We haven’t updated our farm blog in a little while (we’re ever so sorry). Its just
as it had been raining non-stop for what seems like forever, much of our fruit
and veg took a fair amount of a battering due to over-flooding, so we didn’t
have too much to write about!
the sun has been shining his little face off recently, so we thought we’d get
back into the swing of it. Plus we wanted to fill you in about a recent meeting
of ours with a wonderful chap, Mark Diacono.
of you probably already know, but for those who don’t, Mark Diacono is the
ex-head gardener of River Cottage. The brainchild of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.
also runs ‘Otter Farm’ a 17 acre farm down in Devon. Otter Farm is the UK’s
only climate change farm. It’s home to lots of lovely stuff – dwarf kiwis, orchards
of olives, peaches, almonds, chocolate vine, Szechuan pepper, apricots and Japanese
wineberries - to name just a few. Mark also has a forest garden, a vineyard and
a perennial garden.
were lucky enough to be introduced to Mark through our friend Tim Sanders from
Discover Dorset, have a little look here http://www.discoverdorset.co.uk/ at what Tim does (we’ve been
on one of Tim’s Discover Dorset Tours and would highly recommend it!). After
our introduction to Mark via Tim, we invited Mark to come and see what we’re
all about! So he popped to see us for a day visit.
seemed pretty excited about the Urban Farm, our little piece of land out in
Sopley the New Forest, and the opportunities that it provides us with – we
plant the seeds, they grow and flourish, we harvest the crop, bring it into our
kitchen and plate it up for our customers. We get our customers enthused with
our story and they go on to spread the word about the importance of ‘growing
having a little look around Mark suggested we should extend our piece of land.
We had a chat about a potential acre of vineyard to start growing our own
grapes for wines –the staff got excited at the thought of this! We then got
thinking about other things we could start to grow out there, such as planting
an apple orchard to grow our own cider, plus growing some other more high value
crops. We also chatted to Mark about some of the stuff people don’t usually
eat, such as the flowers from broad beans - we’re not going mad, it actually adds
another dimension to eat certain flowers as part of your food.
our time with Mark came to end, but we felt there is so much more that we’d
love to be able to learn from him and discuss with him, so we’re planning to
invite him back for a BBQ at some point. We’ll pick all the veg from the Urban
Farm and enlist his help to cook it on the barbie.
you want to find out more about Mark, you can have a little look at his
website: www.otterfarm.co.uk and you can follow him on
Twitter ‘@markdoc’ He’s a great guy, so we’d recommend you check out what he’s
we started the farm, we had planned to get lots of our veg ready for this Christmas
and so far we’re pleased to say we’re on track. Our sprouts, fennel, squash,
leeks and kale are all coming along nicely and we’ve recently planted some
broad beans and garlic to ensure they’re ready for 2012.
for year two has taken lots of time and effort, in fact we’re still planning!
We have learnt lots from our first year and know that we started too late, so
we’ve begun conversations with our farmer Stuart and our head chefs from Reef
and Beach, Jacek and Carl. It’s important for the chefs to work with Stuart to
tell him what has worked well on the menu, Stuart can then build this into his
also need to get a bit better at working out our quantities. This year we had
far too many potatoes available at the same time which meant some of them went
to waste. Next year we’re going to stagger the planting and hopefully the
arrival of the potatoes!
terms of the actual preparation for 2012, we’ve dug up all the potatoes,
lettuce and beans. We’ve also started to rotivate the land, working in the
manure we get from the pigs on the neighbouring plot. We’re pretty lucky to be situated right next
to a pig farm as it means we’ve got access to a fair amount of pig poo! This
combined with their bedding and straw and compost from our own veg works a
size of our plot is also something we need to consider for the future. We’re
hoping to have a meeting with Dan Tanner, the owner of the land, to see if we
might be able to increase our plot size. So much of what we’ve grown this year has
expanded, for example our strawberry plants have gone from 60 to about 250 as
they’ve sprouted sub shoots. This has also happened with our rhubarb plants,
we’ve gone from about 40 plants to 80 in a matter of months!
you have it, we’re keeping our fingers and toes tightly crossed that we can
expand and have up to one acre next year ;)
were aware pretty early on that getting water to our plot would be one of our biggest
challenges, and it really has caused us so many problems! As we had a very dry
spring at the start of the year, our plot was bone dry when we first inherited
it so we had to think of a way to get water into the soil and quickly.
