Greg Harrison is the founder of Sunshine and Green, the West Suffolk-based organic veg box business which recently featured on The Farmers’ Country Showdown. Here, he shares his journey to becoming an organic farmer, which started on a yacht in the Seychelles
My path to starting Sunshine and Green began on sailing yachts. My first job out of school was basically, running away. I had no idea what I wanted to do, I hated school and college, which led me to waste some years trying different courses at different colleges. In the end, I just decided to leave the country. I had always wanted to travel, but I didn’t have any money, nor did I really want to be one of those people who was “going travelling”. The idea of hanging out in sweaty Thai hostels with a bunch of posh gap year students sounded horrible. So, I went sailing instead. This was a career that offered travel all over the world, paid well and provided a lot of skills – unexpectedly, it also meant being able to spend time in countries in a way that was “real”. By this, I mean that because I was working, needed to employ contractors, shopped where the locals did, it gave me a perspective on the way different countries worked, that wasn’t from the point of view of a tourist.
I worked on yachts for about eight years. During this time, if the weather forecast in Suffolk was sunny and warm, I would be jealous. Even if I was sitting on a beach in the Seychelles, I could not help but miss England. This feeling never went away and made me want to come home.
I saw and experienced a few things, and it made me realise how vulnerable I was, and, by extension, we all are in Western countries. Working on yachts had provided me with a healthy bank account, but there were times when this money was useless. I had money, someone else had food that they wanted to sell, but they didn’t want money in exchange…and I didn’t have what they wanted. So, I went hungry, and they didn’t. It got me thinking, I had no way of feeding of myself, at all, other than to buy food from someone else. A combination of feeling home sick and wanting to feel more secure were the first drivers for me to want to start Sunshine and Green. Even at this point, it would still be another four years before I even began to work on my own farm project.
I grew up in Suffolk, in the countryside and with horses. The most farming I did growing up was collecting hay from the field and stacking it in the barn. My Grandad, on my mum’s side, had a small council tenancy where he kept horses and cattle, he also grew a lot of veg in his garden…all in his spare time outside of his job as a police officer. On my dad’s side, there were farmers a generation before him, but I wasn’t involved – it had all gone by the time I came along. It is probably quite common – most people, my age, likely had grandparents or great grandparents who were farmers.
Although I didn’t have a direct farming background, it was definitely in there somewhere. At first, I wasn’t really interested in organic farming. This was mainly down to ignorance. I didn’t understand what the difference was between convention and organic, in my mind it was all organic…plants and animals are organic?
It turns out that getting into farming, as an “outsider” with no experience, is hard! There were plenty of opportunities to work on large fruit farms as a picker. But I didn’t see that I would learn a lot by picking fruit all day. This led me to a small dairy farm in Kent. Again, this wasn’t a perfect fit, I wasn’t particularly interested in dairy farming, but it was a mixed farm. Most of the feed was grown on the farm, they kept pigs and sheep as well as chickens for eggs. It offered me a place to learn a range of skills, from tractor driving, milking, herding as well as some arable and plant growing knowledge. It was here that I started to learn about the soil, arguably the most important thing to all of civilisation and somewhat of an obsession of mine! It was also here, that I realised that the conventional techniques for farming, might not be available for the rest of my life, and almost certainly not for the next generation. Obviously, this is just an opinion, but recent geo-political events have certainly demonstrated some worrying weaknesses to our food system. I began to look seriously at organic, which, at first glance, seemed to be at least looking seriously at alternatives. Plus, I love bees, so organic is the best!
On a day-to-day level, the pandemic made no difference to my life at all. Otherwise, it gave me a real sense of urgency to get my farm as self-sufficient and possible, in terms of inputs and fertility, as quickly as I can. I think we take too much for granted!
I am grateful for my ability to work hard, change myself and improve one small 4-acre piece of Suffolk…hopefully for the better! One thing I have learned about myself, or life in general, is always bite off more than you can chew…ALWAYS! It is the only way to grow as a person. It makes me smile when I look back on tasks, or aspects of this project that I was nervous about, that I now do regularly without even batting an eye. From doing this, I have learned that I have a great capacity for handling stress. To be honest, I think we all do, I just think that life in this country is too easy, so many never have the need, or opportunity, to really test themselves – which is sad.
I started the veg boxes scheme in September 2021. It has been received well and we are growing steadily with each passing week. We deliver to the whole of West Suffolk. Being a small farmer, I do not qualify for farm subsidies, meaning that I receive none of your tax money. When you buy something from me, you are getting the real cost, rather than an artificially reduced price.
On a sustainable front, I do believe that eating locally produced, whole foods is better: fewer food miles, more accountability in animal and plant welfare, fewer links in the chain making it more robust against unforeseen events, more local and rural jobs and a strong local economy and community to go with it. JUST BUY LOCAL!
Farmers markets are a small part of the business, financially, but they play an important role as a customer facing platform. We don’t have a farm shop, so this is a good place to meet new customers, watch what people buy, for future crop planning, and to listen to people about their food habits, likes and dislikes. Plus, they are fun, and I get to meet other small business owners! There has been some positive feedback from The Farmers’ Country Showdown.
I have help from David, my stepdad, and his partner. They both help around the farm when they can, but mostly they help with the deliveries. Shelley is chief veg box packer, and also helps on the farm side of things in the summer. Roz helps for a few hours in the summer months and Fynn, a young lad from nearby, does a couple of hours on a Saturday.
After two years in conversion, Ark Farm will finally be fully certified organic. This also marks the time when I will start using all the available ground to grow crops. For a couple of reasons (one being that the land was very tired and needed love, another being to buy me time to build the farm), I put half of the space down to green manure (cover crop). In short, this is a mix of specific plants that are grown to increase the fertility of the soil and improve its structure. This year I plan to pull those cover crops up and use the ground for vegetable production. We’ll also be growing strawberries this year, a first for me and the farm. There are too many plans and new things happening to list. As a new project with very long term goals, decades long in fact, you could ask me every year and I’ll have an exciting list of plans for the year ahead!
Visit Sunshine and Green.