Laleham Farm, Middlesex
A “peculiar little site” is how Charlie Brandsen describes his farm.
And it’s certainly a world away from the vast open spaces of East Anglia or the hills of Cumbria. Laleham Farm, run by Charlie in partnership with his sister Clare, is 45ha of restored gravel pits based within the M25. Sitting opposite the famous Shepperton film studios it is about as urban a setting as you can imagine.
The business produces herbs, vegetables and flowers for sale in wholesale markets like New Covent Garden, local farm shops and greengrocers. Cropping is diverse including spinach, flat parsley, Sweet Williams, kohlrabi and sweetcorn.
It is a high-turnover operation which requires an impressive level of micro-management. Producing highly-perishable crops in a consistent way is a complex business.
For example, Charlie says they sell about 90,000 boxes of spinach annually but to keep the supply coming through the season that requires 60 separate sowings. His aim is to provide Clare, who handles all the marketing, with a new spinach crop every three days. In total he estimates 350 separate crop sowings each year.
Yet while Charlie describes his own role as that of grower, technical specialist, managing director and sprayman he should also add conservationist to the list. His office walls are covered in pictures of birds on the farm and he speaks knowledgeably about the plant and invertebrate life that is developing under his stewardship.
For a while he looks to get maximum crop yields off the smallest possible area he can, he uses a mix of old and new techniques to make sure it is done with minimum impact.
Vegetables and herbs are like sheep in that they are always on the lookout for interesting new ways to get sick or die, jokes Charlie. So the use of crop protection products is incredibly important to the business. He is proudly non-organic but he chooses his products with care.
“Where possible I avoid using broad-spectrum chemicals and choose something with a more narrow range,” he says. He also opts for more natural products where possible, such as a pure seaweed extract plant growth stimulant.
About 2km of hedgerow has been planted on the farm over the past 20 years, without support from agri-environment schemes, and these are cut either side every other year.
He has developed habitat around the perimeter of the farm so it supports a rich bird population including lapwings, kingfishers, red-legged partridge and sand martins. A stretch of elm hedgerow has been restored by trimming once a year to keep the elm in its juvenile phase, to stop Elm Bark Beetle taking hold.
Irrigation is also crucial to the success of the business and Charlie says the availability of water is a hugely significant factor in birds successfully breeding on his land. He regularly monitors water quality to ensure nitrate levels are low.
Hundreds of schoolchildren are welcomed to the farm each year to give them a glimpse of food production and the wildlife. It is an ambassadorial role that Charlie clearly takes very seriously. “If I can use the stuff I have learned to help educate, then I feel I should. We have kids coming from Battersea and Wandsworth and this is probably the first and last visit they will have to a farm,” he says.
“We regard ourselves as terribly lucky. As we come in the gate this is our little oasis.”
* 45ha urban fringe unit
* Multiple cropping allows 75ha of crops annually
* Crops harvested on demand and despatched the same day
* 18 full-time employees
The judges liked
* Good water management
* Mix of old and new techniques
* Producing for local markets
* Engaging with local community
2011 Farmers Weekly Awards