3 top Essex farms that have been feeding the county for generations
- Credit: Archant
The agricultural heritage of the county cannot be underestimated. Here Stephanie Mackentyre visits three farms that have been feeding Essex for generations
Cammas Hall Farm, Hatfield Broad Oak
The farmland at Cammas Hall has been farmed by the Lukies family since the 1800s. Director Jonathan Lukies explains how it was his grandfather and father who first considered the idea of Pick Your Own on their farm.
‘The idea was launched by grandfather and father in 1966 after we’d grown 12 acres of blackcurrants for Robinsons but the contract wasn’t completed. We’d heard of another farm in Clacton doing the same, so we took out an advert in the local media and found it worked. People came and we got rid of the fruit.’
Like many farms across the UK, the PYO business peaked in the late 1970s with housewives purchasing chest freezers and picking and freezing fruits in bulk. Then the growth of the supermarkets in our towns meant the farm went back to supplying the wholesaler. However, now more and more of us want to see where our food comes from and buy from the farm gate.
Jonathan explains: ‘It’s become fashionable again for families to come and pick their own fruit and vegetables. People care far more these days about where their food comes from. People are always saying to me how do you get your fruit and vegetables to taste so good? It’s nothing we are doing, it’s purely the fact that shoppers are used to buying from a supermarket where the fruit on sale is on average seven to 10 days old. You can’t compare the two tastes.’
At this time of year Cammas Hall has a wide selection of fruit and vegetables to pick from their farm shop. They sell strawberries, raspberries and blueberries and all are grown without the need
for any herbicides.
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‘We also grow pumpkins, onions, sweetcorn and sunflowers too. Customers are also able to pick blackcurrants, blackberries and gooseberries. The farm has its own Tea Barn and a couple of years ago we added a children’s play area. We find now that instead of just coming for half an hour to pick up some fresh produce, visitors spend half a day with the kids having a nice safe play and then they all have their lunch with us too.’
Deersbrook Farm, Braintree
Deersbrook Farm (HS Hawes & Son) offers home-produced, 100% certified, grass-fed beef predominately from Native Sussex cattle. They were the first 100% grass-fed herd in East Anglia and so far they are the only ones in Essex. They are reared on mature grassland to provide truly great tasting, nutritious beef.
Anna Blumfield explains: ‘You’ll find our beef to be a deep plumy red with creamy coloured fat, showing that our cattle have lived in natural, premium conditions. We allow the beef to dry age, maturing naturally on the bone for 28 days, to develop the flavour and texture of the meat. Then our local traditional butcher prepares the vast range of cuts that we provide.’
This month they hope to open their own on-site, purpose-built butchery ready for the half-term week. This family run farm is now run by Anna’s husband Phil, but mum Mary and dad Peter, although retired from farming, still live in their own house on the farmland.
‘Farming is a tough way to earn a living, but one which we love and are dedicated to. Mum and dad have been amazing and they’re always on hand to give us advice, helping us produce the best naturally delicious meat with the highest welfare standards that benefits the livestock, environment and the consumer. We use traditional farming methods, with our cattle grazing out on the meadows all year round.’
They even grow their own hay, straw and silage for the cattle to provide them with winter feed and bedding. All of this great care and attention has earned them the Farm Assured Red Tractor award. The cattle are allowed to grow up naturally, grazing for 29 months and its paid off for them as in 2015 they were highly commended in the Field to Fork category of Essex Life’s Food & Drink Awards.
‘We also became Essex’s first 100% grass-fed cattle, certified by Pasture for Life Association,’ adds Anna. The farm was first farmed by Anna’s grandfather Horace Sydney, hence the HS Hawes.
‘They rented for three years and then purchased the farm. Six years ago dad was all ready to retire to a home by the sea, but we rather scuppered their plans when we got talking about taking it over.’
Now Anna and Phil run the farm and Gran and Papa Hawes are on hand not only for farming advice, but also for babysitting duties for the couple’s three young children.
‘We met on the farm as teenagers but Phil went off to become a builder and I had a career in sports therapy. Since taking over we’ve made changes to the herd. We’ve built up the Natives and dad has let us run with what we want.’ Because of the unique way the cattle are raised, earlier this year Anna and Phil sent off their meat for nutritional analysis.
‘We thought it must be good because of their lifestyle, but it’s nice to have it confirmed just how good the meat is. It’s the essential fatty acids which our meat contains which makes the difference to the taste and texture, our meat is extremely rich in Omega 3s and 6s.’
As well as selling from the farm gate they also supply restaurants in Essex and Hertfordshire. ‘We open every year for Open Farm Sunday in June. We also do a pop-up restaurant in April for Great British Beef Week where a chef comes and cooks at the farm. We’ve just done the same for the Great British Food Fortnight last month.’
Spencer’s Farm Shop, Wickham St Paul
Another local farm which is also enjoying the latest renaissance in PYO is Spencer’s Farm Shop. As slaves to the elements I asked Paul Spencer how the long hot summer we enjoyed had affected his crop.
‘Thankfully not too badly as most of our fruit is grown undercover, which protects the delicate fruit from the elements. However, our second batch of strawberries did ripen and finish rather faster than normal. The good news is the hot summer brought even more people to visit the farm.’
Paul works on the farm with his wife Liz and together they supply the farm shop, which is leased and run by Jo O’Boyle. ‘We ran it for 20 years and it needed a new lease of life. We also have a coffee shop here and with the new set up I’m now able to concentrate on the growing side.’
While the real peak in the popularity of PYO was in the 1970s, Paul agrees people now really do care where their food comes from and so more and more are visiting the farm shop to buy direct from their local farmer. ‘It certainly has picked up again,’ says Paul. ‘We find our customers don’t pick in the quantities that they used to in the 1970s, but instead they come to us more often.’
There is also a coffee shop on site and a petting farm area for the children to enjoy getting up close to the animals. And you can take your pick from a choice of strawberries, cherries, asparagus, pumpkins and 18 varieties of apples this autumn.
‘We grow the old fashioned varieties so we have a wide range of apples to choose from,’ adds Paul, while the strawberries also have a much longer growing season these days. ‘With the varieties and growing techniques we use, we are able to start picking from late April right through to mid to late October. It’s also due to having them under cover.’
Customers also tell Paul their strawberries taste noticeably better. ‘The funny thing is, one of the varieties we grow are the very ones stocked by the supermarkets,’ Paul explains. ‘The difference is ours are left on the plant to ripen and mature. If you pick too soon you lose the flavour.’
So take yourselves out this autumn with the family and enjoy the wealth of fresh produce created just for you by our county’s hardworking farmers and their families who live and farm here in Essex.