As we arrive down the winding beaten path into Brambletye Farm and are greeted by a flock of excitable chickens, we realise we are a while away from home. The chickens, and cockerels too, go wherever they please; climbing over forgotten pieces of farm machinery, children’s toys and into a farmer’s home (where one is promptly thrown out), creating a very free scene among the rows and rows of plump British apples.
It may sound like Brambletye Farm is free range, but that makes up only part of the equation. So does the term organic and sustainable – as the farm lets its animals roam free and does not use chemicals on any of its produce – but it is really so much more than that.
‘With biodynamics…you are aiming to have a closed organism,’ says farm cook and market coordinator Valerio Traquandi, ‘the first idea is that all of the elements support each other, so you start a relationship between the different elements; the animals feed off orchard floor, at the same time their manure fertilises the soil for the apple trees and the insects pollinate the flowers.’
But biodynamics, based on the theories of anthroposophy by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, does not just concentrate on the contained ecosystem of the farm, as it recognises that larger systems are at play, ‘biodynamics relies on a very specific knowledge about how the planets and their assets influence the plants and the growth of all objects and well as the animals.’
These cosmic studies are very complicated, but they dictate that at certain times throughout the year, according to planetary positioning, it is the optimum time to plant flowers, fruit, roots or leaves. These cosmic beliefs may sound far-fetched to some, but, for Brambletye, the proof is in the produce, ‘especially with root vegetables you notice the difference, on certain days you will get radishes that are round and radishes that are straight and pointy – they still taste great, or they might taste different,’ explains Ellie Woodcock, one of the owners of the farm.
London is not excluded from the fruits of Brambletye’s labour – every week the farm brings their fruits, vegetables, chutneys and jams to Maltby Street, Stepney Green and Peckham markets, where the quality of their produce is praised. Though they say that biodynamics is unlikely to reach the success of the organic food movement: ‘It is too complex,’ says Valerio, ‘though there have been a lot more people than I would have expected expressing interest – for instance, I have a customer who is a 55 year-old full-time chef who wants to come and pick apples – there is definitely an interest, it is just a question of how these interests will be translated in the future.’
There is certainly a community element to biodynamic farming – Ellie, who oversees the farm and the apples, is sharing tea and chocolate digestives with us with eight-month old baby Tristan on her hip, while another young Dutch couple who live opposite with their small children take care of the chickens and their eggs, and a young man Johan is responsible for the vegetable patch.
This area of the country is unique in that there are four biodynamic farms working in around a three-mile radius of each other. Until recently, there was even a biodynamic farming college connected to the largest of these farms, Emerson College, but courses have halted due to a lack of interest.
Even so, there is a relationship between the farms that encourages sustainability, ‘even though we are completely separate businesses, there is a big openness and a sharing.’ Ellie speaks of a neighbouring biodynamic farmer who has offered to sell her misshapen green tomatoes for her chutneys this morning, ‘morally, we would want that to happen instead of throwing them away.’
Valerio takes us on a small tour of the land, where we come across hundreds and hundreds of chickens and cockerels, which are usually kept separately as many farmers think there is no economic benefit to keeping them together. But here, they think differently, ‘the cockerels act as leaders and help to separate the chickens…and, believe me, chickens make love.’
The apples are perfect, heavy round buds hanging from the trees. The farm grows sixteen types of apples, and now they are growing mostly Evita. We are given a few Earl of Windsors to try from the sorting barrels and find them utterly delightful – crisp, crunchy, tangy and fresh – your average Tesco apple seems sad and wilted in comparison.
It is hard to put your finger on it, but there is a certain energy about the farm that makes it so attractive. Valerio commutes in from Peckham, about an hour and a half away, in order to experience it. Biodynamics does have its downsides, it is very expensive, but, in the end, the quality of the produce is said to be superior. As Valerio says, ‘you don’t work in biodynamics because you want to make money, you do it because you are passionate about this way of farming.’