The Vegfather

Grahame Hughes has been dubbed "The Godfather of East Anglian Organics".  His story starts in the 1970s, when a young man from Tulse Hill looked around and decided the London life and the prevailing politics of the day were not for him. University took him to Norwich, and an ethical career and way of life have kept him there ever since. He is now a leading authority on organic growing, a successful grower, educator, and founder of the longest running box scheme in the country.

Grahame is a self-professed “old hippie.” After uni, he found himself working in parks and gardens, and found a part-time job as a gardener in an old people’s home. His love for being outside was tempered by gardening chemicals making him ill.  Upon reading the ingredients list in the weed killers he was using in residential gardens, Grahame realized these were the same as the defoliants used in the Vietnam War. In the mid-70s, a chemical plant explosion in Seveso, Italy brought environmental disaster to Europe and heightened the issue for Grahame. “The fact that anyone could purchase these chemicals in a local shop, I decided this is wrong. I don’t want to do this,” Grahame says.

At 28-years-old, Grahame began farming in 10 poly-tunnels at a holistic center in Norwich. Farming the organic way was not even a choice – it was simply inherent to his beliefs. “Being ethical is the thing that carries you through life,” he shares, “A belief and determination to abide by principals, above and beyond any reward, that’s what takes you through hard times.” Crops from the center were sold to local shops, and then a neighbouring farm approached him to convert their land from dairy to field crops. He was soon managing 70 acres of organic land, and a position teaching his methods at Otley Horticultural College. Slowly and steadily, people were taking notice of what was happening on the Hughes farm and turning to him on how they could follow suit. He was at the vanguard of something new. Decades before the conception of social media, Grahame Hugues was gaining followers and the original influencer of his field.

East Anglia is a relatively rural area, with lots of land, and not a lot of people. As the ranks of organic growers kept growing, Grahame sought a way to bring them together and reach a larger market beyond the country community. Thus, the Organic Farmers Co-op for East Anglia was born in 1990, and most likely the UK’s very first organic veg scheme. “Nearly all conventional farmers in this area have switched over to organic,” Grahame shares, many thanks to his influence. At first farmers were terrified at growing a field of weeds, without reliable chemicals at their disposal. Grahame looked to the past, at what methods farmers used to use, and applied to his own growing and education. He introduced the American weeding machine, the lilliston, and the brush weeder as innovative equipment back in the day. “There’s not a moment’s respite being an organic grower,” he explains, “the degree of management is higher. You have to be more innovative. You can’t just throw a chemical at a problem. The old conventional growers are captivated by organic growing now. They notice the difference of rotating, green manure and compost. The soil is changed for the better.” The burgeoning co-op movement also owes much success to the consumer. “The pressure to switch to organic came from the public,” Grahame recalls, “It came through the supermarkets on a larger scale, with them ringing up saying, ‘if you don’t grow us organic, then we will reduce your orders.’ The market was not satisfied.” The small, organic growers of East Anglia finally had a more powerful foothold and were growing in influence and reach.

There is new energy coming into the Norwich farming scene, and Grahame enjoys talking to local young people about farming.  Still, he won’t retire anytime soon. “I just love it too much,” he shares, “having my feet on the ground, hands in the soil.” While Grahame champions that every growing season has its joy, the summer is a special time where he takes great pride in growing heritage tomatoes. “They’re my favourite crop to grow and there is such a difference in quality and taste in organic, or just seasonal, tomatoes.” Working with Local Greens was like “going home” to his London beginnings. London box schemes created a new market, and enabled growers to complete the circle of farming. Grahame explains, “With box schemes, you’re not so divorced from the final customer. You grew it; you know who ate it; you get feedback.” Connection is exciting for these local producers and veg schemes add a social element of production as well as create food communities. His message to veg scheme customers is to, “Stick by us. Box schemes give us a sense of connection, and help people understand the cycles, the difficulties of the farmer. It is a personal measure you can take to change our system. Growing is more satisfying knowing who it goes to, and we take it very seriously, its place in the world, and in the global eating scene.” For the Hughes farm, and the legions of others that followed in its footsteps, success is continuing and knowing others have picked up the mantle.

The legacy of Grahame Hughes and the foundation of his work over many decades continues. His business is now called Hughes Organics, and it remains a small farm with the main growing area under glasshouses that were part of the original co-op. His doors are open to DEFRA as a hand-on education for those seeking advise on organic conversion. Grahame believes exchanging information and influencing by example have led him to have such a fortunate career. This is true right in his own family, where his son is poised to continue the family business. Grahame shares, “We’ve always produced our own food. It’s such a joy to have unadulterated food, and my son is very active. He has a big picture and knows organic is a part of the solution to political and environmental problems the new generation is facing. He is quite optimistic.” Although many of his early farming contemporaries have retired or moved to academia, Grahame points to the work of many to make the organic community what it is today. We owe the proliferation of organic farming and veg schemes to his own real-life social network and the influence and joy he’s spread throughout the UK’s farming community.