Going organic

Did you know that according to a recent Government report food production, packaging and distribution accounts for one fifth of the UK's carbon emissions?

Did you know that according to a recent Government report food production, packaging and distribution accounts for one fifth of the UK's carbon emissions?

And that on average the UK throws away just under a third of the food it purchases with most of it ending up in landfill sites thereby creating even more carbon emissions?

I recently met up with local organic farmer and marketing/business guru William Kendall who is determined to prove that local, organic farming is a viable option in this world of global market forces and GM crops.

I should probably say that William is no ordinary farmer. Born and raised on a Bedfordshire farm, he left home at eighteen to study law at Cambridge University. He then spent the next twenty years or so living and working in London in various capacities from barrister, to city banker, through to marketing guru at the New Covent Garden Soup Company, and then finally, as the masterful owner of the burgeoning Green & Black chocolate empire, which he finally sold off in 2005 while still remaining a director of the company.

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William evidently relishes a challenge. And so when in 1999 everybody told him that converting the family owned farm at Kelsale to organics would be really difficult, William and his wife Miranda decided to rise to the challenge. He explains: “Everybody said it's so hard being organic. But then everything is hard in this life. So we decided to give it a go and discovered that actually it is difficult going organic but it's also very interesting.” Eight years on William is delighted with the results.

I'm intrigued why this has become so important; so all consuming to William - there's absolutely no doubting that he is passionately committed to it. After all, it's a far remove from the cutting edge of major international brands: it's a 350-acre family farm in deepest, rural Suffolk. Is this a real farm? A serious business proposition? Or is it a bit of fun; a sideline, part life-style choice, part experiment?

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It quickly becomes apparent that Maple Farm is not a hobby farm. Because William does not play at business: “We wanted it to work to prove that you can make a good living - not scratch a living - from a family sized organic farm. It's just about breaking even now so we're getting there.”

He has an equally passionate, committed team of employees working alongside him, including Tim, the farm manager, who introduced William to the idea of a sick field. “Tim identified a number of fields that needed to recover from years of intensive farming - that needed a 'sabbatical', if you like, to recuperate. We've been mining the nutrients in the soil for years - it's now time to put them back.”

It's a slow and expensive process, a labour of love indeed, but one that William firmly believes will pay dividends in the future. He describes how the organic movement is basically a search for health through food, that it isn't a new idea although it seems it, and how it all began in the 1930s spearheaded by Lady Eve Balfour who established the UK's first organic farm in Haughley, near Stowmarket - the 'Haughley Experiment', which later led to the formation of the Soil Association. So it all started in Suffolk? I ask, somewhat non-plussed. “Yes, it all started here. I can't believe we don't make more of it.” Nor can I.

We discuss the Maple Farm 'experiment': what goes into the mix of a successful organic farm in 2007 beyond the bon santé of the soil. Maple Farm produces a wide range of cereals and vegetables. It grinds its own flour in its own flour mill; produces its own vegetable boxes which are distributed weekly through an innovative network of local hubs; it has a presence at local farmers markets and supplies numerous retail outlets in the locality. And it's steadily building a serious customer and retail base, plus an excellent name for itself in terms of quality, local, organic produce.

Food miles are a very real concern for William, particularly in relation to the distribution of his wares: “Everything we grow we try and sell directly to the public, and as far as possible, we work on a 15-mile radius. We've already established a number of mini food outlets through the introduction of the vegetable boxes, which is all part of building up relationships within the local community. Everyone's talking about food 'hubs' at the moment. Well, Maple Farm is simply a small food hub that connects to other food hubs. In terms of the long-term vision for the farm? We want to supply more and more of the local area. In terms of the long-term vision for Suffolk? Vibrant Suffolk farms: this is a farming community. It's what glues the county together.”

For more information about Maple Farm click on www.maplefarmkelsale.co.uk

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