Unusual vegetables in demand at the shack

Mark Thompson, harvesting the cucamelons, aims to spread the word on farming.  Picture: Charlotte Richardson
Mark Thompson, harvesting the cucamelons, aims to spread the word on farming. Picture: Charlotte Richardson
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There’s a mini-vegetable that has got people talking on the internet and it is the curious case of the ‘cucamelon’.

Tiny, doll-sized melons might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for one Market Weighton farmer turned teacher, they are proving very popular this summer.

Mark Thompson and his wife Catherine began growing the cucamelons on their market garden plot to see if they would be popular with the public.

Mark was a farmer but now works as a teacher and the couple sell produce daily from a shed at the bottom of the garden called the ‘Real Veg Shack’.

“I grew up on this farm, then I went to university to study agriculture, before returning to work on the family pig farm,” says Mark.

“I had every intention of devoting my life to agriculture but when pigs became unprofitable, I decided to re-train as a science teacher.

“People don’t seem to realise how much agriculture there is in science and how agricultural case studies and videos can back up what they’re learning in school.

“I got a digital camera and began taking videos of pigs farrowing on the farm and then I would take them in to show pupils in lessons. They found it fascinating and it’s a really good way to learn. The lack of knowledge about farming in schools is phenomenal and the textbooks are often out of date.”

Mark, in partnership with Stockbridge Technology Centre, then launched the website Discovering-our-countryside.co.uk and with support from The Nineveh Charitable Trust began putting a variety of farming videos online for teachers to access and use in schools.

“When I talk to the children I always talk to them about food provenance, as it’s something we feel very strongly about.

“Once the farm went to another family member, I began to use my plot of land to grow vegetables, with the aim of selling directly to the public.”

Real Veg Shack opened last September at the end of their driveway. The family re-stock their produce daily and have a steady stream of customers.

Mark says: “We sell real veg, ugly veg sometimes, but all real. We avoid using any pesticides unless we absolutely have to and try other methods, such as growing marigolds next to tomatoes.

“We’ve always liked growing unusual veg and want to share that with people. We’d love to encourage children to come along to the shack and try new, different vegetables or different types of existing ones.”

Cucamelons, tiny melons that taste like cucumbers, are just one variety that has the customers coming back for more. The couple grow and sell unusual varieties such as yellow and purple ‘rainbow beans’ alongside more traditional marrows, tomatoes, potatoes and carrots.

This year they are trying Amaranth grains, which grow as purple flowers and once harvested can be added to salads or used to coat chicken goujons.

“Our aim is to get children and adults trying new vegetables and being more interested and aware of food provenance. Our tomatoes taste like real tomatoes because they haven’t been in cold storage, which affects the sugars and therefore the taste.”

The couple also keep more than 60 Light Sussex X Rhode Island laying hens and sell their eggs alongside the vegetables in the shack.

They admit there have been lessons learnt in their first year of sales.

Catherine says: “Salad greens didn’t do well, as they don’t seem to last in the shack, but carrots, potatoes, parsnips and sprouts are always popular.”

And Mark adds: “We’re never going to compete with the big shops and supermarkets so we need to find our niche and for us that seems to be selling good quality home-grown vegetables alongside a few unusual products that get people talking.”

The couple have also recently established a polytunnel which will help them to grow a wider product range. In winter, they sell Catherine’s home-made chutneys too.