Tim Deane of Northwood Farm in Devon
"Organic principles have to underpin the practice, and once they are understood and really taken on board most of the rest of it is common sense."
Tim Deane and his wife, Jan, are widely credited for setting up one of the first – and certainly the longest running - vegetable box schemes in the UK at Northwood Boxes in 1991. This radical approach to marketing has now become a model used by farmers and growers across the UK - and beyond.
Can you give a short history of how you got to where you are now, including why and when you 'went organic'?
Soon after university (archaeology/history) I became a farm worker, for a short time in Devon, then two years in the Highlands, then a year at agricultural college, then six years as a stockman/tractor driver in Cornwall. At first I was just happy to be out in the open doing something useful, but as time went on I increasingly questioned the way we were farming. Going to the third Organic Growers Alliance conference at Cirencester in 1983 answered a lot of my questions. I realised that not only was there another (organic) way but that some impressively intelligent and energetic people were actually pursuing it. I gave up my job and our tied house, and Jan and I (two children in tow) set out to find a bit of land of our own on which to practice our new-found ideals, or perish in the attempt (though we didn’t see it like that). We learnt on the job and survived, and 28 years later are still here.
Can you describe a typical day at work?
I don’t have a typical day, unlike when I grew veg seven days every week. I still pack a few (very few) boxes, and we have cattle now – half a dozen suckler cows and progeny – which need more or less attention depending on the time of year. Jan works hard to bring home most of the bacon so I do a lot of domestic stuff. The farm had been abandoned for years when we found it and there’s still a lot of restoration work to do, plus I need to spend time on cleaning up the mess I made when we were too busy to do anything but grow vegetables.
Organic principles - why do they matter?
Organic farming is not complicated, in essence, but it's different – more careful, more considered – and it can't be done any-old-how. The principles have to underpin the practice, and once they are understood and really taken on board most of the rest of it is common sense.
What does the Soil Association mean to you?
We can’t survive and do what we need to do by the land without selling what we produce, so of course the market and promotion are important. But what the Soil Association is really about is guarding and propagating those organic principles, and that's what I most value it for.
What is your greatest achievement at work?
It has to be Jan and I setting up our box scheme which, while not actually the first (that’s to Charles Dowding’s credit), showed how this form of selling and relating to the customer could enable small-scale veg holdings to survive. It became the widely adopted model for a revolutionary movement! The glory days of boxes may be gone, but the market has never been the same since. The way they've humanised the business of selling fresh produce continues to benefit independent producers generally.
How can the organic market be improved?
I’d like to see more effort put into explaining the benefits of organic food through getting across the essence of what organic farming is about, the actual biology of it - on the grounds that it is better to talk sense to a few than touchy-feely stuff designed to make people feel good about themselves to the many. And maybe it will turn out to be more than a few that listen. Of course – I’m happy for people to feel good about themselves, but helping them do so is not our job!
What other organic ventures do you admire and why?
I’d like to put in a word for Riverford which has done a tremendous amount to popularise organic horticulture, as well as providing large scale useful employment in South Devon. It’s not the way I would have wanted to go, supposing I had the capability to do so, but it blows me away to see the extraordinary phenomenon Riverford has become when I remember its starting point (at about the same time as ours) on a few acres and in a dank and gloomy barn. And Guy Watson’s interludes in The Riverford Farm Cookbook shed more light on the reasons for and realities of organic veg growing than anything else I’ve read.
What is the biggest threat to the organic movement?
Desperation born out of shrinking resources, leading to an ever increasing rapacity in our dealings with the land. It’s possible to see that organic agriculture could be swept aside in the pursuit of survival through misguided means.
What would you have done differently?
We might have bought light land instead of heavy, and had an easier time of it. But then we wouldn’t have this farm, which we love.
Who or what is your biggest inspiration?
My mother – for her green fingers and all-round resourcefulness.
What do you love most about what you do?
Fresh air, bird song, the freedom of sunshine, wind and rain.
Supermarkets - good or bad?
They are just a symptom of a malaise.
What's the main benefit of ‘being organic’ for you?
Good food, the sense of doing what is honest and true, being part of something bigger.
What keeps you awake at night?
What's the best thing about organic methods?
They work, and free you from most of the dependence on agricultural merchants that bedevils so much of agriculture.
Any unusual hobbies or past careers?
When I studied (or failed to study) archaeology at university it was all about peasant societies, yet no one there had the faintest clue about being a peasant or about farming in general. So afterwards I set out to discover what that meant! Then, years later, we had to have our ruined mediaeval farmhouse excavated before we could rebuild it. I like history, but don’t think it a suitable pursuit for a fit young man. Now I’m not young anymore I’m taking a renewed interest in it.
What is your favourite meal?
Eggs and (Helen Browning’s) bacon, just ahead of a casserole of our own beef and vegetables.
If I was Prime Minister I would...
...abolish private education – the root of so much division in our society.
I'd like to be remembered for...
I don’t need to be remembered. When the time comes, just put me back in the ground I sprung from... That’s the organic way.