have a ‘pond’ at the end of the plot which refills via a little stream, so this
seemed like the obvious way to obtain our water, but we then had to think of a
way to capture it. In the early days our farmer Stuart used five buckets and a
watering can, which combined could carry about 80 litres each trip. He would
head down to the pond, fill them up by hand, pop them on his trolley and tow
them around the plot. This was done on a rota basis, most plants /crops in need
up to 10 times per day! Stuart lost some
weight! It also had to be done either first thing in the morning or last thing
at night, to ensure the leaves didn’t burn and the water didn’t evaporate.
now moved on to use a giant(ish) water tower – the very water tower used in our
fish and chip challenge that we mentioned in our last blog ;) – but it still
only holds about 1,000 litres, so if we have a dry spell we could use this
water up in just 24 hours.
currently looking at trying to find a way to pump water from the pond into the
water tower. We then plan to connect the tower to a water system, perhaps some
irrigation piping, which would go from the tower to the key plants such as the
strawberries, lettuce and tomatoes. We’ve thought about using some form of
solar power, or perhaps a little generator to get the water from the pond to
pump it into the tower – a quirky and interesting way to get round drought. We’d
love your suggestions if you have some?
as you can see getting water to our plants has been an interesting process, but
ultimately we think our problem has been great for the environment, as it has
made us think of green ways to water. Our water goes straight to the roots of
the plants via little plastic bottles and tubing without any wastage, so it’s
both sustainable and environmentally friendly.
you’ve read this title thinking that you’d like to try our new tea, then hold
your thoughts right there as comfrey tea is in fact a liquid fertiliser :-)
comfrey plant is really rather good at sucking nutrients out of the ground and
storing them in its leaves. The leaves can then be used and brewed to make a
nutrient rich liquid to help other plants to grow into lovely healthy
specimens. We harvest the leaves from our comfrey plants about four times a year.
how do we make comfrey tea? Well, we’ve installed a giant water container at
the farm which holds 1,000 litres of water - we’ve recycled this tank as we had
it made to cook a giant portion of fish and chips recently, don’t ask ;) – our
farmer Stuart then takes two big hessian sacks, the kind that onions and
potatoes come in, fills them full of leaves from the comfrey plants, ties them
up at the top and pops them into the water container. We leave the sacks to brew
for two to three weeks, a bit like brewing massive teabags, then hey presto your
liquid fertiliser is ready!
liquid fertiliser acts as a great intensive feed for certain plants, plants
that need a lot of water such as strawberries, tomatoes, green beans and broad
beans, as it gets to the roots very quickly. To speed the process up even
further, we use plastic bottles with a pipe connected to them. The bottle sits
above the ground and the tube underneath takes the water straight down to the
comfrey tea works perfectly for us as we try to use as little chemical and commercial
fertilisers as possible to fit with our brand values and our ethos. As our
Urban farm is only situated on a small plot it’s quite manageable too.
brewing your own comfrey tea seems like a lot of hard work, then don’t worry, you
can just take the leaves, dig them into your compost and they’ll act an accelerator.
Either way, it’s good stuff!
I’d say we’ve been really, really lucky with all our fruit and veg this year,
so here is the lowdown on how its all gone at the Urban farm:
- We’ve been totally amazed with our rhubarb crop. In its first season rhubarb
plants normally give two or three stalks, but some of our plants have given
around 15! It has grown much quicker and more ferociously than we ever
expected. We’ve been able to make some tasty crumbles, compotes and we’ve even
made rhubarb syrup for our bartenders to use in their cocktails.
– Unfortunately, we didn’t really get any from our crop this year, but we’re
aware it can take a few years for strawberry plants to bed in. We started off
with 60 plants, which then grew offshoots of their own. We began by cutting
these offshoots and putting them in water to try and get them to root, but we
found that it was actually easier to put the offshoots into plant pots directly
in the field. By doing this, we’ve managed to get around 200 strawberry plants
from the original 60 - not bad eh!
– Our asparagus crop has grown really well. We knew when we started growing it
that you can’t yield any crop in the first year, but we’re right on track for
year two. We’ve had a couple of issues with pests, namely rabbits who have been
digging the asparagus up and nibbling away at the tips! So our farmer Stuart
has bought a catapult and has taken to sending out the occasional warning shot
to some of the local wildlife while he takes a break – they’ve not gone on the
menu yet ;)
– green and broad varieties – Green beans are officially nuts! They grow so
quickly. Both the Urban Beach and Urban Reef kitchens have been inundated with
them for the past four weeks. We’ve been lucky with our broad beans too,
they’re so tender. You can pop them out of their little cases, toss them in
butter for 30 / 40 seconds and the job is done. They don’t even need cooking.
