If you had an intensive pig unit, what would you do with it? A pretty academic question for most of us – it isn’t going to happen – but for Jonnie and Fanny Watson it was a real life situation. They decided to convert it into an organic vegetable farm – and so The Organic Pantry was born some fifteen years ago.
Located in open countryside between Leeds and York, the farm – as St Helen’s Farm – had been property of Jonnie’s father. In fact the Watson family have worked the land here for over 100 years. The farm covers some 300 acres of rolling fields, but Jonnie and Fanny were not feeling too enthused at the prospect of spending a lifetime continuing its intensive animal farming. Hence a bold decision to change direction. The Organic Pantry is now 100% organic vege in its production – a status achieved in 1999 – and with over 50 varieties of vegetable and salad crops grown across the year.
As such The Organic Pantry is very much at the top end, size wise, of farms and small holdings which I visited on my tour. You cant get away from the fact that it feels much more like a business operation than most of the other inspiring but fragile operations. This is partly the scale but also partly the fact that Jonnie and Fanny have also established a thriving organic wholesale business at the farm, and supply fruit and vegetables to outlets across the north of England. Son, Freddie, is also running a prepared organic veg business from their supplying ready to cook produce to local authorities and the like. This is as much an entrepreneurial activity as it is organic. It feels like a professional business and employs some dozen or so staff. It is easy to forget just how much those first few years of organic veg growing in place of pig rearing were a radical and high risk choice.
Local roots also remain with an extensive veg box scheme alongside farm shop selling whole foods and organic meat, veg and groceries. The Organic pantry also sells direct at several local farmers markets and in 2014 was a finalist in Yorkshire Finest Taste competition run through the Yorkshire Post.
Scale is also relative. Despite the need for a level of mechanisation this is very far from factory farming. I had deliberately chosen to make a visit in the depths of winter when the final pickings were being made of brassica and leek crops, but where much of the time was also taken up in repairing and preparing – especially the soil – for the coming season. The fields may have yielded several tonnes of purple spouting broccoli, for example, but this was not your vegetable production on the monoculture scale of Lincolnshire and the like!
The creation of a successful Organic Pantry could not have been followed through without combining business clout with a meaningful commitment to sustainable and ethical food production. Despite its ‘commercial’ roots, it is a business which the family is right to be proud of being associated with and through which they promote their passion for the environment.
For more, see The Organic Pantry website.