Notes From My Grandfather

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The Thompson family have been farming fruit and vegetables at Brook Farm, near Harwich in Essex, since 1948.  Today, they are market leaders in specialist products for the oriental foodservice sector and niche tree fruit like apricots, as well as growing apples and pears for retail.

They actively manage the farm to maintain and create wildlife habitat. The five on-farm reservoirs and their surrounds are their own nature reserves, and the farm is home to a variety of wildlife. Recent years have seen further tree and hedge planting, including the threatened Black Poplar as part of a wetland habitat creation.

The farm’s energy supply is 100% renewable, with solar PV installations augmented by supply from Good Energy. They also have a variety of micro-renewables installed on various farm properties.

In his first guest article for Locavore, Pete Thompson speaks of the farm’s drive for sustainability and innovation.  In the face of modern problems, how can farmers work with the land to make sustainable food available to everyone?

January, and an unusually grey, damp and dismal one at that. However at our farm on the Tendring peninsula in north east Essex we are still busy, harvesting greens as we do year round.  The apple and pear pruning also stretches across December to February, providing a welcome excuse to escape the office. No matter what the weather, an orchard always has a special feel.  For some it is the order of the neat rows, for others being amongst the trees with wildlife all around. It is worth noting the welcome increase in biodiversity of birds, animals and plants a sympathetically managed orchard delivers. As a grower it is a time of promise, seeing the fruit buds already fattening up ready for blossom time in the not too distant future.

Mid-winter is fertile ground for the imagination, planning new orchards, tree plantings and dreaming of what the new orchard will look like in years to come. This year it is Juniper for our botanicals project, Black Poplar and Oak for wildlife, and a mystery new tree crop for a customer, sponsoring something more familiar to holiday makers than the arable acres of Essex.

Founded in 1948 as a mixed market gardening enterprise, we are one of few medium sized fruit and veg growers left. Too small, perhaps fortuitously, to supply the growing multiple retailers in the 80’s, we focused on higher value produce for wholesale markets. As these markets subsequently declined we were fortunate enough to find ourselves growing for the burgeoning Chinese restaurant sector, allowing us to grow and expand. Now with a core business of scale we find ourselves too big and specialised to serve farmers markets and the like, while confronting the challenges of competing with much larger businesses.

Ironically our first orchards were the result of the increasing scale of our veg production. Small odd shaped  fields don’t accommodate big machinery.  Often these fields, closer to the village, are tired of years of vegetable production. Our answer was orchards, particularly those which enjoy good soil and the high light levels, reduced frosts and less rainfall (allegedly) of our easterly maritime climate.

Years of research, variety testing and selection, and an obsession for all things food, have resulted in plantings of apricots, kiwi-berries, plums, pluots and most recently figs, alongside the more familiar apples and pears. Indoors we are exploring aquaponics and citrus, the latter is early-stage research whereas the first successful varieties of figs are close to commercial yields. Not all projects end in success, the kiwis and aquaponics are testament to that, albeit the latter we hope merely undergoing a change in direction rather than hitting the buffers.

The next new crop is the Holy Grail amongst many farmers, as an industry we are always keen to ‘look over the hedge’ to pinch our neighbours ideas. However farming is a very ‘establishment’ industry and suspicious of change, particularly if suggested by government or those considered outsiders. British farmers have often appeared dismissive of the ability of our European neighbours, yet one only has to walk the supermarket aisles to realise the paucity of supply of quality home produced fruit and vegetables.

The long decline of English apple and pear growing, and comparative boom in imports, was not just due to price, it was the arrogance and complacency of UK growers in the face of innovation, investment and research of our competitors. Only in the last decade have we managed to reverse this trend. Having spent some formative times working in France, years trading herbs and vegetables from all over the world, and growing herbs for London restaurants, it had long been clear to me that we should and could learn from wherever we can.

Our research into new crops generally starts at two points – the table and the seed. There is no point in growing something which nobody wants to eat, obviously we equally have to be able to grow it. Somewhere in the middle, usually closer to the table, we discover if it is commercially viable. While some crops we can grow for a premium price, we aim to demonstrate how a crop can be produced sustainably.

If we are to move farming and food production onto a truly sustainable footing, anybody and everybody must be able to buy sustainable food by default, whether it is a priority for them or not. So while we work with some of the best chefs and buyers to make sure we are growing the right produce, our aim is to then find a way of growing it so it can be available one day on the supermarket shelf, the farmers market or in your online delivery.

George Thompson (right) in 1954

Not long ago I found an old hand-written note from my grandfather to my father. Despite the passing of the years the advice sums up what hours of expensive conferences, presentations and networking events often fail to. “Get yourself a deputy, so you can get away from this place” he says, something farmers are notoriously bad at doing. We spend so much time on the daily grind and chores we fail to look at the bigger picture, put things in perspective or learn from others.

Farmers need to learn from contemporaries, consumers and customers. A few other gems remind me to keep reading, learning and listening to keep abreast of the science and tech we are bombarded with, however he also cautions not to ignore the wisdom of the past and your own instincts.

If us farmers are to find a sustainable way of producing food many answers are already out there. For us it means acknowledging our place within the local and wider environment and working with it rather than against it.

To find out more about the farm, visit their website here.

Find Pete Thompson on Twitter here.