Since the Real Food Store opened in March 2011, Shillingford has been an integral part of the store’s offer- supplying us with freshly picked organic fruit, vegetables and eggs on a daily basis.
Before starting work at the Real Food Store, it was in fact Shillingford Organics that lured one of the store’s managers, Lois, and her partner down to the red soils of Devon. They were keen to gain hands on experience of organic farming in the UK and spent several months WWOOF-ing (volunteering in exchange for food and board) on various farms. One of those that stood out as being a fantastic example of a commercial farm producing a range of high quality fruit and vegetables, was Shillingford Organics, run by Martyn Bragg. Four years on Lois returned to the farm, along with Natalie, Real Food shop manager, to meet Martyn and take a tour of the farm.
The farm is located just four miles from the Real Food Store and spans 300 acres in total. Fifty acres are devoted to fruit and vegetable production as well as a small (between 200-300) flock of chickens, and the remainder is given over to arable production. Martyn’s family have been farming the land in the area for generations, but he is the first Bragg to break from the tradition of livestock and arable farming and instead move into commercial horticulture. As we began our tour, meandering through the rows of winter brassicas, Martyn described how he first started farming in 1983 but this involved intensive non-organic arable production. This changed in the year 2000 when Martyn decided to venture into the world of commercial horticulture and, having seen how denuded of nutrients the soil had got as a result of the intensive way it had been farmed, decided to convert the farm to organic. The following year he met Tim Deane, who had been running a box scheme in the Teign Valley, and over the next five years they worked together to supply the box scheme which Martyn still runs today.
As we entered one of the polytunnels, we met two members of Martyn’s small team of eight committed growers who were busy planting salad crops to supply Shillingford’s delicious year-round supply of salad bags. Although, a cold and drizzly March day was perhaps not the best time to see the farm in all it’s glory, we really got a sense of how important wildlife is to the functioning of the farm. There are so many birds darting around, and Martyn explained how a proportion of the crop is allowed to flower and set seed to provide a habitat for the beneficial insects the farm relies on as it’s pest control. Even the polytunnels are full of flowers in the summer, encouraging pollinators and beneficial insects inside. Biodiversity on the farm is also promoted through growing a large range of vegetables, each with slightly different cropping and flowering times, which helps to ensure a range of food and habitats for the farm wildlife.
We visited in the middle of the hungry gap season, where productivity is at its lowest in the UK. Many of the winter crops, such as Brussel sprouts, cauliflowers and January king cabbages had come to an end, but the new season crops were not quite ready to harvest.
Shillingford OrganicsOne of the things that struck us when talking to Martyn was just how hard farming, especially organic farming, can be. This year’s relatively warm and wet winter has meant their crop of carrots has been severely damaged by carrot fly, and without dry conditions, lifting them for storage has been impossible. Losses such as this are a major blow when trying to supply 230 veg boxes, online sales and a weekly farmer’s market, and of course customers of the Real Food Store (which account for 15% of their total sales)! It’s also a real challenge to make organic farming economically viable. Martyn explained how it’s far more labour intensive for him to get a comparative yield to that of conventional intensive agriculture and that obviously means he has to sell his produce at a higher price than conventionally grown alternatives. Although he doesn’t have to purchase the chemicals and fertilisers that conventional farms do, instead the Shillingford team have to hand weed crops which obviously has associated costs in both time and labour. However, Martyn is convinced that organic farming is the right way to farm. Since converting from conventional farming methods, over the last 16 years he has noticed how the soil has become healthy- full of organic matter and teeming with life.
Having seen an enormous variety of crops being grown in this beautiful setting, and visited the pack house where all the produce gets sorted into boxes ready for distribution, the last stop on our farm tour was to visit the chickens! Our customers always comment on how delicious Shillingford eggs are (and many refuse to buy any others) and we think we’ve found out their secret! The chickens are given an enormous area of clover rich ground to roam in and graze, as well as surplus veg (there was half a squash that had been pecked clean in their paddock, clearly a favourite!). Their diet is supplemented with organic chicken feed and wheat produced on the farm and they nest in boxes lined with straw which is a much more natural environment for them, making them feel at ease. The chickens are also an important part of the rotation system; as they graze the paddock they eat grubs and weeds such as plantain as well as fertilising the land. This land is then used for growing vegetables the following year once the chickens are moved to a new area of the farm and the cycle continues.
Shillingford regularly host farm visits and are planning an open day to coincide with Devon Pollinators Month in July. If you get a chance to go and visit the farm on one of their open days then it’s well worth it! They are also looking to set up a farm school for children to learn more about growing and get hands on experience which sounds like a fantastic idea – keep an eye out if you have kids.
For more information go to www.shillingfordorganics.co.uk.