Feeding the Nation
Boston and its surrounding area is the most productive agricultural region in the UK. This is the result of imaginative land management and innovation in farming methods that started with the enclosure of parish lands during the 1700s and also investment in costly fenland drainage schemes, creating hundreds of acres of productive farmland from the area’s marshy landscape. Boston and Lincolnshire now provide 60% of the nation’s food.
Cabbage, cauliflower, kale, broccoli and sprouts along with potatoes and other root crops are grown in the open fields around Boston, while young plants and salad crops are produced in extensive glasshouses. Cereals, sugar beet and rape seed complete the farming mix which marks out the seasonal changes in an otherwise flat and featureless landscape intersected by drainage ditches.
Most vegetables have a relatively short life and need to reach their market in as short a time as possible. As a result one of the of the best logistic distribution networks in the country has grown up in the local area to facilitate the speedy transition from harvest to shopping basket. Among those who helped pioneer this seamless transition from field to customer was William Dennis (1841-1921), known as the ‘Potato King’, who developed the use of light railways to transport his crops to the rail network and then on to a chain of outlets throughout the country.
To meet the food crisis created by the Second World War, local farms, canning factories and wholesale merchants came together to ‘feed the nation’. The result was an efficient and effective food production and delivery system that became the foundations of the modern concept ‘from field to table’. When supermarkets came on the scene, the industry responded by pre-packing vegetables. Marks & Spencer established what is believed to be the UK’s first pre-packed vegetable factory in two redundant Royal Air Force sheds in Butterwick.
Today the closely monitored process of food production from seed to consumer runs to a precise timetable. It is a multimillion pound business where continuous investment in mechanisation and scientifically inspired systems ensure that quality and taste is maintained from the time the produce is harvested. One of the most recent innovations has been the introduction of ‘field rigs’ in which the produce is packed as it is harvested.
While the number of Boston companies involved has become fewer, the number of people employed and the volume of vegetables produced has not diminished. However, it is acknowledged that the local climate cannot provide a steady supply of fresh vegetables throughout the year. To this end Boston companies have the answer in the network of growers they have forged in such places as Hampshire, Kent, Cornwall and Pembrokeshire and even in Spain and Italy to supply the vegetables when there is a local shortfall, ensuring that the supermarket shelves are always full.