Laverstoke Park Farm

Laverstoke Park Farm

In April, we spent a glorious afternoon being shown around the vast Laverstoke Park Farm owned by 70’s race icon Jody Scheckter. It couldn’t be farther from the F1 race tracks if it tried (although, during the month of August the farm turns over a few fields to CarFest, the brainchild of Chris Evans, in the name of Children in Need!).

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Jody started his organic/biodynamic farm in North Hampshire, in 1996, wanting to produce the best-tasting, healthiest food without compromise for himself and his family. However, he soon realised that as a smallholder this meant he and his family would be eating beef continuously for eight weeks whenever a cow was slaughtered. It was at this point he decided to make the same food available to the public.

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Out of pure curiosity, Jody went on a trip to see water buffalo. The more he learnt about them, from their higher-protein milk, and lower cholesterol meat, to their naturally curious and tactile nature, the more he knew that he wanted to have Asian water buffalo at the farm. They are called Water Buffalo as in the wild they inhabit swampy, wet areas.

Reared in large straw bedded yards, or grassy paddocks, the young buffalo are fed on a completely natural diet of hay, straw, a blend of GM free cereals or grass from clover rich pastures. Buffalo is full flavoured and tender. It can be prepared much the same way as beef without special handling. Buffalo meat is a tasty alternative to beef.

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All the parks wild boar, live their entire lives outside, producing leaner meat which has a richer taste than pork. Wild boar are subject to the Dangerous Animals Act and are kept in a purpose-built outdoor facility incorporating some woodland, keeping them in as natural an environment as possible. From 2008 Laverstoke Wild Boar has not only gained numerous Great Taste Awards but also a Good Pig Award from Compassion for World Farming.

Laverstoke wild boar

Today his farm holds 1,500 buffalo, 400 cattle (Traditional Hereford and Aberdeen Angus), Wild Boar (The original pig), Middle White rare pigs, 800 ancient breed of Hebridean sheep, chickens, turkeys, a vineyard, walled garden producing organic vegetables and herbs, soil laboratory, pet food and an Education Centre (which has already seen 10,000 children from nursery, primary, secondary, colleges and organisations such as Scouts. No longer a small holding, this farm utilises everything from the soil up.

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The farm also has a licensed seven acre site to make their own compost and compost teas (liquid compost), producing around 40,000 tons of compost annually. They even take in green council waste. This is then monitored in their state-of-the-art laboratory and once finished turned back onto the farm for nutrients. This further enriches the soil for them to produce a ‘mixed salad’ containing 31 different herbs, clovers and grasses, feed for their animals. The team believe “you are not what you eat but what your animals eat”. So this near perfect soil goes a long way to helping produce their own feeds as much as possible.

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Jody and his team are currently in the process of making sparkling wine (it cannot be called champagne for the obvious reasons).  At present this is not for public consumption although we were told it was very very nice!

The 2500 acres of Laverstoke Park Farm and the parkland at Laverstoke are certified as biodynamic by Demeter and is classed as organic by the Soil Association. The team have established the only licensed Soil Foodweb Laboratory in Europe to study the activity of different groups of beneficial micro-organisms in the soil.

Is it time for an oil change?

If you are looking for a healthy, light alternative to other cooking oils, rapeseed is a great choice. If you are looking for a UK grown/produced product, look no further than Rapeseed Oil.

Rapeseed Fields in Full Bloom

Rapeseed Fields in Full Bloom

Rapeseed Oil is a healthy cooking choice. It has less unhealthy saturated fats than other cooking oils – 50% less than olive oil!  It is perfect for cooking with as it has a high smoke point, which basically means that it can cook at high temperatures without the fats breaking down and burning, maintaining its flavour and character.

It can be used in a variety of different ways, drizzled over salad through to cooking (frying, roasting or baking).

Even on a comparison with Coconut Oil, overall, rapeseed oil is a healthier choice due to its lower content of saturated fats and high content of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

On a bitterly cold morning in February we drove out to Clare Park Farm, Crondall in Hampshire to see Charlie, The Cold Pressed Oil Company Ltd.

Charlie's Barn, is surrounded by rapeseed fields.

Charlie’s Barn, is surrounded by rapeseed fields.

The farm nestles within 2500 acres of arable countryside and Charlie’s business is run out of a converted barn within the farm.  The barn is surrounded by fields the seed comes from, ensuring that the food miles are kept to an absolute minimum (*the barns original use was to house the dryer).

They plant several different crops; linseed, barley and rape, in rotation to keep the nutrients within the land rather than use chemicals and when we were there, they were dressing the seed in preparation to sow.

