A Herefordshire farmer crafts top quality crops to order for an up-market restaurant.
Jane Scotter grows peas, spinach, chard and other vegetables on her biodynamic Herefordshire farm, Fern Verrow, for a fancy London restaurant that buys almost all she produces.
She works 15 hours a day, never keeps up with the weeds, and sometimes wonders if it’s all worth it. But mostly, she’s grateful to be able to walk her fields and grow beautiful vegetables to a very high standard for a single customer who pays her a lot more than she previously made supplying a London market.
In 2015, Jane and her life - and business partner, Harry Astley, diverted their produce from the market to Spring, a restaurant in London’s Somerset House where diners are served seasonal vegetables that were harvested on Jane’s farm the day before, and which practices low-waste and no-plastics policies.
Her accountant warned her not to put all her eggs in one client’s basket but Jane went ahead with the exclusive Spring contract, and she now has the security of knowing there’s a customer for all of her produce – which also includes fruit, herbs and flowers -- and that her lovingly nurtured crops will be cooked and served to a standard that matches her own very high expectations.
Spring, run by the Australian chef Skye Gingell, pays Jane about twice what it would pay a vegetable wholesaler to obtain the freshest, tastiest, most distinctive vegetables from a farm that practices biodynamics – a system which treats the land as an organic unit where plants, animals, soils, woods and people are nurtured to create a harmonious whole.
The biodynamic principle includes growing crops that do well in Britain rather than trying to grow things that are better left to warmer climates. Aubergines, for example, grow much better in Italy and so won’t be found at Fern Verrow, Jane said.
Her revenue is now 30 percent higher than it was when she was supplying the market and has allowed her to hire two full-time employees.
Income from Spring accounts for about 90 percent of total revenue and is supplemented by selling weekly produce boxes and flowers to private customers.
Jane and Harry grow varieties of familiar vegetables that are particularly fine tasting. “If they are a bit more work or they don’t grow quite as big, it doesn’t really matter,” she said. “They have got to be really interesting and unusual, and above all, they’ve got to be delicious.”
Demand for top-quality produce is strong among high-end restaurants like Spring which will take all they can get if they can find growers to supply produce to the highest standards, she said.
“The chefs are absolutely dying for it,” she said. “It would be about paying the growers a really decent amount of money but in return they would have to give the chefs extremely high quality.”
Jane, 55, bought her 16-acre farm in 1996 for about £130,000. She was privately educated and left school at 16. She has no educational qualifications beyond that. “I work hard and learn by doing, I suppose,” she said.
Three-quarters of the land is used to grow vegetables and flowers while the remainder is used for raising cows, sheep and chickens.
Most of the time, she is “elated” to run her farm but warned would-be imitators to expect high land costs, long hours, and a modest income.
Still, the real rewards are about more than money, she said. “I’m rich in other ways, in the artistry of the work and the satisfaction of things going well. I love the beauty of the work, I would consider myself an artist of my trade.”