Working in partnership with nature

Features Posted 30/03/21
South East Farmer talks to James Smith of Loddington Farm.

Drastically cutting back on the use of chemicals on his land has not only improved the health of James Smith’s soil but has done wonders for his own vitality, too.

A complete switch in his approach to growing fruit at Loddington Farm, near Maidstone in Kent, has quickly taken him from wanting to quit to embracing the future with a new vision.

“Two years ago I was ready to exit the business, rent out the land and do something else,” he admitted. “Now I am more passionate, driven and motivated than ever before, with a long-term vision to produce the best quality fruit by working in partnership with nature.” James, the fifth generation of the farming family, is essentially practising regenerative agriculture, but he is anxious not to get bogged down with terminology. “I am farming with nature rather than fighting it and trying to improve the soil, the environment and the product,” he explained.

His ambition is to be completely chemical-free within five years. “On the way I will probably become organic, but that’s incidental. I won’t sign up to prescriptive rules and regulations because that’s not what it’s about. I will pursue my goal of chemical-free, nature-friendly growing because it’s the right way to farm, not because I feel the need for a particular label.”

James is also keen to point out that there was “no sacrifice” involved in making sweeping changes to his growing practices. “This isn’t just better for the planet,” he said. “Farming in harmony with nature can also boost productivity, improve quality and reduce costs. It’s a commercial decision as well as an ethical one.”

Towards the end of last year he added another string to the farm’s bow when he took over the popular Owlet fruit juice brand before moving it – and the whole of the “incredibly committed” workforce – lock, stock and barrel to Loddington Farm.

James took over the day-to-day management of Loddington Farm from his parents, Alan and Mary Smith, although they still contribute to the operation. The business grows top fruit on about 100 hectares out of a total site covering around 160 hectares.

In recent years the farm has supplied the supermarket trade, but the tight margins, insistence on uniformity and, importantly, lack of connection between the grower, the fruit and the customer had begun to leave James frustrated and ‘out of love’ with the growing process.

In 2018 it became so bad that he seriously considered exiting altogether. “I had had enough because I didn’t think it was possible to survive as a medium-sized grower with increasing debt,” he said. “Growing was no longer fun.”

For James, the answer was to completely revise his approach to farming, ditch the reliance on expensive chemicals and begin to work with nature rather than fighting against it.

“If you had looked around the farm a few years back it would have been ‘look, there’s a modern, intensive orchard full of bright red apples, there’s another intensive orchard full of bright red apples and there’s another one’.

“Now you still see the apples, and they are more important to us than ever, but you will also see cherries and apricots, cover crops and lambs, grafted orchards and new varieties. It’s more exciting and it’s more rewarding than focusing solely on growing a commodity.” With Owlet at Loddington now part of the stable, James can make good use of all the apples he grows, and while a large proportion of the 2,000 tonnes of fruit he produces each year still ends up on the supermarket shelves via Bardsley England – where his brother Paul is chief operating officer – he is increasingly selling apples through local wholesalers and small, independent retailers.

“I feel like I am back in control,” James said. “Because we now grow without artificial fertilisers or herbicides, we are helping nature, contributing to a greener environment and producing nutritious fruit – as well as reducing our costs. “I feel I can put my hand on my heart, look people in the eye and say ‘this has been grown without damaging the environment and is as nutritious as we can possibly make it’.

“Supermarket-bought Galas are great apples but they are just a name. There is no real identity, story or reference to the efforts made by the grower to deliver an outstanding product. We want to make the link between the soil the fruit is grown in and the taste and nutrition that it delivers.”

While the “fundamental change” at Loddington Farm happened around the end of 2019, the seeds had been sown in 2016 when James won a Nuffield Scholarship that allowed him to study the potential of medium-sized growers to make a successful business out of growing fruit in the UK.