Come harvest time, it is gathered up and stored in the working farm barns (having been dried to between 7-8% moisture). They bring up the seeds as and when they are ready to press.

cleaning processThe seeds are then fed into the press. To press a tonne of seed takes a whopping 40 hours.

Pellets left after pressing

Pellets left after pressing

There is little wastage in this process, the pellets that are left after pressing go to cattle feed (a herd of holstein friesian cross cows on the neighbouring farm). After pressing 2 tonnes of seeds, there is only about 1 kg of waste remaining.

The oil is then fed through to the clean room and collected in the first vat. It comes through initially as a dirty looking oil.

oil after the first press

oil after the first press

But, after it’s been through the filter several times it looks more like something we all recognise…a clear, clean beautiful golden colour.

Oil ready for bottling

Oil ready for bottling

This is then bottled, labelled and sent out.  Nothing is added nothing is taken away. A pure product, locally grown, locally processed.

They have just produced Lemongrass & Thyme Infused Rapeseed Oil and Rosemary & Garlic Infused Rapeseed Oil along with their Chilli Infused Rapeseed Oil. If you like heat, you’ll love this! But, at 6 million scovilles, be careful!

The dressings and the chilli oil are not produced onsite, the oil is sent to a unit nearby where the products are made thus keeping the production local.

Check out all the new products online and see for yourself.

What is Rapeseed? It is the seed from the rapeseed plant, the same family (Brassica) as the health enhancing vegetables broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. The rapeseed plant flowers in the springtime, you know, those fields you drive past on the motorway that are the brightest yellow – that’s rapeseed.

Not bad for an office view

Not bad for an office view*

*Medieval origins

The earliest known references to Clare Park (or Clere as it was then known) date back to 1215, when grain was sent to Waverley Abbey, and 1246, when timbers were selected for building work in London. The origins of the name ‘Clere’ (also variously known as ‘Cleere’ and ‘Cleare’) almost certainly lie with the De Clere family who owned or rented the land from the 13th to 16th century.

The use of the area as farmland seems to have continued since then and the current house is on the site of a 15th century farm residence called Cleere Place.

Ben Brown’s Farm – The Isle of Wight

A E Brown Farms are based on the Isle of Wight producing high quality asparagus, sweetcorn, and wide range of vegetables. They are one of the best known Isle of Wight producers and over the Easter break, we went over to visit Ben and his asparagus fields.

Asparagus is one of the most sought after vegetables. Its subtle flavour offers a real treat during the short time it is in season.

Ben's Farm on the Island

Ben’s Farm on the Island

On the tour Ben took us inside a large Farm Building where the asparagus is taken once picked. This is where the sorting machine is, last year this machine processed 70 tonnes of asparagus (250g bunches = 280,000 bunches), an enormous amount of asparagus considering the asparagus season is only 10 weeks long!

This is the machine that trims and grades the asparagus

This is the machine that trims and grades the asparagus

This machine takes the freshly picked asparagus in one end, cleans and cuts it ready for optical sorting, meaning it passes through many cameras inside the machine which is constantly scanning the asparagus for diameter, length, curvature, head shape, and colour. During this sorting process, the asparagus spears are rotated so that 100% of their surface area is photographed. An incredible piece of kit that can process the asparagus from field to packing and fogging (a system that stops the asparagus dehydrating during transport to allow it to remain as fresh as possible) in 45 minutes.

The asparagus beds

The asparagus beds

Ben then takes us to the asparagus beds. These beds are as far as the eye can see, but when we arrived this is all we saw, bear in mind that this was Easter and they will start picking 2 weeks after this!

When planted, the crown will be about the size of a jam jar lid, this will then stay in the ground sending up fresh tasty and edible shoots for approximately 12 – 15 years. Eventually, the crown will become the size of a dustbin lid. Each crown can produce up to 70 shoots during the season.

Asparagus grown by the Brown family, was served as part of the lavish Jubilee banquet attended by Her Royal Highness the Queen and 700 guests at Westminster Hall and was served as part of the banquet for the celebration of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding.  

Once the short asparagus season it’s over to the Sweetcorn production.  At this time, the fields are covered in plastic to protect the young plants from any remaining frost that might still be lingering. Once they are sure the frost is over, the plastic will be replaced with fleece.

This tasty crop will be ready to harvest on the 22nd – 25th July, 2 artic lorries a day will leave this farm ready for delivery to the mainland.

These crops are hand-picked by only 8 workers, that’s a lot of corn.

After the corn is finished the farm moves onto Squash and small pumpkins and after that they go into a steady harvest of cauliflowers.  This farm is constantly on the go.

Ben showing us his fields of asparagus, or, where the asparagus will be in a couple of weeks time.

