This article was originally written for The Food Assemby and published at blog.foodassembly.com
Writer Rebecca Tyers discovers a farm with no tractors that grows exotic vegetables and doesn’t need a label to prove it’s organic.
“Yeah, we’re kind of weird,” says Joris Gunawardena, the head of production at Sutton Community Farm. As we tour around the 7.1-acre site, we pass rows of salad, pak choi and 4-year-old artichoke plants. Apparently anyone can grow this tasty Mediterranean veg in a British garden, but you have to know what you’re doing.
They certainly seem to know what they’re doing at Sutton Community Farm, and most of the produce they harvest goes to London restaurants like Hix Soho, Oxo Tower and Brown’s Hotel. Yet this community farm is a far cry from London’s fine diners. While London’s hazy skyline can still be seen from the farm, an hour-long journey out of the city feels less like a short bus ride away from West Croydon and more like a village in Somerset or Kent.
Like many other farms in the UK, it has a strong belief in organic methods and ticks all of the boxes to be a certified organic farm, but has decided not to go through the organic certification process. The farm is focused on transparency instead. While having the certification is something that they’ve thought about doing in future, it isn’t something they have chosen to invest in just yet.
Joris explains that they encourage people to come and inspect the farm, ask questions and experience the methods they use to grow their food. If you are organic certified, he explains, you get a yearly inspection.
“We want people to engage with us to understand what organic is for themselves and to not just rely on the certification process,” Joris explains.
“But we’re open 51 weeks a year and have 30-50 people a week who come and take part in the farming process. While we believe that certification is a very valuable statement for doing the right thing, the further away from your customer you are, the more you need the certification. The people that come here and those that buy our food trust in the work that we do, they are enthused by what we’re doing.”
The farm uses no tractors or machinery to plant or weed their crops; it’s all done by hand or using a weed controlling fabric called Mypex that can be reused for up to 8 years. Other farms use machinery and tilling, but Joris tells me that it can damage the soil. Volunteers can come here and essentially get involved in every aspect of the growing, weeding, sowing and harvesting of the produce.
Before growing food for the farm Joris worked as a chef. While he still maintains his love for cooking, the fast-paced restaurant world highlighted this disconnect with the slower pace of growing food organically.
“I was never going to be able to deal with a broader world through being a chef. It’s a very ephemeral thing; you cook the food, which takes 12 hours max, but it’s eaten in 20 minutes and then 4 hours later they’re hungry again. I wanted to address how we relate to food and the environment, and social issues to do with people.”
The lack of an organic label doesn’t seem to bother the restaurants that Sutton Community Farm supplies.
As Joris tells me, “Restaurants are a bit scared of organic because of the price, but what they don’t fear is quality. If you show them a product that’s good, it doesn’t matter if it’s certified or not, they taste and see it and it works, and then the certification doesn’t matter so much.”
Many small farmers in the UK are not able to afford the organic certification, and it can be complicated for some. Some farmers in the UK have dropped their organic certification labelling due to this and have opted to just call themselves ‘natural’.
Joris goes on to comment, “It is hard to get access to truly fresh and local food. 99% of food is going through a system that is days or weeks away from the crop. Whereas here we’re talking in hours, 24 hours on a bad day!”