“The thing about nature is that it comes to find you,” said Matt West to a group of organic tourists.
He means badgers.
“I do enjoy working here,” he revealed later. “But not every day. Not when you turn up in the morning and the badgers have eaten all your stuff. That hurts a lot.”
For six years, Matt has been a grower of organic vegetables including leeks, squash, cucumbers, courgettes, beans, peas and salads at the Sheffield Organic Growers site on Hazlehurst Lane, a mile beyond the ring road at Norton into the unspoilt Moss Valley.
The initial culprit was known as the Hazlehurst mega-badger, due to its burrow in the undergrowth that looked like the Channel tunnel.
Over the years, the beans, squash and fruit have attracted the attention of MB’s family and friends, so last year site owner Huw Evans installed a kilometre long 10,000 volt solar powered electric fence.
“The idea is that if a badger touches the fence it will get such a shock it will think the whole area is full of such evil and wickedness that it should never be approached again,” said Huw optimistically.
“We’re certainly getting less badger damage now.”
The site was bought by property developer Huw in 2010, and now includes four organic businesses: his own Hazelhurst Fruitery supplies apples, pears and all kinds of berries to shops within seven miles of the farm, Matt West supplies vegetables to the local Beanies Wholefoods cooperative, Nick Johnson grows veg for Sheffield Organic Growers own box scheme, while Martin Bradshaw grows for the Moss Valley Market Garden box scheme under ‘Bio-Dynamic’ principles which include linking planting to astrological cycles.
“There was an element of risk when we started, but we’re still here because we get on so well,” said Huw, adding that Sheffield has seen a sustained interest in locally produced food since 2010.
The project is going well, despite the predations of badgers, hares and rabbits, and the 12-acre site now serves over 1,000 customers, said Martin Bradshaw.
“The informal cooperation is what’s helped us,” he said. “We help each other and regularly get together over a cup of tea to chat about things. It shows that businesses can cooperate to their mutual benefit.”
For example, the fact that there are now half a dozen local veg box schemes to rival the original at Beanies has actually grown the market, said Matt, adding: “We can all boo and hiss at Riverford vans which stops us fighting among ourselves.” (The Devon-based Riverford organic box scheme now operates all over the UK).
Matt and Huw say a Sheffield countryside site so close to where people live is also a place for learning, and a new Sheffield Organic Growers initiative is ‘Growing Experience’ which helps adults with autism or learning difficulties learn about growing vegetables and flowers.
There are also several regular volunteers, including retired people and horticulturalists just starting their careers. “The volunteers usually get paid in vegetable and fruit,” said Huw.
At present Maelys de Baudas and Thibaut Maraquin from Lille are helping the team, as part of the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) scheme that gives students and families the chance to learn and work on organic farms in exchange for food and accommodation.
“We have plenty to learn from English farming,” said Thibaut, 23, somewhat surprisingly for the grandson of a French cattle farmer.
“I think this kind of business is part of the future: a small scale scheme producing local food in Sheffield and selling it to Sheffield. And more and more people our age are getting interested.”
“There’s a lot of work to do, but it’s really nice to spend the whole day in nature,” said Maelys.
If you arrive early enough, you might encounter leverets in the orchard, baby moorhens in the pond, or rabbits nibbling the leeks.
“The countryside is in here. It doesn’t stay out of our fields,” said Matt West. “Except, we hope, the badgers.”