Ben showing us his fields of asparagus, or, where the asparagus will be in a couple of weeks time.

Interesting facts:

  • The asparagus season traditionally runs from St George’s Day to the Summer Solstice.
  • Asparagus contains A, B and C vitamins, fibre and folic acid, and is virtually fat-free. These nutrients can boost your immune system, maintain healthy skin, nails and hair, and are good for the heart.

The Tomato Stall – Easter Visit to the Isle of Wight

Way back in 2007 when The Tomato Stall began making the commute to London to sell their produce it was market based and the reception they received was almost overwhelming. 

Product Range

Product Range

Encouraged by the fantastic feedback they received they began experimenting and now have an award winning unique tomato inspired artisanal range of products. Driven by a clear passion for all things tomato they have grown quite significantly over the years and now supply a range of farm shops, delis, bars, renowned restaurants and US!

Just before the Easter weekend got into full swing we went over to the Isle of Wight to visit The Tomato Stall.

It was incredibly accommodating of Joni Rhodes and Daniella Tarrant to take time out of their obviously very busy day to show us all around.

We start in the office where Daniella, seen here, is very proud to show us the entire range of their products, we stock quite of few of these now.

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Daniella tells us that in the beginning the original design of labels were applied by hand, but like everything it evolves and grows into what you get today.

Their business might have grown and expanded but they still remember their humble beginnings, and the markets are still very much a part of life for the Tomato Stall, and as we are taken on the tour, we go through a warehouse that is buzzing with activity of getting the produce ready for the Easter Markets. Face to face contact at the market gives them direct feedback straight from the customer, another positive way to help them grow and evolve.

As we wander round the warehouse and the hubbub, we are given little tasters (gotta love this job) and the sweetness that comes from a freshly picked tomato, there really is nothing like it. Daniella then tells us that from the fruit being picked to it being at the market or with the customer it can be as little as 24hrs.  It is no surprise then that three of their tomato varieties have Great Taste Awards, the Piccolo Vine has a 2 gold star Great Taste Award while the Golden Mini Plum and Red Mini Plum have the 1 gold star Great Taste Award.

Sunshine taste explosions

Sunshine taste explosions

The tomato variety – Angelle is so sweet that when tested in a laboratory it registered the same sugar level as a strawberry!

This is where Joni Rhodes takes over with the tour, these girls are totally passionate about what they do and it shows.

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We are driven round to another site to visit the greenhouses, these are not like our little potting shed style greenhouses we have the back garden, these are the grand-daddy of all greenhouses.  They are all different, pitched roof/staggered pitch, another factor helping these plants produce the best possible product. The difference in the shapes and sizes of the roofs is all about the different density of light it allows the plants to receive, also as the months move on and we go into the brighter/hotter summer months, the greenhouse windows may get covered, to protect the plant from the scorching heat or funnel the light/heat directly to the late season plants for maximum growth. As the science behind growing the plants evolves so do the houses that help them grow.

This is where the fancy dress portion of the tour kicks in.  Because we are going into a clean environment, we have to be extra careful not to take any bugs or insects into the warehouse that could infect the crops so … here we are, all catwalk ready.

Catwalk Ready for the Greenhouses

Catwalk Ready for the Greenhouses

The plants in this warehouse have been in since December/January, the main planting time for all the tomatoes here, the first picks came in February, with the main availability starting in the last couple of weeks and they will continue to pick until November. During the winter months the same seeds are grown in their Spanish and Portuguese nurseries, the taste is still exceptional and providing a very long season.

As you can just make out from the image (by the numbers), the plants are tied onto bobbins which once a week, get tightened and hoist the plant up to allow continual fruit bearing with new flowers forming at the head of the plant and fruit ripening towards the base. The fruit bearing part of the plant will not go much higher than 6ft, but the plant height will be 15m or over by the end of the season as the stem keeps on growing.

blog 5Every week a maintenance team go through and cut or pick the fruit. All varieties are regularly tasted by the taste panel, who are all looking for consistency, sweetness and texture.  This information is then fed back into the tomatoes they are trailing.

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This year they set up a time lapse camera overhead of the plants, this showed up some amazing footage of the plants appearing to dance, rising and falling a number of times during the day!

The pollination of all their plants is done by the humble bumblebees. They are housed in small bee boxes that hold a queen and her workers. This may sound strange but they are free to come and go as they please.

 

Busy Bees

Busy Bees

There are vaults at the top of the greenhouses that open and shut according to the temperature and they often find the bees have gone out to the wild flowers that surround the facilities. Not all return, obviously, and they have to replenish the bees during the growing year. Their nursery has Conservation Grade status, meaning that they are ethical, sustainable and Fair to Nature. 10% of their land is given back to natural habitats including wild flower meadows, barn owl boxes and red squirrel houses.

