Surrounded by blackcurrants in his sales gazebo, Huw Evans describes how he likes to do business.
“I’ll be standing in the field on the phone saying to shops: ‘What would you like?’ and they’ll say ‘18 lettuces, 16 kilos of courgettes and some french beans’. Then we’ll pick them and take them to the shop and say: ‘There you go. These lettuces were in the field 40 minutes ago’. I say it loud so the customers can hear.”
Huw and his colleagues at Sheffield Organic Growers have farmed less than five years on their 12 acre site off Hazelhurst Lane at Gleadless, and are now selling all the organic fruit and veg they can grow.
“We could sell a lot more,” says Huw. “We might be needing more land.”
The five SOG businesses tick ‘organic’ and ‘local’ boxes for their customers, says Huw. “But if I’m honest the fact that it’s local is the selling point. All the food here is sold and eaten locally, within about 5-7 miles of the farm.”
Last Saturday, Huw’s Hazelhurst Fruitery hosted a ‘pick your own blackcurrants’ day, with a steady stream of customers despite the showery weather.
“Where else in Sheffield can you pick organic blackcurrants straight off the bush when they’re really fresh?” said Judith Chamberlain.
“I think it’s amazing here, you feel you’re in the middle of the countryside but just up there is the busy ring road. I know lots of people are getting together to grow food now, and I hope there’ll be more of them.”
Local, small-scale farming is on the way back, Huw explains. “Before road transport and energy were so cheap, land around cities was used for growing food for that city.”
The two-field site now provides an income for 10 people - along with Huw’s fruitery, there’s Hazelhurst Community Agriculture Co-op and Moss Valley Market Garden supplying vegetable boxes, Matt West growing for Beanies Wholefoods in Crookesmoor, and Full Circle Farm, recently set up by five young farmers.
The growers sell to the public via markets and to local greengrocers like Zeds, Sharrow Marrow, Mr Pickles’ Yorkshire Food Emporium and Filthy Gorgeous.
Kim Davison works almost full time on the site as an apprentice with the Soil Association. “It’s hard work, but it’s a good kind of hard work for someone who likes being out in the countryside,” she says. “I used to be a civil servant where there was zero job satisfaction, but this is exciting to come to work. It’s like playing outside all day.”
Farming by organic methods brings its own challenges, Huw says, but taking care of the soil and careful crop choice seems to be working. There are perching posts for kestrels to prey on gnawing voles, a whistling ‘buzz line’ to deter nervous finches, and an electric fence to keep out larger mammals - not altogether successful, says Huw, pointing to a plum tree which seems to have been razed by a fence-hopping tree-climbing badger.
Huw works several days a week on the SOG scheme, and as a property developer admits he’s in the enviable position of having another income to cover his costs.
His fruitery has been long in the planning, with bore holes testing soil contours and careful selection of fruit to grow in the weather of the Yorkshire/Derbyshire border, such as hazelnuts, pears, red, white and black currants, worcester, tay and loganberries, and nearly 30 types of apples, from Emneth Early and Beauty of Bath to the Yorkshire favourite Ribston Pippin: “Which have beautiful trees, and apples that are more interesting than anything you’d get in a supermarket,” says Huw.
Hazelhurst already produces hundreds of kilos of fruit annually, and in another five years when the trees and bushes reach their prime it will be cropping tonnes.
“And some of the trees will be here for 200 years, for my great grandchildren,” says Huw.
“Local food growing is not flash in the pan, interest is growing and I hope people do see what we’ve done here and copy us. We really can grow a lot of our food close to where we live. We just have to get on with it.”