Vegetarian and entrepreneur Darren Jones has recently moved to the Algarve from Moscow and is trying to support local farmers by delivering organic food boxes to your door.
Surfer Darren is riding the current wave of organic production, his business background giving him the vision to unite farmers into focusing their production towards organic boxes. Darren describes his business Organic Box Portugal as a “solutions-based start-up that wants to do its part for the world”. His aim is to provide organic, high-quality and local products to local communities.
Working with certified farms and individuals who follow best-practice techniques, Darren is an enthusiastic gardener. His evolution into a farmer, however, has not been an obvious one. In fact, he took a business degree before following a path into education. A spell teaching English as a foreign language in Paris was followed by four years in Moscow as a teacher/companion to the kids of the city’s elite.
So how did Darren turn full circle? “I grew up living in cities around the world and only knew tomatoes from my Granny’s greenhouse. The smell of those tomato plants made a powerful impact on me. After working on several farms and seeing for myself how the fruits and vegetables go from flower to fruit, it became a real interest. For now, I only grow what I like to eat.”
Darren found the Algarve while spending three months at the Moinhos Velhos Detox retreat. He got involved with growing food in the Algarve and was introduced to the book The Market Gardener by Jean-Martin Fortier, which has been a big inspiration.
The book is an encyclopedic guide to low-tech, high-yield production methods, focusing on growing better rather than growing bigger, and making your operation more lucrative and viable in the process. The Market Gardener is a compendium of practical information on growing mixed vegetables systematically with attention to weed and pest management, crop yields, harvest periods and pricing approaches. There is a guide to the recommended planting distance between different crops and how to optimise revenue using boxes and markets.
“I’ve never been a fan of artificial fertilisers. Learning about the methods of organic farming was mind-blowing; it’s all about feeding the soil and making it healthy for the plant to grow in. Microorganisms, worm casts, compost – life creates life. Conventional farming is the science of chemical manipulation (specifically three chemicals: NPK) to optimise yields and increase the plant’s resistance to pests. There’s something that doesn’t feel natural about it.”
Darren, who confesses he was drawn to the Algarve by the surf, rented a property in Bensafrim and asked his landlord if he could rent some of the surrounding five hectares of land from him. Finally, the pieces had fallen into place for Darren to pursue his dream.
Although his method is organic, it doesn’t mean it is not scientific and, some might argue, far removed from any romantic notion of being a farmer. It is also very different from the Portuguese technique where you grow crops, then dig over the bed. Darren’s chosen method is about using permaculture techniques and crop rotation; he looks after the soil, leaving it intact without digging it over. Companion planting (which crops grow best together), for example, basil and tomatoes grow better in proximity to one another and making sure the roots of different plants complement each other rather than compete, all help. Composting using old food scraps and organic matter is used to improve the condition of the soil.
Darren does not grow all the produce he delivers. Currently, he is producing beans, broccoli, kale, lettuce and tomatoes; he has reached out to local producers to provide the rest. He says he wants to keep things enjoyable and not become a slave and here is where his training comes in. “I can give farmers a business model by which they can predict their yields and potential profit by selling their produce for organic boxes.”
Darren has big ambitions and, with his large domain name OrganicBox.pt, has already started to connect with organic market gardeners near Lisbon and Porto. “I want to link with people all over Portugal who have similar values. My mantra is: start small and grow tall.” Darren’s plans for the future include more educational themes with downloadable materials and workshops on organic growing and reducing waste.
He is already integrating other products such as sourdough bread, kombucha and handcrafted chopping boards while working out new ways to help give his customers what they want. Despite only beginning the business in May he has just delivered his 100th box and has a growing presence on social media (Insta: @organicbox). He is planning to introduce delicious recipes for the veggies in his boxes and has just introduced a 2nd weekly delivery slot. He admits COVID-19 and people’s reticence to go to supermarkets has contributed to the demand.
Darren has worked with children and vegetables, so as a mother I am keen to know how to unite the two!
“Growing up, I was familiar with the standard over-boiled, tasteless veg from the school canteen. I refused to eat them at home and was always forced to stay at the table until my plate was empty. Vegetables were the enemy! Now, as an adult who loves to cook and travel, I’m still discovering different vegetables and how to use them. From lightly steamed green veg that keeps its crunch, to raw carrots with lemon juice as a snack or bright red beetroot hummus with olive oil and fresh coriander – vegetables are awesome. As a small kid who didn’t like to eat his vegetables I’ve come a long way.”
Whether you choose to eat organic because it tastes better, supports the environment or don’t want to visit the supermarket so often – it’s the smart and healthy choice.