At its simplest a box scheme means dividing the production of the holding among the customers. The actual implications on working practice will vary according to the size of the holding. For larger units more used to supplying wholesale markets, it is inevitable that new crops and new skills will need to be accommodated. For smaller units the big challenge is maintaining profitability without economies of scale.
Customers buy a box of vegetables, fruit or meat for a set price, rather than choosing which ones to buy and paying individually. The box is usually delivered to their home or a drop off point, but can be picked up from the farm. Most supply for 12 months a year, some choose to stop during the late winter and/or hungry gap. Many schemes offer choice of box size and some offer choice of content (eg not potatoes, UK produce box etc).
Pros and cons for customers
- Good value fresh local organic produce
- Convenient - home delivery or easy pick up
- Less choice andmore preparation time when cooking
Pros and cons for producers
- Reduces waste – you choose what goes in the box, so if caulis have failed you can put chard in instead. Box customers are generally more tolerant of skin defect or misshapen veg than wholesalers.
- Committed buyers – although buyers can still drop out they are more likely to keep buying if they have a regular weekly order. Setting up direct debit payments and sending weekly reminders to order can help maintain customers. As with any business customer service is crucial.
- Communication - more time needed through weekly newsletters, recipe cards etc
- Distribution - home delivery or hub network
- Diveristy of cropping - You will need to grow a larger range of crops (around 60 different varieties) to ensure a good range which stops your customers getting bored. Continuity of production is essential.
What you need
- Land – although some boxes do work with buying all their produce in, margins are tight and people like to buy from the producer. Most successful box schemes produce a good proportion of what they sell. As a rule of thumb 1 hectare can supply 20 people with a box every week (though quality of land, location, skill of grower etc all can affect this). If you aim to be self sufficient you need growing conditions and soil that can crop for 12 months (or a good proportion of this. Very heavy clay in the far north of England will make your job more difficult.
- Protected cropping areas – it is very hard to succeed financially without some area of glass or tunnel on the holding. This will extend the season for many crops (in particular winter salads) and will allow you to grow some crops that are otherwise not possible in the UK (eg tomatoes, peppers)
- Packing facilities – this can be a shed for a small scheme. For larger operations more sophisticated equipment will be needed. Check out relevant hygiene regulations (your local Environmental Health Officer will be very helpful, contact them before you start).
- Storage – both ambient and chilled are essential. Unless you are totally self sufficient you will need to bring produce in and store it, similarly in the summer some chilled space is almost essential.
- Distribution - Need to be close to a big enough centre of population. The cost of distributing to widely dispersed populations makes this model difficult to work well in very rural areas.
- Labour – box schemes require fairly high labour, picking, packing, delivery, customer service. Do you have the personnel / skills to make it work? For example 2 full time staff should cope with growing and harvesting for 150-200 boxes per week, with some extra harvesting labour at peak times.
- Machinery – once you start growing on more than an acre machinery is needed to make the operation pay. Larger operations will need a tractor, planters, weeding machines and so on. Growing on a bed system with all crops set up to the same spacing between rows will make the operation more efficient.
- Irrigation – with large numbers of successional sowings irrigation is essential for plant establishment. Certain crops ( eg lettuce, fennel, beans) will need regular water if you are to get consitently good yields. For protected cropping it is vital. Before investing in irrigation check the current regulations with the Environment Agency.
A word on .... Crops
Here is an idea what crops you might need to grow and how often, this is not of course an exhaustive list.
|Staple (needed weekly or fortnightly)
||Regular (once a month)
||Occasional (one offs or once every couple of months)|
|Tomatoes - summer
|Lettuce - summer
|Leeks - winter
Useful sources of information
Literature – a small sample from our large range of technical information available from the food and farming department (most of which is free to licensees and food and farming members)
- Marketing information for growers
- Organic Carrot Production
- Organic Market Report (produced annually)
- Organic horticulture Q & A booklet
- Organic Leek Production
- Organic Lettuce Production
- Organic Onion Production
- Organic Potato Production and Storage
- Organic production for a vegetable box (notes from training event)
- Rotations for Organic Horticultural Field Crops
- Setting Up an Organic Box Scheme
- Soil management on organic farms
- Sources of technical information, education & advice
Many thanks to Tim Deane for his work in helping to compile this briefing paper.