Not all the tomato plants are organic but the principals of organic growing are maintained across the whole nursery. The organic plants are grown in soil beds on the floor in a natural compost and non-organic are grown in coconut husks.  The Tomato Stall have been producing their own nutrient rich compost for the last 6 years from the plants themselves.  During the growing year, when the plant is cut, thinned out or finished, it is kept to dry on the floor. Then at the end of the year when they totally strip down the nursery for cleaning, the plant waste is gathered up and composted producing their own high heat compost.

The plant is left on the floor not only to dry out but, during the growing season even these nurseries will suffer from plant pest but, as they embrace organic principles they utilise biological control across the nursery. Here they use natural predators and vials of bug eating bugs are released into the nurseries to deal with this.  The plant waste within the nursery provides additional environment for this mico-cosmic ecosystem.

The Greenhouses are kept at an optimum temperature for the plants, when required, by rails all over the floor. Heated water passes into the glass houses from their compost facility.

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At the end of the growing year, the entire nursery is stripped down and washed. Their entire growing system is completely biodegradable, from the coconut husk that the plants are grown in to the string that supports the plants. Even the plastic flooring is recycled into bin bags at the end of the season!

Almost Ready

Almost Ready

If time-lapse videos simply aren’t enough, how about the chance to come and see first-hand what goes on behind the scenes at Tomato HQ? This year they are delighted to be taking part in Open Farm Sunday, and on the 7th June will be opening up sections of the nursery to the public. It’s the 10th anniversary of the event, which is organised by LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) and they are very excited to be joining in the fun.

For more information visit their website or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

 

Sunny Morning at Hill Farm Orchard

We literally chose the best late September morning to go visit Davina at Hill Farm Orchards, nestled in the Meon Valley within the boundaries of the South Downs National Park (another great supplier of UK local produce to Farmers Choice). We went along to check on how this seasons Braeburns were coming along, the sun came out for us as we strolled around the 150 acres (not all of it…I think we would still be going if we did) and Davina enthusiastically gave us the past, present and future rundown of the orchard.

Farmers Choice visit Hill Farm Orchard

Farmers Choice visit Hill Farm Orchard

Davina starts by telling us that the farm was first planted as an orchard in 1950’s. Her father worked at the farm in the 80’s/90’s as a pick your own of plums, strawberries and a cherry orchard. Unfortunately with the changes in consumer habits (brought about by the arrival of the supermarkets), the farm had to adapt to meet the modern fruit market place and pick your own was stopped. Today they grow the best fruit outside of Kent (as per the national fruit show awards 2013 and we will try again this year).

Literally, as far as the eye can see is row after row of heavily laden apple trees, all lined up like soldiers on parade! Davina went on to tell us that they fill 3000 bins a year of apples that’s 1 tonne per 3 bins.

Views Hill Farm Orchard

Outstanding Views at Hill Farm Orchard

The farm has just planted out a new section of the orchard, Davina explained that the apple trees are left for a couple years before taking a commercial crop, if you have fruit trees it’s always best to leave it for the first year, take a little fruit off to stabilise the tree in the second year.  If you do that you should get a healthy producing tree that could last anything up 20 – 25 years (as some of her trees are that old).  There is a section in the orchard of Pear trees, 60 year old pear trees that continually produce good fruit.

After the harvest is over, Davina and two colleagues will go around the orchard and prune every tree and this can take them up to March. This is important to the trees health, and for its ability to produce another excellent crop.

(Here’s a little tip if you have fruit trees at home – Davina explained that pruning should only be done when the leaves have all fallen from the trees, about November, but remember if you cut back hard it will grow hard!)

Hill Farm opened their doors this year for their first Open Day as part of LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming http://www.leafuk.org/leaf).  On that one day they saw 300 people visit the farm. There was a market area with local trade, crafts and produce. There was also an opportunity to see the machinery and have a tractor ride, everything to get the young and older guest involved.

Davina explained that future plans for Hill Farm Orchard include a grand scale allotment. Can’t wait to go back and see how that comes along.

apples bins at Hill Farm Orchard

Apple bins at Hill Farm Orchard

 

Hill Farm Orchards also supply to Hill Farm Juice – right next door.  The apples are crushed and gently pressed on site to extract the juice. The juice is bottled on site to lock in the orchard-fresh taste – no additives except for vitamin C which is used as an anti-oxidant. This is only added to stop the juice turning brown (just like when you cut up an apple).

This is now available online.