It’s so exciting to see the difference in quality between this home grown
produce compared to what you buy in the shops.
– As well as growing traditional red beetroot, we’ve also had a go at growing
some of the white stuff. We’ve never had white beetroot on the menu before so
it has been a learning curve, but its worked well in some of our salads.
– We haven’t really known what to do with these. In our first year we’ve only
had one per plant, but we’re told you can yield three or four from each plant
in the second year (here’s hoping!).
stuff – Our tomatoes are starting to ripen and we suspect they’ll be out in
abundance over the next few weeks. We’ve also been lucky to have some lovely
herbs, particularly our basil which we’ve used to make pesto. Our salad is
ongoing as it can be turned around every six weeks or so and of course we’ve
had plenty of Urban potatoes.
looking forward to welcoming the lovely season that is autumn and with it the
arrival of some of our root veg. Fingers crossed for parsnips and brussel
much everything with the Urban farm has been a learning curve and what to grow
has been no different.
to begin with we looked at what we currently sell at both Urban Beach and Urban
Reef, what we sell the most of and what can be grown in the UK. Once we had a
definite idea of the types of things we wanted to grow, we then completed
research into varieties.
took a historical approach to our research, by this I mean than we didn’t want
to grow any ‘GM modified’ or ‘high yield’ crop, we wanted good old fashioned stuff,
the things we really enjoyed as kids. My father-in-law and our Urban farmer,
Stuart, remembered the taste of certain potatoes from his youth, ‘Red Duke’ and
‘Home Guard’ being particularly tasty tatties. Stuart then looked into whether
these varieties still existed, which thankfully for us they do, so they made
also considered high cash crops. For example, asparagus is quite expensive to
buy and it takes two years to grow, but as we use loads of it when it’s in
season, it made sense to plant some up. Fast growing crops, things like salad
leaves, rocket and rhubarb are used daily at Urban, so it made sense for us to grow
some of our crops, such as our tomatoes, we’ve planted four or five different
types to see which is best for what dish - we’ve grown some for our salads and
some for our sauces. It sounds like a lot of effort, but to us it’s these finer
details that get us excited. It’s also exciting for us to be able to take our
chefs out to our piece of land with a little cooker in tow, they can then dig
up some veg and cook it there and then, you can’t get fresher than that!
to grow it has also been an educational process. We’ve really had to learn how
to use the land. For example, when we leased the land, I wasn’t sure if you
grew potatoes one month whether you could use the same plot of land the month
after to grow something else. The answer is no, so rotation was key.
crops to put next to one another is also tricky, because certain crops will
benefit from one another but others might not. So we learnt to grow garlic in
between our strawberries as it helps to keep the bugs down.
there you have it. We now have a fairly detailed planting plan which Stuart
works from and our produce has been grown in the best way possible – without
artificial fertilisers and feed, the land has done all the hard work (with a
little bit of help from Stuart of course!)
we’d acquired our piece of Urban land, our first challenge was to get it ready
for growing and in an ideal world you need lots of time for preparation. However,
in our case we were able to start planting in the spring of 2011 and as the
winter of 2010 had been rather wet and dismal, the soil was far too soggy to do
anything with it! Nonetheless, we were just pleased to have a plot and eager to
get going, so we made the most of what we had.
those that do have a choice, it’s always best to start preparing your land in
the autumn of the year before you’re looking for a harvest. This will give you
ample opportunity to get the ground ready over the winter months. Hindsight is
a wonderful thing!
soon as we could get our hands on the soil, we had to think about getting
someone to look after it on a full time basis. While getting the Urban crew
down to the farm to learn about the growing process was key for me, I knew I’d also
need someone to look after it from day to day and I’m fortunate enough to have
a very devoted father-in-law, Stuart, who jumped at the chance to get stuck in.
then had to think about getting nutrients into the soil. Our produce can never
be called fully ‘organic’ as we don’t have the soil certifications to say so,
but it was important to us to use manure rather than fertilisers and to keep
the process as natural as possible. We decided to speak with Dan Tanner, the
lovely farmer we mentioned in our previous blog that we’ve leased our piece of
land from. Dan was kind enough to allow us access to some of his manure, AKA
plenty of pig poo! Stuart then set about working the manure into the ground
with what’s called a rotivator (pictured below). Not an easy process! Most farmers do
the job with a big tractor in half the time, but Stuart worked with what we
had, and like a real trooper got the job done.
there you have it, we’ve been lucky enough to grow some produce this year
(we’ll tell you all about it in our next blog) but next year our ground will be
in an even better position to harvest more crop.
