The shelves at the Green Valley Grocer are crammed with seasonal fruit and vegetables, local honeys and home made preserves. There is proper bread, still warm from the oven, dairy products from Longley Farm, less than nine miles down the road, dry goods from the Suma workers' co-op 12 miles away, and fresh British fish. It's amazing how much this tiny retailer fits into a shop the size of a shed.
But the shop’s fastest-selling food is grown by the customers themselves. More than 50 local people sell surplus garden and allotment produce in return for cash or credit at the shop. Many swap for bread, or things they cannot grow, like bananas or oranges. Others exchange their credit for shares in the business.
The GVG sits beside the Huddersfield Narrow Canal in the Pennine village of Slaithwaite. Its location places it at the very centre of the steep-sided Colne Valley, which stretches just over six miles from the hills above Marsden to Huddersfield, where the River Colne meets the Holme.
It is a perfect, distinct area, and an ideal opportunity to improve on the widely accepted 30-mile standard for local food. This year the shop has sourced all its rhubarb locally — the plant likes the Colne Valley’s frosts and water retaining soils. But the GVG wants to expand the range of items it can call “always local”.
The next target is garlic, which grows happily on the valley slopes and stores well under cool, dry conditions. The shop’s ‘garlic challenge’ encourages local people to grow their own, and plant a bit extra for sale. More significantly for the business, Marsden and Slaithwaite Transition Towns (MASTT) is planting enough garlic on one plot to satisfy customers for four months.
Other crops potentially ‘always local’ include gooseberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, certain apples, damsons, Victoria plums, chard, kale, runner beans, purple sprouting broccoli and figs.
GVG local food co-ordinator Helen Coxan says: “We can target these products because people recognise them as seasonal. On the other hand people expect carrots, broccoli, tomatoes, blueberries and bananas all year round.
“We’re constantly balancing our philosophy against the need for the shop to be sustainable. If we didn’t supply what people want, we’d close down.”
Locals have been stuffing brown paper bags at this shop for over 50 years. Many customers remember visiting Dakers, the shop’s first incarnation, as children. The business stayed in the Daker family until 1999, and passed through two owners until last year, hit by recession and apparently unsaleable, it seemed certain to close.
A group of local people approached Co-operatives UK, who advised them to set up an industrial and provident society. They held two public meetings to find out whether local people were interested. They were. There were two weeks to raise £10,000, before the lease ran out. The village raised £18,000.
The GVG reopened under community ownership last July and, since then, sales have increased by 400 per cent and the number of employees has increased to eight. The Handmade Bakery, a separate but complementary co-op, established its first permanent bakehouse in the back room of the shop at the outset. It too has enjoyed considerable success, and now employs ten workers.
The GVG share offer, which is still open, has raised over £25,000, and perhaps more importantly given 150 villagers a new interest in food retailing.
“The original idea was to create community and cut food miles,” says Ms Coxan. “But the increase in sales is beyond anything we could have imagined. We’re doing something right. We get fruit and veg freshly picked in the morning and it’s gone by lunchtime. Basically, the closer to home something is grown, the more likely people are to buy it.”
Suppliers include a former restauranteur, who now sells home grown produce to the shop instead of using it in her kitchen, and allotment holders who have grown in the valley for decades. Others arrive with gluts of apples and plums from garden trees or punnets of berries from the wild.
One supplier produces Colne Valley honey, and a small army of bakers and preservers trade everything from homemade lemonade and strawberry jam to Yorkshire parkin and cheesecake muffins.
Mike Shaw, perhaps the shop’s most experienced grower, studied horticulture at Nottingham University’s Sutton Bonnington in the 1950s and worked for a series of nurseries before growing fruit and veg on a hillside plot in Marsden. Nearly 100 feet up, he found soft fruit grew well on his south-facing slope, and the altitude meant bugs were not causing their usual problems. Other successful crops were peas, beans, potatoes and cabbages.
“You just have to stick to the traditional at that height,” he says. “Growing for the shop, they’d be very sensible if they stuck to broccoli, cabbages, leeks and brussel sprouts.
“Plant breeders have bought a lot of larger stuff that grows well in warmer climates. It’s better to get seeds from a good local supplier and ask whether they grow well round here, rather than going to a mulltiple.”
Now he has a small garden above Slaithwaite and grows strawberries and potatoes in pots on his garage roof. He supplies the shop with ornamental plants and in season brings in bucket loads of selected Victoria plums.
Across the valley, Paul Sugden has been growing vegetables for five years: “I like to grow a bit of everything,” he says. “I remember the shop from when I was little. Being able to sell to the shop has made me think about us using it more for our shopping. We should all use it more really.”
Former teacher Ange Dews works in the shop as well as being one of its most prolific suppliers. She is experimenting with tropical crops in a large greenhouse.
Romance failed to blossom between her male and female kiwi vines, which flowered at different times, but the Tahiti lime has been prolific. “Anyone who says you can’t grow citrus in Yorkshire has got it wrong,” she says. “When people at the market try to fob us off with low quality limes, we can say, ‘we grow our own’.”
The comment is not entirely serious. Ange can only supply about 40 limes per year, but she is trying to provide other crops according to demand. “We’re starting to think we’ll grow a bit more garlic, probably 40 bulbs for us and 60 for the shop,” she says. “And I’ll try some more little gems. They’re probably the most saleable lettuce in the shop, and they form a head quicker than something like iceberg.”
Earlier this year, local gardeners crammed into Slaithwaite Civic Hall to plan a production schedule for GVG. Ms Coxan says: “We struggle to maintain consistent supplies through our growers’ network. A lot of people don’t realise how limited people’s supplies are. You grow something, take it to the shop and its gone. That’s what we’re trying to work on.”
MASTT has planted a 30-tree community orchard, which will supply the shop, and hopes in time to develop a social enterprise which will grow a wider range of fruit and vegetables, possibly using community supported agriculture, possibly offering shares.
And the GVG offers private enterprises a sales platform too. Meanwhile it is increasingly involving local schools and community groups in production, and is welcoming new growers all the time.
“We’ll always welcome people with their baskets of damsons or their bag of courgettes,” says Ms Coxan. “But ideally we want several enterprises that are able to guarantee stock for a certain period of time. We can’t expect individuals to keep the shop going with their produce, so we’re loking at a proper industry in the Colne Valley.”