Hidden away in the North Dorset countryside, Gold Hill Organic Farm has become a successful operation serving their local community.
The thing that is most telling about Gold Hill Organic Farm is how much it has managed to integrate itself into the local community. Almost all the Dorset-based organic company’s business is sold through its farm shop and comes by word of mouth. Mention the name of the company in the surrounding area and the majority of people have heard of it and more importantly, have bought vegetables there.
“There’s no clever marketing or anything like that and we don’t really advertise. We have a Facebook page and Twitter but that is done by our sons. We have tried to grow really good quality organic vegetables and that is why people keep on coming back time and time again,” says Sara Cross, Director of Gold Hill Organic Farm, which she runs with her husband Andrew.
“It wasn’t that long ago during the rise of the supermarkets that everyone thought it was going to be difficult to compete with their size, strength and marketing power, but do you know what, I think it has come full circle. We speak to loads of customers that say it is so much better buying from the farm where the vegetables were grown and meeting the grower that produced them at the same time,” she adds.
The Gold Hill Organic Farm shop is situated at the heart of a busy courtyard and is stocked with many different types and varieties of vegetables as well as a host of other organic items.
Andrew and Sara Cross have managed the farm, including sales and all the growing since 1987, and have been organic from the start. Indeed, Gold Hill was one of the very first farms in the south west to gain organic status from the Soil Association.
The vegetable growing area covers about eight acres, made up of an acre of raised beds for early and late season crops; eight polytunnels for winter salads; and six acres of field-scale vegetables where it grows crops like sweetcorn, summer lettuces and leeks.
Mr Cross grew up at Gold Hill which was then operating as a dairy farm and he often helped with the milking at 7am when he was young. He decided he wanted to take the farm on from his father but didn’t want to keep the cows. He wanted to do something different instead and it was only after a chance meeting with the well-known organic vegetable grower Charles Dowding, that Mr Cross was inspired to turn the conventional dairy farm in to an organic vegetable farm.
Andrew and Sara Cross now run the farm shop alongside the growing side of the business which also supplies Langridge Organics. For over 20 years Gold Hill Organic Farm attended local markets and ran a vegetable box scheme (as well as supplying vegetables to another scheme) but it became more and more demanding. “Not just the delivery side but the demand and expectation that comes with it; it is really hard work,” says Mrs Cross.
Reluctantly they gave up on the box scheme and the local markets to concentrate on the shop and supplying Langridge and the move has paid off. “It just brings a focus to what we do and that is concentrating on growing really good veg,” says Mrs Cross. Also, it has enabled the business to grow different varieties of vegetables.
“The farm shop is stocked with many different types and varieties of vegetables because we want people to have that wide choice and buy from us and not go to Waitrose for their organic vegetables,” says Mrs Cross.
Planning with Langridge starts in October when the next season is planned. “The planting for the next season is not only based on what sold well the previous year, but we also discuss the latest trends and changes in the market so we can try as hard as possible to react and respond to change. It has been a good relationship with Langridge and they treat us well,” adds Mrs Cross. “The exciting bit is playing our part in responding to these new trends and changes in the market.”
But like any farm, location and other factors can be a massive challenge. “Weather and water were the main challenges for obvious reasons last year and because we have no access to water near our fields, it has to be carried down from where our water harvester is. Of course last summer there was very little water to harvest at all,” she adds.
She also says growing organically has been a constant learning curve, even if they have been doing it for over 30 years. “That’s what’s fascinating about growing organically; you are always learning and understanding something different every single day.”
Out in the fields, Andrew Cross is meticulous about growing the very best organic crops he can and that is reflected in the perfectly tendered beds in the field that are, for the most part, free of weeds. “We believe that keeping the plants weed free as often as possible is one simple way of helping the plant to grow effectively,” says Mrs Cross, despite this being the biggest costs to the business, especially during the winter months.
“We have hoes on the tractor and if you get 80% done that way the hand-weeding becomes a lot easier.” But there is no interest in robotics and automation on the farm yet. “We looked at some trials of robotic harvesters but noticed there were areas of the fields that were not being covered. I think we would consider the options again in the future but for now what we do is working out OK.”
Green manures are also a big focus. “The green manures are mixed with waste from harvesting and covered with Mypex, which appears to help create the optimum soil structure and nutrient levels ready for the next season,” says Mrs Cross. “We have also found it hugely beneficial to the plants to grow three different crops together and have noticed a difference in the growth rates and quality as a result,” she adds.
A mixture of grasses are also grown in and around the vegetable crops and this makes up a major part of the green manure, helping to open up the soil structure and even supress the weeds.
“At the moment we have sheep grazing the waste in the fields from the winter crops and the dung is obviously incorporated back into the soil during the tillage process to help raise nutrient levels again. We have found minimum tillage to have real benefit to the soil structure and growth of the crops on the farm,” says Mrs Cross.
More and more organic growers are turning to minimum tillage, because of the benefits reported for soil structure and life, organic matter and water storage. “There is evidence to suggest that if you plough too deeply, any anaerobic material could be brought up into the aerobic,” says Mrs Cross. But even the weeds have their uses. “Unless they are flowering or seeding the weeds can also be incorporated into the green manure and there are benefits to having them in the mix also,” she adds.
The warm weather might have been a challenge from a watering perspective last summer, but it certainly helped reduce pest and diseases on the farm as well. “We had virtually nothing in terms of pest and disease during the summer so the heat has a positive effect, unlike the years of 2009 and 2012 when it was very wet and the opposite occurred and we lost crops because plants were sitting in water far too long. But the weather has certainly changed, especially during the winter. I can remember a time when we had bitterly cold frosts that would last until midday-that simply doesn’t happen anymore.
“It is also nice to see people’s attitude towards buying organic produce against a backdrop of global warming etc…They really think they can make a small difference by buying it.” The company is researching into improved compostable packaging to use in the future and if money was no object, green energy would also be installed on the farm to power the farm shop and the surrounding units.
But above all, the farm will continue to put all of its passion and knowledge into growing the best vegetables possible to continue to attract a positive local response and more local customers as a result. It is a very simple philosophy, but one that works extremely well.
The Vegetable Farmer has been the vegetable industry’s leading magazine for over 30 years
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Contact: Joseph Champneys