With organic produce enjoying record supermarket sales, Sarah Freeman returns to one of Yorkshire’s first organic farms to find out how times have changed.
There’s a recurring theme when it comes to dinner at the Thompson house. Sometimes they will be mashed, often roasted and occasionally just boiled, but apart from one week of the year there will always be potatoes dug straight from the fields outside.
“It’s pretty much a year round crop, but once a year I do have to relent and go to the supermarket,” says Sue Thompson, who along with husband Richard runs York Grounds Farm, one of the first organic farms in Yorkshire.
As well as the 500 tonnes of spuds, each year 150 tonnes of wheat and 100 tonnes of barley are harvested from farm near Cottingham and alongside the crops the couple also have an 100 strong herd of organic cattle and provide a bed and breakfast service for 1,500 organic pigs owned by another farmer.
“We do alright,” says Richard. “But really it’s all thanks to my dad. He was a man ahead of his time. It was he who decided to go down the organic route when most other farmers were heading in the opposite direction.”
It was in 1949 that Michael Thompson began his own quiet revolution in this corner of East Yorkshire. Having returned from the war, farming seemed like a decent way to make a living, but by the time he ploughed his first field Michael had already decided that he was going to do things a little differently.
“At the time chemicals were just coming into agriculture,” says Richard, the youngest of four brothers. “New pesticides and fertilisers were supposed to revolutionise agriculture and in some ways they did. However, dad had read a lot of the early reports into their impact. He didn’t like what he saw, so he decided to go organic.
“There were absolutely some people who thought he was a bit of a crank, but then if you look up the definition of crank it’s also a pretty useful bit of engineering kit so maybe they were right.”
It’s a line you suspect Richard has trotted out numerous times before, but he has a point. In those early post-war years organic farmers were often regarded at best as well-meaning kooks and the Good Life movement of the 1970s was still some way off.
“In some ways what dad was doing wasn’t so far removed from how other people farmed,” adds Richard. “Chemicals were really only starting to make their presence felt. However, you have to remember that this was the time when DDT was being introduced to crops, so while the use of chemicals might have been limited what was out there was pretty potent.”
Running his small, mixed farm through trial and the occasional error, Michael grew his organic enterprise to 120 acres and it wasn’t long before he was supplying his vegetables and poultry by rail to niche organic markets in London and Glasgow.
As the farm grew, so did Michael’s family and even from an early age it was clear that Richard was his natural successor.
“From being about the age of three I would follow dad around the farm,” says Richard. “None of my older brothers were interested, but I always knew that this is what I wanted to do. Farming, I guess was in my blood.”
He met Sue at university where they were both studying agriculture and the farm is now very much a joint enterprise. This year, relentless rain has made the harvest difficult, but whatever headaches they’ve had this is a good time to be in the organic business.
According to latest figures from the Organic Trade Board, while many of us have been cutting back at the supermarket, sales of organic produce have not only proved resilient but have actually increased in the last 12 months. The the rise of young consumers seeking more healthy food is at least in part responsible for the uplift but the lobby group also noted that 48 per cent of families are now consciously buying organic.
“Any increase is good news, but organic still only accounts for two per cent of the total market and these things tend to be cyclical,” says Richard. “However, we have kept going. Over the years the farm has tripled in size and with the years comes experience. When you are organic if you suddenly find you have problem with a crop you can’t just blitz it with chemicals to get rid of it. You learn to experiment with new varieties to find the ones that are the most hardy. There are some potatoes which a resilient to just about everything, which grow to a fabulous size, but which taste absolutely awful.”
As well as becoming potato connoisseurs, the Thompsons, who have two grown up children, have also learnt to ride the waves of foodie fashion.
“By the time the organic movement really started to flourish in the late 1960s, early 1970s dad’s farm was already pretty well established,” adds Richard. “It meant we were ready to make the most of the growing demand, but when the recession came in the early 80s we took a hit, all farms did.”
The couple are now looking to turn two more fields organic, which basically means that they have to be free from chemicals for two years before the first crops are grown, and as chairman of Organic Farmers and Growers, Richard also spends a lot of time supporting those just starting out.
“We are the certification board for organic farms, but the group also acts as a bit of a support network. Some people have a light bulb moment. They wake up one morning and decide, ‘I am going to go organic’, but for the vast majority it’s a much more gradual process. An organic farm is a business like any other, so whatever someone’s wider principles are it has to stack up commercially.” While the number of organic farms has increased substantially over the last two decades, no one quite knows what Brexit will bring and like many Richard is happy at the moment to do a bit of fence sitting.
“The market for organic produce is much bigger on the Continent,” he says. “In countries like Germany and Austria it accounts for about eight per cent of the food market, so from that perspective you would say that it would better for us to be in Europe. However, we also import a lot of organic produce so there is an argument which goes that when Brexit finally does happen there will be more opportunity for us.
“I guess the only thing that anyone can agree on is that these are uncertain times, but I tend to think that we will come though them and adapt just as farming has always done.”
And until then, the Thompsons will keep doing what they have always done.
“Everyone always ask does organic produce really taste better,” says Sue. “A lot of it depends on what you do with it once it’s out of the ground, how it’s stored and how it’s cooked, but even my dad, who’s a non organic farmer admitted that our potatoes tasted, well, more of potatoes. It’s the same with carrots and you can definitely tell the difference between an organic and a regular banana. We are always on the lookout for new crops to grow, although I think a banana plantation may be a step too far, even for us.”