Growing with Grace - the organic food co-operative near Kirkby Lonsdale

PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 November 2018

Neil Marshall (head grower) and Sparrow 'Kevin' Middleton (grower)

Neil Marshall (head grower) and Sparrow 'Kevin' Middleton (grower)


The seeds of an organic food co-operative built on Quaker principles were first sewn almost 20 years ago. Now, Growing with Grace is flourishing

Kate Wilding in the farm shopKate Wilding in the farm shop

It all started in Kenya for Neil Marshall. Growing up on a farm in East Africa, where his dad worked as a farm manager, living off the land was the way of life.

‘Growing our own was what we did,’ said Neil, founder and head grower of Growing with Grace, at Clapham near Kirkby Lonsdale. ‘I was brought up on the food we could produce on the acreage we lived on. You wouldn’t dream of buying it if you could grow it. That was the model there.’

Neil’s family didn’t have lots of land but they always had plenty to eat. ‘Most of what we had on our table was grown by our family. It was a simple experience and farming will always be a part of who I am because of it.’

It was a childhood that had a big impact on the now 59-year-old’s life and it led to him founding community co-operative Growing with Grace in 2000. He started it with four other people after he had worked for Organic Alternative, the company that used to run a business on the same land. It began as a workers’ cooperative then became a community cooperative a year later.

Home delivery co-coordinator Josie FowlerHome delivery co-coordinator Josie Fowler

Today, only remaining founder Neil runs this remarkable organisation with a few members of paid staff and a loyal following of volunteers. Growing with Grace produce the salad and vegetables for their own vegetable box scheme, which does four deliveries a week, as well as selling it in their own on-site farm shop with other organic, ethical and environmentally conscious products. In five large greenhouses they grow a wide range of traditional and unusual crops as well as cultivating flowers and wildlife as an essential part of their organic system. As well as different varieties of salad crops like tomatoes they have also been experimenting with peaches and grapes. This food cooperative, accredited by the Soil Association, grows in a sustainable way using a stock- free growing system. This means no livestock or animal input is required and compost is created from green waste.

What they can’t grow themselves they buy from organic farms. Everything is done by hand – during the picking season they bring in a larger workforce to help. While they need enough money to run, profit is not the primary marker of the cooperative’s success.

In fact, in a world where big business can dominate, Growing with Grace is a breath of fresh air. What makes them stand out is their unswerving commitment to what they do. Neil believes this comes from the fact the community co-operative is built on the Quaker principles of peace, integrity, equality, simplicity, community and stewardship of the Earth.

‘It was an idea that initially came from one of the founder members,’ said Neil, who lives in Clapham with wife, Debbie. ‘Having our cooperative built on those principles bring great importance to what we are doing.

WWOOF volunteers, Jaz Bruce-Rogers and Lexie MacDowall replanting leeksWWOOF volunteers, Jaz Bruce-Rogers and Lexie MacDowall replanting leeks

‘It’s important that we can sustain ourselves. But if we didn’t have this solid set of principles we might be selling goods just because it makes a profit. That’s not what it’s about for us.

‘We love having the principles. There is no hierarchy. We all do things that are very important. We can’t do the business without all the cogs so that’s why we all have equal importance.’

It’s an approach which has attracted the attention of local restaurants and cafes as well as Oli Martin, the talented head chef at the three AA rosette Hipping Hall in nearby Cowan Bridge. They also supply Gillams in Ulverston, Single Step Wholefood Co-operative in Lancaster and Courtyard Dairy Cafe in Austwick.

‘Oli and his team come foraging here,’ said Neil. ‘They are normally looking for quite unusual things which is something we quite often have. He does sometimes have items on the menu with our name on. We’re very proud of that.’

Striped tiger tomatoesStriped tiger tomatoes

It has not always been easy. During the economic downturn, Neil feared they would have to close. But it was a determined workforce and, drawing on those Quaker principles, they pulled through.

‘The business grew very rapidly at first; there was a big demand,’ said Neil. ‘But the downturn had an effect on the organic business and we had to really cut back in every way.

‘We kept going keeping key people who were able to take the stress. We came pretty close to closing but we were determined. We could see there was a way through. Now, we are more successful than we were before.’

Neil and the Growing with Grace team are focused keeping the cooperative flourishing. ‘I love the growing and it gives me great satisfaction to see the produce,’ he said. ‘We want to be able to expand the box scheme, what we grow and what we send out.

Selection of auberginesSelection of aubergines

‘The success of the business has come down to us being able to provide a wide selection. We want to do more, grow more and expand our skills. It is exciting to think of what lies ahead.’

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