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Field-to-Fork: Planet-friendly farming at Flourish

Starting with 16-acres of hard-farmed land and a pair of heavy horses, Calixta Killander's old-school organic business has bloomed in the last four years. Lisa Millard reports

Flourish - Calixta Killander, Flourish Produce Cooks Pen Farm, Hildersham. Picture: Keith Heppell. (42436009)
Flourish - Calixta Killander, Flourish Produce Cooks Pen Farm, Hildersham. Picture: Keith Heppell. (42436009)

When Calixta Killander founded Flourish Produce four years ago, she knew the key to sustainable success was in the soil. The 16-acre Cooks Pen Farm site in Hildersham had previously been used for modern cereal production – lots of large scale monocropping – so Calixta started small and slow, working only a couple of acres to grow a variety of rare vegetables to regenerate the soil.

Her original co-founders came in the shape of Bill and Ben, two French Comtois working horses, whose slower and lighter touch pulling equipment imported from Calixta’s Amish friends (based over in Sugar Creek, Ohio, in the US) enabled ploughing, cultivating, manure spreading and weeding while leaving the soil in good shape. This gentle touch paid off and soon Flourish was supplying an array of fresh and organic ingredients direct to top chefs at a number of London restaurants – often harvesting and delivering to the kitchen on the same day – a seed-to-plate approach.

Calixta’s interest in sustainability is rooted in a childhood spent outdoors. “I grew up in the Cambridgeshire countryside playing in the woods rather than inside watching TV. I was brought up to understand nature and appreciate it, but I had no interest in farming as a career. It wasn’t until after I left school and spent time travelling that I became more interested in how humans impact the environment around them, and what we can do to have a positive impact rather than a negative one.”

Flourish - Calixta Killander, Flourish Produce Cooks Pen Farm, Hildersham. Picture: Keith Heppell. (42436006)
Flourish - Calixta Killander, Flourish Produce Cooks Pen Farm, Hildersham. Picture: Keith Heppell. (42436006)

Travelling led Calixta to the US where she studied for a degree in Sustainable Agriculture and Forest Management. “I stayed on and worked on different farms all over the country, learning a lot and never really planning to move back to the UK. Then a friend told me about a farmer in Cornwall who used working horses and suggested I visit him while I was in the country – it was something I was also doing at the time in the US and is very unusual. This farmer ended up gifting me his two working horses, Bill and Ben, which is why I decided to move back and start my own farm – an opportunity like that was too good to let pass.”

Calixta’s approach to growing has put her on the map for excellence – Flourish was awarded the Best Organic Produce Award at The Food and Drink Awards earlier this year – and is informed by what she learned during her time in the States. “There is quite a misconception about farming in the US. While the majority of it is large scale monocultures of commodity crops, there is a massive amount of people running successful small farming businesses producing food in a sustainable way for their local communities. I’d say the regenerative agriculture scene over there is decades ahead of what is going on here in the UK,” she says.

“Creating a healthy soil produces delicious, nutrient-rich vegetables as well as contributing to a healthy ecosystem. This means that crops are more drought, pest and disease resistant. We split the farm in half each year and only grow our vegetables on one half while the other is planted with a variety of cover crops designed to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil to feed microorganisms as well as provide habitat and food for insects which help to pollinate our crops and promote a biodiverse farm.”

Another Flourish innovation is supplying chefs direct. “Our chefs come to the farm throughout the season to see how and what we grow to give them an insight as to the origin and quality of our food. Their support also allows us to experiment with new varieties from all over the world – up to 40 per cent of our crops are experiments, some of which don’t work but we don’t see this as a waste, just a great way of feeding the soil.”

The variety of produce is dazzling and an unusual model for a farm to adopt. “Our products extend from vegetables to salads, herbs, flowers, fruit and berries and we are growing heritage wheats and other unusual grains for the first time this year. Growing such a vast variety of things helps keep our farm beautiful, balanced, and healthy.”

While a life on the land sounds idyllic, the workload is relentless – summer sees Calixta working 18-hour days, six or seven days a week and holidays are few and far between. “A day on the farm usually starts at 4:30am with a strong coffee and a walk around to check on the crops and see what needs to be done,” she says. “At 7am we have a team meeting to discuss tasks and split into teams to cover everything – from harvesting and keeping on top of weeds to transplanting or seeding. We have a morning coffee break and a delicious team lunch where we take it in turns to cook and all stop for an hour to talk about how things are going. Most of the team finish at 3pm but usually I’ll carry on working.” The team at Flourish varies in size according to the demands of the seasons. “In the summer there are 20 of us, in the winter months just four or five. Many come from the restaurants we supply helping out for just a day or two a week throughout the summer. It’s amazing to work with such a great group of people and to learn so much from those in other industries. – we wouldn’t be here without them.”

Flourish Produce Comtois horse (42436028)
Flourish Produce Comtois horse (42436028)

When Calixta can steal a moment to herself she heads to a certain spot on the farm to check in with two of her retired team-mates. “I love the water meadow where Bill and Ben live, its beautiful down there and it’s always nice to have a cuddle with them. It feels a lot more peaceful compared to the hustle and bustle of the rest of the farm. I also love our propagation house in the evenings or early morning. It’s where we start all of our plants from seed and grow them on until they are big enough to plant into the field. It’s amazing to think of all the potential from such tiny seedlings.”

Despite all the hard work to create a sustainable future, COVID-19 did not leave Flourish untouched. “We lost our entire customer base overnight. Not only was our business in a dire situation, but we had no outlet for all of the food we were growing. Since we are a farm, we couldn’t ‘shut down’. We started a vegetable box scheme and are very grateful for all those who supported us. The box scheme will evolve into a Community Supported Agriculture, where people buy a subscription to the farm’s harvest throughout the season rather than a specific box once a week.”

The pressing demands of summer have abated but Flourish does not stand still. “While the rush of summer is over, we continue to reap the rewards of the season with beautiful harvests of autumn vegetables. We are still ridiculously busy working, but as the weather is cooler, there is less pressure to irrigate and keep things watered. We are planting our heritage grains at the moment which will be harvested in August next year and popping the last babies into our poly tunnels which will grow slowly over winter to be picked in the spring next year.”

Growing such a vast range of produce, I wonder if Calixta has a preference? “I couldn’t pick a favourite vegetable – it would be like choosing a favorite child! Things on the farm change so much from season to season and I have things I love about all times of year. For right now, I adore the aroma of the fennel we have been harvesting today.”

See flourishproduce.co.uk and @flourishproduce

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