He met and shared ideas with Ben Taylor-Davis, who farms and advises on regenerative agriculture all over the country, but initially felt that soil health was more relevant to arable farming than to fruit growing.

Over the next few years, though, following a lot more research and after learning from microbiologist Graham Salt and others, James realised that he was taking goodness out of the soil without putting anything back and depending too much on chemical additives.

“Our herbicide strip was bare and the grass between the rows was flattened by vehicles and regularly mown,” James recalled. “There were no roots or plants feeding any goodness back into the soil. We simply weren’t covering the first principle of working with nature but were instead trying to fight it with chemicals. I decided it was time to get off the merry-go-round.”

James first tried chemical-free farming in 2020, and while he accepts that the pear orchard he selected was relatively poor performing to begin with, he was amazed to find he increased the yield by 60% while reducing his costs at the same time. It was a pivotal moment for Loddington Farm and one that has not just changed his approach in the orchards but has fed through into his marketing message.

“We are now helping the environment, doing our bit to reverse climate change and improving our soil while growing more nutritious fruit,” he said. “And we are showing that there is no conflict between loving nature and farming profitably.”

James said changing his approach had meant “unlearning everything, including my university studies in crop science” but he pointed out that being a medium-sized independent grower meant he could be “nimble” in pursuing his new dream.

Having started the process, he has moved quickly, and he believes other farmers and growers will follow suit because the sector is increasingly coming to realise that the old systems are no longer fit for purpose. “There’s something in the air. We are running out of natural capital and people know things have to change,” he said.

As if changing his entire approach to fruit growing wasn’t enough, in November last year James bought Owlet from Susie and Colin Corfield, having worked alongside the popular Kent juice producer for many years.

The move has added value to James’ lesser crop and allowed him to enter the juice market without starting from scratch, something he thinks would have been virtually impossible. The purchase and the transition to Loddington Farm were supported by professional advice from Whitehead Monckton, BTF Partnership and chartered accountants Chavereys.

James commented: “We have received advice from BTF Partnership on all sorts of matters over the years, including through their horticultural employment arm, which once again provided a professional and practical service to help us navigate the issues around employment law relating to the transfer. All of the employees moved across as ownership changed and now form part of a great team at Loddington Farm.”

With 150,000-plus litres of Owlet fruit juice made and sold each year, the venture has complemented the Loddington Farm business, helped diversification and added value. With farm shops and independent retailers already keen buyers of the juice, James is now looking forward to the re-opening of the hospitality trade.

The business re-roofed, upgraded and modernised a former packhouse in order to house the Owlet production team, with pressing, bottling, labelling and despatch all carried out in house. Other new ventures include an interesting collaboration with a company called 58 Gin.

A new member of James’ team is Thomas Pointing, who had been travelling around the world when the Covid-19 lockdown stopped him in his globe-trotting tracks. He came back to the UK but had rented out his house and, thanks to a mutual friend, ended up living in one of James’ static caravans.

“I found him some work but soon realised that, as a former estate agent, he had a lot of potential,” said James. “He is now sales manager for Owlet at Loddington and a valued member of my team.”

Another new member of staff is livestock manager Grace Twyman, who is looking after the flock of sheep now grazing land at Loddington on a trial basis as part of the regenerative approach. James is also now looking at introducing poultry to the business.

James now grows cover crops for mulching between the fruit trees, adding nutrients and protecting the soil, while a Plantex fertigation system delivers plant-based nutritional supplements supplied by Engage Agro under advice from Mike Stoker.

With fungicides, herbicides and insecticides being written out of the script, unwanted plants that would compete too strongly with the trees are now mown using a mechanical weed strimmer supplied by Kirkland UK.

As well as re-inspiring his own love of growing, James believes that working with nature has an important part to play in the country’s future. “We are facing a number of problems – climate change, environmental challenges, the pandemic to name a few – and we need a change in direction,” he said. “Farming can deliver on so many fronts. It has a huge part to play.”

Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic

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