works, and how you can get involved – including getting a four-week free trial of the scheme – go to www.neog.org.uk, or phone 01670 821070.

[1] 'Cheese is from plants', by Judith Burns; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-22730613

[2] Burns again. I recommend reading her article, it makes you laugh in an eye-rolling, nihilistic kind of way.

[3] I was a LOT younger, I hasten to add. Well. Thirteen.

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