As an ex-teacher, it is very important for me to be able to share my knowledge and experience. But as an organic grower, it is also a life-affirming, work-affirming and rewarding experience.

In June, 10 future organic growers descended on Coleshill Organics for a very special training day, as part of the Soil Association’s brilliant Future Growers programme. Ranging in age from 20-something to 60-something, and at various different places in their career paths, they all had one thing in common: a drive to learn how to produce the very best organic vegetables possible. Some already had land and were growing or had land lined up to start a business; others were looking for a way to make it happen.

A Path of Learning

Since 2007, the Soil Association’s Future Growers programme has been training the next generation of organic growers. It’s a hugely important project, ensuring the next generation is fully equipped with the skills, knowledge and hands-on experience to grow our food sustainably.

Students learn through a series of hands-on experience days and seminars, hence their visit to Coleshill. Students have been coming here for as many years as I can remember; they spent just over three hours with me and we always start with an indoor seminar on marketing and what we do here at Coleshill.

Sonia Oliver speaking to the Soil Association Future Growers

Telling stories

What I talk about is definitely not rocket science. It is about telling stories, being open and transparent, talking to people about what I do–and why. I explain that the public are hungry to know what we, as growers, do. Even the most mundane, day-to-day tasks that we take for granted. My customers want to feel part of it all; they want to know what they are buying into and that their money is supporting the kind of food and farming system they want.

I know after many, many years that the very best form of advertising is word of mouth and excellent customer service

I urge the participants not to spend any money on advertising in papers and magazines. That’s sometimes difficult when you are called up by a magazine; “we are running a feature on healthy living, local produce… would you like to take out an ad?” It sounds great. But my answer is always no. What I don’t add, as it seems quite rude, is that I don’t believe in paying to advertise. I feel one would be keeping bad company. I know after many, many years that the very best form of advertising is word of mouth and excellent customer service. It’s the quality of my veg. Plus the fact I am Soil Associaton certified organic, a label people can trust.

Walking the gardens

Once we’ve batted this around, and we’ve looked at the system I use to ensure I can manage my customers in an efficient, professional way, we go outside into the garden.

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This is the fun bit and, on a glorious Sunday morning in late June, I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. The garden looked wonderful. The polytunnels were overflowing with the first of the new season’s crops: carrots, potatoes, mangetout, various beans, spring onions, lettuce, chard, spinach, radish and more. Tomatoes and cucumbers were growing beautifully.

Outside the soil was perfectly cultivated, ready to be planted with transplants eagerly waiting in the greenhouse: sweet corn, brassicas, squash, beans, leeks, to name a few. It was a joy to show it all off and the message was plain to see: if you grow amazing veg they will market themselves.

Well, almost…!