Building community through farming with Pea Pod Veg

By Pasha Milburn

While many businesses are currently struggling, agroecological farmer, Abby Nicol, of Pea Pod Veg farm (see also Issue 144), has found herself with a long waiting list of prospective customers. “It’s a blessing that we’ve been able to continue our work,” she tells me over the phone, “In a crisis people value being able to access local food when supermarkets are struggling.” Could this be the time to rethink the suitability of our current food system and consider the potential that small-scale farming has for feeding our communities? I spoke to Abby to learn more about what creating a community-orientated, sustainable and accessible food system in Hastings and St Leonards could look like. 

Abby Nicol of Pea Pod Veg

Curious Crops and Community Values

Run by Abby Nicol and her partner, Thad Skewes, Pea Pod Veg began its life in 2016. While working at Little Pannel Farm (Pett), and noticing that most of their produce went to Brighton, Abby was inspired to start her own veg box scheme so that “locally grown veg could feed the local community”. However, when the lease on Pannel was abruptly terminated, Abby had to look for new growing space to enable her to continue with her burgeoning business. In winter of 2017, she managed to secure two acres at an organic dairy farm outside of Hailsham, and now in their third year of farming here, Pea Pod Veg is growing from strength to strength.

What makes Pea Pod Veg stand out is that it is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme (http://community supportedagriculture.org.uk). CSA works to address the challenges (such as sustainability and transparency) in our current food system by encouraging a stronger relationship between farmers and consumers. While there is no overall model for a CSA, all are built upon a similar ‘mutual risk’ approach, where both risks and rewards are shared with consumers. In Pea Pod’s case, individuals sign up, committing to a ‘share of the harvest’ for a whole year and pay each month for boxes that are delivered weekly or fortnightly. For Abby, the beauty of being a CSA scheme is the potential it offers in building further human connection through food. As Abby tells me: 

“CSA creates a mutually beneficial relationship, and in doing so moves beyond the basic understanding of what makes a ‘consumer’ or an economic transaction. It has developed as a model against the ‘convenience’ factor that is encouraged by supermarkets, by recognising that food is a chain of connections, culture and relationships.” 

Abby also provides a personal touch through producing a regular newsletter for members that educates them on farming challenges or how to eat seasonally, and includes recipes on what can be made with the “curious crops” they may find in their box that week. Future plans of Abby’s include hosting ‘community workdays’ so members can develop a more tangible understanding as to where their food is coming from.  

Food after Covid

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into stark perspective what can happen when the food supply chains (that we so often take for granted) are disrupted and in doing so has raised uncomfortable yet vital questions of who benefits and who struggles during times of crisis. I ask Abby what her ideal local food system looks like:

“I would love to see this as a moment when people are like ‘yes, local food!’ I think Covid has shown there is a demand for local farmers. We do have to buy in from other countries as it isn’t possible to grow everything we need, but we should still prioritise growing as much as we possibly can. I would love to see a network or a co-operative of community supported agriculture throughout East Sussex (and beyond) with lots of independent farms working together to feed communities.” 

However, before a larger network of horticultural farms can be created, she suggests there needs to be both national policy changes, and cultural and strategic shifts in valuing small-scale farming as a viable career. “Everything is against small farms from existing,” Abby says, “There’s no political or infrastructure support, plus there’s a skills gap in supporting new farmers to work.” Further to this, farms under five hectares (such as Pea Pod) are not eligible for government subsidies, making an already high-risk business even more vulnerable. 

It is important to recognise that eating seasonally and buying ‘local’ produce is expensive and not a viable option for many individuals. This is something Abby acknowledges:

“It’s difficult to feel accessible to everyone, but we try to keep our prices as low as we can and have a degree of flexibility with our monthly payments. However, we do also need to value our food and the work that goes into it. When we’ve compared our prices to supermarket ranges (such as the organic equivalents) we’re actually cheaper. Plus, the freshness of our produce means the taste and nutritional differences are huge”. 

There has been much recent debate regarding the ‘true’ cost of cheap food (when one accounts for the exploitative labour conditions for workers, environmental impact and related health issues) and the complete overhaul of our current system needed to rectify this. Abby reflects: 

“The industrial food model is an inefficient system. There’s so much food being produced, yet so many people (in the UK) who can’t afford that food. How we feed our communities is related to wider societal factors, and with community farming, I think we need to start to question: how can we feed people on a daily basis?” 

As members of ‘The Landworkers Alliance’ union (a member-led union of farmers, growers, foresters and land-based workers; https://landworkersalliance.org.uk/) and connected to the global food sovereignty movement, ‘La Via Campesina’ (https://viacampesina.org/en/), Abby and Thad root themselves strongly within a global political movement fighting for a better food system. With new UK agriculture bills being currently debated in parliament, Abby feels that “this is a great time to educate oneself and get involved in building a better food system that works for everyone”. That this pandemic may become a catalyst for change in Hastings and St Leonards is one positive to emerge out of the darkness.

To sign up to the waiting list for Pea Pod Veg, go to www.peapodveg.co.uk 
Pea Pod can be found on Instagram and Facebook: @peapodveg


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