Car. Car. Car. Bike. Car. Car. VAN! Car. Car.

I have become an obsessional van spotter. Every light goods vehicle that passes draws my eyes with it along the road. I have almost ridden my bike into parked vehicles whilst eyeing up the registration year on a Ford Transit. I am adept at recognising an extended roof and a long wheelbase. I can be seen crouching in the road inspecting the underside of VW Sprinters for rusty arches. I’ve made my friends play ‘guess the make and model’ whilst walking to the pub. I always win.

I have never been a fan of motorised vehicles. When I lived in London I commuted long distances in all weathers on my bike, cursing reckless, feckless, brainless drivers. White vans are, as everyone knows, the worst of all of London’s four wheeled menaces. And now we’ve become white van drivers. How did that happen?!?

We considered many options when it came to working out how we would get Cultivate’s produce to customers. Ed Hamer and colleagues at Chagfood in Devon use a Welsh Cob horse named Samson to get veg from their CSA project into the village, but our field is a bit further out – 10 miles on the A4074 didn’t sound horse-friendly, added to which, horse parking in Oxford is a nightmare these days. Turn your back for 2 minutes and a horse warden’s slapped a ticket on your bridle. We looked at a vintage milk float being sold off in South London but small capacity and big maintenance bills weren’t a good combination. Other electric vehicles still come in too expensive to be affordable by a start-up enterprise. Down the Thames from Dorchester on a canal boat is definitely one we’d like to save up for a few years down the line.

The ubiquitous white van did seem to be the logical way forward, the modern workhorse. How else to move around not only supplies, tools and a workforce, but an entire shopful of fresh veg? If you’re new to the concept, Cultivate’s VegVan is a shop on wheels. It carries a full range of fruit, veg and basic groceries from place to place for 1/2 to 1 hour long stops. Customers get on board and do their shopping, then we move on to the next stop. Our requirements were reasonably specific. We needed something below 3.5 tonnes so it can be driven on a normal license. That counts out horse-boxes and most box vans. We needed something long with plenty of space for shelving, so medium and short wheel base vans were out. We needed something with lots of head-room to make it not feel too much like being in a metal box on wheels. Something not so far off the ground that the apocryphal little old lady couldn’t get in with ease. Fuel efficient. Reliable. And lastly… within a tight budget.

The VegVan hanging out at the Oxford Food Bank last week

After weeks of searching we recently drove Cultivate’s 2008 Vauxhall Movano back down the M4 from Bristol, the closest city with a van that fitted the spec. Its large internal space was the main winning feature. While most high roof vans measure up at around 1.8 or 1.9 metres, Movano has a head height of 2.1 metres, allowing even very tall people to do their shopping with Cultivate. No discrimination here. The extra height will also allow us to fit high-level shelving to maximise storage and display space. At 3.6m long we will be able to fit in a cash desk and fridge as well as the shelving. Look out for a blog in the next few weeks as we get the internal fit-out started and show you some very exciting designs for the van’s outside shell being worked on by local artists Kleiner Shames.

One of the disappointments of our van purchasing process has been that we haven’t been able to convert the vehicle to run on recycled veg oil as we had originally wanted. Conversion is much better suited to older vehicles with simpler engines – more modern vehicles like ours have sophisticated onboard computer systems that maximise engine and fuel efficiency but unfortunately don’t deal well with anything other than pure diesel. We would have had to buy an older, less dependable and less efficient vehicle in order to convert. We will look into the possibility of using biodiesel fuels (although there are pros and cons here as well) but will be actively researching other ways to reduce Cultivate’s carbon footprint including installing recycled solar cells to power the van’s electrics. Give us a shout if you’ve got any smart ideas.

The VegVan project is being part funded by the Southern Oxfordshire LEADER programme. LEADER aims to develop thriving sustainable rural communities by improving the competitiveness of the agricultural and forestry sectors and by using our unique rural landscape and traditions as a foundation to provide appropriate local employment opportunities and address social exclusion. LEADER is a collaboration between South Oxfordshire District Council, Vale of White Horse, UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and The European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.

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