Jo Denbury, Features Writer
It’s raining and the river Stour is running high. Occasionally the downpour stops for a while – the curtain of mist splits, revealing the briefest glimpse of sunshine before the wet descends again. No matter what the weather, however, business starts early at Gold Hill Organic Farm.
This morning in Child Okeford, under the watchful gaze of Hambledon Hill, the Cross family are pulling leeks from the soil, backs bent, a handful at a time. Other vegetables soon follow. Boots anchored in the sticky mud, I watch the tubers and roots being eased from the earth, each plump specimen conspicuously boasting flavour and nutrients. By this afternoon, they will have been delivered to doorsteps across Dorset. > The outdoor work is physically demanding and often emotionally challenging. Alongside the lingering threat of poor weather, organic farmers endure the imaginative management of bugs that would otherwise be eliminated with pesticides in common usage elsewhere. However, Sara and Andrew Cross, the farmers at Gold Hill Organic Farm, have risen willingly to the challenge and embraced the lifestyle for the best part of 30 years. Soil is land. It is redolent of place and identity – and that fact is not lost on the two of them.
Andrew grew up at Gold Hill. Back then it was a dairy farm, run by his father, David. However, when Andrew developed an interest in organic farming – particularly after a chance meeting with Charles Dowding, who developed the ‘No Dig’ organic gardening scheme – David agreed to give him two acres. He then set about building the raised beds that still exist today. It wasn’t long before Andrew’s wife Sara joined him.
The Cross family’s approach to farming is holistic. In the beginning they were such stout believers in doing everything organically, they did not even have a tractor. Although a red Zetor did eventually appear, it has always been used sparingly – to plough fields or transport loads. “All our vegetables are organic, including the seeds,” says Sara. “If we can’t find an organic seed for something we want to grow, we get permission from the Soil Association to source a seed elsewhere.”
Theirs is a principled approach that builds a positive health across the ecology of the farm – but it hasn’t been without its setbacks. The exceptionally wet summer of 2012 meant that the crops were ruined, leading to a drastic shortfall. “The reality is that organic farming is affected by the weather,” explains Sara. “We simply couldn’t get to the land that summer to prepare it. It became too weedy and too wet to hoe and was at risk of disease.” However, Sara and Andrew are resilient and their message has always been the same – to produce good-quality organic food and to maintain a sense of the community.
At the heart of the family is Annie Cross, Andrew’s mother. Granny Annie, as she is known, has lived at the farm for over 50 years. “When we started the farm 60 acres was a lot, but people would think of it as a smallholding by today’s standards,” she says. “At the time there were 11 farms around here, but now there are just a couple.” She goes on to reminisce on how much the face of farming has changed since then, when they sold milk from their Guernsey herd at the gate. Annie clearly enjoyed being part of a community as she began a nursery school at the farm in 1967 then, later, started running a bed-and-breakfast.
Whether by serendipity or plain good luck, Jane and Nick Somper – who now run the Goldhill Organics vegetable box business from the farm –came to stay at Annie’s B&B. “Jane and I walked into the farmhouse kitchen 24 years ago,” says Nick – and this was the start of a very happy marriage between business and vegetables. The Sompers loved it so much at Gold Hill that they began to return regularly – and it wasn’t long before they decided to move to Dorset on a permanent basis. Jane asked if she could help in the farm shop and was soon a full-time member of staff. Then, a few years ago, she decided she would like to run a veg box scheme. Nick left his job and, together, they set up Goldhill Organics delivery business.
Jane’s passion is for the direct connection between how the food we eat is produced, and our health. She wants to work with nature, rather than against it. Looking around the farm, it is very clear that a lot of the land is left very natural and open to wildlife – at Gold Hill, even the deer can come in for a nibble. But, for Jane, it is paramount that everyone who receives one of her veg boxes knows where the food has come from and that it is fresh and organic. In essence, the fact is that if you get salad in your box, you know that it has been picked that morning and not been through some form of chemical treatment so that it can sit on a supermarket shelf for 10 days.
Seasonality is everything – and while you can’t expect strawberries at Christmas, Jane is keen to point out that they are flexible about the content of their boxes and try to adhere to customers’ wishes as closely as possible. So if you dislike beetroot, for example – though personally I don’t see how anyone could – she will swap it for something else. What is exciting about a veg box is that it encourages you to eat something you wouldn’t ordinarily choose in the supermarket. The farm grows such a variety of produce that you may even receive items that are unavailable in your local store. The boxes also discourage waste, because the idea is that you use up the box before the next one arrives.
But for Jane – who is a mother of three and used to cooking up feasts for all the family – it is the provenance of food that is most important. “I really want to connect people with food of far greater quality,” she says. To this end, she and Nick have recently partnered with Follow This Food, which provides customers with information on the provenance of their meat. The Bristol company has developed bar code technology, allowing you to scan a label and see exactly where that product has come from. The purpose of the system is to help you to understand where your meat has been reared and slaughtered, and feel confident that you are buying good-quality produce from dependable sources. Goldhill Organics has teamed up with Blackmore Vale Butchery whose non-organic, but locally sourced and grass-fed meat they deliver, will now carry this active labelling system.
Although the delivery business is run separately from Andrew and Sara Cross’s farm, the two couples work, quite literally, alongside each other, like two pillars of the temple. Together, they are striving to ensure that everyone in the county can enjoy the benefits of locally grown organic vegetables. Not that ‘local’ means ‘limited’ – this unusual and dedicated farm is renowned for its sheer variety of produce. “Fennel is one of our biggest crops,” says Sara. “But we also grow lots of other vegetables –including chillies, aubergines, kale, kohlrabi, cavolo nero, all sorts of lettuce… In fact, pretty much anything will grow in Child Okeford except for potatoes.” She laughs. “We give potatoes a miss, so Jane buys them in from another organic grower.”. Well, we all have our limitations but Goldhill certainly won’t be letting us go hungry.