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The only way is ethics: natural farming

David Deme of Chegworth Valley on the importance of farming in harmony with the land


Words: Clare Finney

It’s been four decades since David Deme’s local soil expert drew his probe out of the ground and declared Chegworth Valley “ideal for growing. Particularly fruit trees.” The then novice, now highly experienced farmer has more than made good on his land’s potential, with the current Kent farm comprising 300 acres of vegetables, salads, apples, pears and soft fruit.

The farm, produce from which is sold at the Chegworth Valley stall as Borough Market, has been chemical and pesticide-free since 2000, and David and his family intervene “as little as possible” by working with nature and cultivating plants with a natural resistance to pests and diseases. “If the land is good quality, the plants will be healthy,” says David. “We need to farm sustainably and nurture the land if we’re to continue growing quality produce.”

The theory sounds simple; the practice is anything but. “From deciding not to spray anymore, it was a steep learning curve,” recalls David. Fortunately, the sorts of farmers who turn to natural or organic approaches (Chegworth is not organic certified, but the approach is ‘natural’, meaning as low-intervention as possible) are more than happy to pool their collective knowledge in the pursuit of better farming.

Liquid seaweed and garlic can be used to ‘feed’ the trees, ensuring they’ve enough energy to flourish (don’t worry, your galas won’t taste of garlic), while pests are controlled by the introduction of beneficial insects and good old-fashioned farm management. “There’s a bit of red mite on our mini cucumbers at the moment,” David observes, “but they’re almost ready to harvest.” When they’re pulled out, the ground will be churned so the remaining roots are ploughed in, returning nitrogen and other nutrients back to the soil — and “when we take away the cucumbers and leaves and take out the irrigation pipes, we take away the problem.”

The next crop to be planted — a different crop, and one not susceptible to red spider mite — will thrive in the rich and rejuvenated soil. This practice is known as crop rotation and prior to the advent of industrial, chemical-led farming, was commonplace across Britain. Arguably, it’s the best way of maximising production while maintaining soil health. “We’re quite unusual, in the respect that we grow such a wide range of vegetables and fruit here — and we’re always harvesting, so we’re rotating all the time.”

The fruit trees are not rotated. They grow for many years, demanding only careful pruning and feeding to ensure a good crop each autumn. Both pruning and picking are important here. David commissioned special machines to work with the trees, and all the harvesting of the fruit, like everything else at Chegworth, is done by hand. David or his son Ben will go out and decide the size and colour of apple (or pear, tomato, cucumber and so on) that’s good to go, and instruct the pickers accordingly. “Unlike machines, which pick indiscriminately, this allows us to work with the plant. If it’s not ready we’ll leave it” — reducing waste while getting the most out of the land.

David receives regular deliveries of non-food ‘green waste’: a misleadingly named black fertiliser made up of household cuttings. “Hedge trimmings, fallen leaves, dead plant matter, grass and flower cuttings — all these are picked up and broken down and transported to us by the tonne. It’s very cheap to buy. It does the soil no end of good,” he continues — and, by extension, the plants. “There’s just no reason to be using serious chemicals,” David says conclusively. Sure, there may be the odd blemish on your cox’s orange pippin, but “it will taste all the better for it.”