Field-to-Fork: Small is beautiful at Seed to Feed
It started in his mum's back garden. Now Seed to Feed is a blooming microfarm, as founder Jake Ball tells Lisa Millard
Small and perfectly formed, Seed to Feed microfarm is a lush and productive plot hand-farmed by Jake Ball, who started his diminutive growing business in his mum’s back garden. Farming just a quarter of an acre across four plots, Jake combines farming and foraging – mushrooms at this time of year – to supply chefs in Cambridge and London with his organic produce.
Despite his bijou size, Jake works closely with some big names in food including Restaurant 22, Cambridge, and the Michelin- starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and Petrus, Core by Clare Smyth, Muse by Tom Aikens and Kitchen Table in London. He also sells veggie boxes to lucky locals.
“I try and grow whatever my customers request and also grow a whole host of heirloom varieties of beetroot and carrots as well as strange radishes, lettuces, cut flowers, edible flowers and herbs. My favourite thing I’ve grown has to be a Scottish Heirloom beetroot called ‘McGregor’s Favourite’ which have super-elongated ruby red roots that taste like nothing else.”
As a teenager Jake already had a keen interest in growing and sustainability. “When I was 18, I booked a one-way ticket to Bulgaria with the intention of finding somewhere to live and being completely self-sufficient. This led to me hitchhiking around Europe and experiencing farm life in Spain, France and all over Europe. I guess it was a sudden realisation – I’m a bit of an anomalyin my family to be honest.
“I always kind of questioned what I ate and became vegan when I was 18 after somebody showed me the inner workings of the global meat industry. I then looked at the food industry as a whole and realised that buying any type of food from anywhere is an ethical minefield. I always preferred to buy eggs from the neighbours than the supermarket or sniff out the local farm-stand for veggies. I guess that’s part and parcel of growing up in a small village.
“Starting Seed To Feed in 2018 just seemed the natural and organic thing for me to do after working in restaurants and on farms. My vision was to reconnect the two and start a completely new venture where I could invite guests over to enjoy banquets outside on a farm, serving produce I’d grown with my hands cooked over woodfire.”
This still is Jake’s vision, temporarily scuppered by COVID-19, and he is on the hunt for a suitable plot in Cambridgeshire.
“The pandemic had a huge effect on business as most of my produce was specifically grown on request for certain restaurants, some of which would never open again. I completely changed my plan and planted as many salad crops as possible and offered veg boxes which was a great opportunity for me to do something a bit different. The veg boxes were snapped up every week by some amazing customers and it’s something I’ll continue to do.
“I would like to consolidate all of my plots into one space in Cambridgeshire where I could have guests, but I don’t think I’ll ever be large-scale. I’ve been looking for land for a very long time and unfortunately it is really difficult to find. My vision is to have a space where I can host farm-to-table dining, educational courses and welcome guests and volunteers to share the experience.”
Jake does not use machinery to farm. “My approach to growing is based on good soil-health through no-dig, a method that relies on building healthy soil and promoting nourishing microorganisms in the soil. The plots are super diverse with fruit trees, flowers, and herbs so we enjoy lovely wildlife all year and our soil is less susceptible to disease. Driving around in a huge tractor does not realistically fit in with the moral position of the farm – especially if it’s all work that I can do by hand. It has it’s challenges, but for me it’s worth it if I’m keeping diesel fumes of the crops and keeping the soil healthy.”
There’s a huge amount of learning and understanding soil and plant health that is crucial to success, and Jake has built his encyclopaedic knowledge himself from scratch. “In all honesty I have little to no formal education, no GCSEs or anything. I started Seed To Feed so I could learn through practical experience. However, it has always been one of my biggest goals to gain a formal education and it’s certainly on the cards for the near future. I mostly studied online about carbon soil sequestration and the ability to balance atmospheric carbon.”
Learning on the job has never fazed Jake and he acknowledges the nourishment of mentors. “When I started a plot in my mum’s back garden, my neighbour Jenny noticed me over the fence and offered me her garden, a former market garden that she used to open to the public and host as the village community garden. Jenny had retired and we had a great time revitalising the space with a new and exciting energy – she has been an amazing mentor for me. The original plot I had was my grandad’s allotment, which still has asparagus growing that he planted before he passed away. I have a new plot in Hertfordshire which overlooks the region’s sole surviving windmill – all the plots are small but unique and each has a really charming story.”
Specialising in growing heirloom and heritage crops, microgreens – from sorrel and daikon radish to pea shoots and sunflowers – and edible flowers and blossoms, there is an aspect of guardianship in Jake’s approach to the land.
“Plant life and seeds always fascinate me and I’m always searching for exciting and tasty varieties I can try to grow. These heirloom seeds have been nurtured through generations and I feel we almost have a responsibility to maintain that and keep genetic diversity. I think by accident or by design, nature sort of triumphs regardless. While we still have an opportunity to change and improve ourselves, we still have a reason to carry on. We don’t always make the right decision, but we always have the ability to start again. I see every day as a new opportunity.
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More by this authorLisa Millard