Next time: Mark will give you an
insight into what the Urban team have been growing at the Urban farm and how
they’ve been growing it.
was really important to me, because as much as I’d be happy to travel miles to get
to the perfect piece of Urban land, I couldn’t expect my team to do the same.
They are integral to this whole project and I knew they wouldn’t go out there
if they had to do a 40 mile round trip! Couldn’t blame them either.
are lucky enough to have found somewhere that’s only six miles away from the
restaurant and it only takes about 15 / 20 minutes to get there by car.
course we had to do a fair bit of research to find this perfect piece of land,
so I got in the car with a couple of members of the team, drove out to the New
Forest and went to visit probably every local farmer and grower in the area, introducing
ourselves to start building up relationships. As part of this process we met a
lovely guy called Dan Tanner.
owns about 1,000 acres in the New Forest - so just a little bit of land then ;)
- and he grows a lot of the ‘pick your own’ fruit and veg and plenty of wheat
too. We ended up employing his niece, Kay, who currently works as our in-house
baker at Urban Reef and we then managed to convince Dan to lease just over half
an acre of his land to us for the first year. This of course is part of a much
larger plot, which hopefully over time we might be able to expand in to - if we
can secure a bigger plot, we might be able to turn it into a bit of a small
holding and have some chickens, pigs and lambs.
also great that we’re close to a fair few farmers just incase we need any
expert advice ;) and I have to say it’s rather handy to go and pick up some of
the local produce (Dan has some scrumptious strawberries, asparagus and sweet
corn!) while at the same time nipping to get some of our own stuff.
Next time: Next week Mark will tell you
all about all the ‘behind the scenes’ work and how the Urban team got the land
prepped and ready for planting.
The idea came to me about 18 months or so ago now as where I source my produce from has always been very important to me (I like to source it locally where possible), but I started to find there were some things I just couldn’t get hold of.
Now, I recognised that some of this was due to seasonality, even the best growers with the best will in the world can’t magic up the climate needed to grow certain types of fruit and veg, but I was going out to suppliers in the New Forest and finding that they were only supplying to larger organisations, chain restaurants and wholesalers. Us smaller independent ventures were missing out.
So I suppose my first reason for creating the Urban farm was supply and demand, I thought it would be such a fantastic opportunity to grow some really good local produce. More importantly than this though, was the desire to educate people, both staff and customers.
I can’t think of anything better than a customer sitting down at their table, speaking to their server and asking what they would recommend from the specials board and the server then coming back with some fantastic knowledge, such as: ‘the asparagus served with the specials tonight is only in season for 10 weeks of the year in the UK... they have a totally different texture and flavour to anything that you’d get imported from Peru... they are now at their prime as there are only two weeks left of the season... we picked them this morning...’ – I would be totally stunned as a customer to get this kind of response.
Of course this can’t be forced into the team. I realised the only way I’d be able to get this kind of enthusiasm would be to get them out to Sopley to start digging the land, planting and seeing it all for themselves.
I have been asked if I wanted to do this to save some money, but I can tell you that’s not the reason. In fact, it’s quite the opposite because it’s proving to be quite expensive. It has cost about £2,000 to buy a little walk-a-long tractor, about £1,000 to hire the field, I’ve also had to hire someone to run the plot and then there’s the cost of the seeds and the kit. I’ve estimated that year one will probably cost Urban about £10,000 and I’m pretty sure we won’t end up with £10,000 worth of stock. Ultimately, if the project can break-even within a couple of years, that would be good enough for me.
We shouldn’t ignore the fact there is a PR and marketing angle here. If we can show our customers that we love ‘growing our own’ and know how it has gone from seed to plate, hopefully they will get excited.
So there you have it, I created the Urban farm partly to get some good produce, partly to educate the Urban customers and the Urban team and also to have some fun! It’s still very early days at the moment and there’s a still a long way to go, but it’s a good start.
Next time: Find out a little more about the land. Where it is, how big and why Mark chose a plot in the New Forest.