From field to fork at Garsons Farm pick-your-own in Esher
PUBLISHED: 11:46 18 August 2016 | UPDATED: 12:28 18 August 2016
It may be the country’s largest pick-your-own farm, but Garsons of Esher was originally founded 145 years ago to supply London’s Borough Market, and only began selling directly from its fields 35 years ago. Here, we speak to director Ben Thompson to find out more about the renewed interest in field-to-fork living
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine August 2016
What was it that prompted the farm to start offering pick-your-own?
We first opened our fields to visitors in 1981, when the concept of pick-your-own (PYO) was still fairly new. The whole idea of PYO started taking root alongside the dramatic rise in supermarket shopping in the UK between the 1950s and 1970s, which saw smaller farms struggling to compete with their larger rivals, and cheap imports from abroad. Wholesale fruit and veg supply was no longer a viable option for farms like ours, so we had to diversify to survive. My father, Bob Thompson, returned to the business in the late 1970s on completing his horticultural studies and, together with his elder brother Peter Thompson and cousin Derek Richards, decided to focus production on PYO, to run alongside the existing farm shop and garden centre. I was only a baby when it opened 35 years ago, but my uncle, Peter Thompson – who is now the chairman of Garsons – recalls how amazed everyone was at the sheer volume of fruit and vegetables those early pickers took away; they would be literally bent under the weight of huge bags of produce!
Which crop is most popular today?
From those early days of growing just strawberries, five years later, in 1986, we were growing 20 varieties of crops, so it really did develop very quickly. Garsons now cultivates more than 40 different varieties each year, ranging from strawberries to kohlrabi. Strawberries are still the all-time favourite, but our raspberries and cherries each have their own strong and dedicated following.
It seems as though PYO has become quite a family tradition over the years...
Yes, that’s right; we’ve always had a very appreciative family customer base; kids enjoy the outdoors, the fresh air and learning where produce comes from, and we give out recipe cards to inspire people to try new seasonal recipes. Now we’re seeing second generations of families, with parents who came here as children bringing their own children along. It’s become quite a family tradition.
Do you get people who visit regularly?
Yes, certainly, we see a lot of local and familiar faces – people who come to pick fresh fruit and veg on a ‘little and often’ basis, treating the farm a bit like a greengrocery store. But also, being the UK’s biggest PYO farm, Garsons attracts day visitors from far and wide. In the summer months, we see a lot of people coming down from London – a visit to the fields is a wonderful family outing. From those early days of just a few pickers, we now welcome over 100,000 pickers from the early strawberries in May right through to October when it’s all about Halloween and pumpkins.
How much are you influenced by foodie trends in terms of what you plant?
Food trends do influence what’s grown, and Garsons has seen squash, beetroot and spinach become more popular in recent years, with the current preference for fresh, wholesome foods. Even the cabbage-flavoured sputnik that is kohlrabi is having a moment in the fields as we become more adventurous with veg. Planting is also influenced by stretching out the cropping seasons – for instance, when we started, the typical English strawberry season was four weeks in June and July. Now, though, thanks to new varieties and growing techniques, we can extend this to around four months without compromising on flavour or quality.
Are some of the crops more difficult to pick than others?
Vegetables tend to be quicker to pick than fruit but all crops have good access and we have plenty of staff available to offer advice, such as the importance of picking fruit like cherries and raspberries with a bit of stem so they keep fresh for longer. Strawberries were historically back-breaking to pick but with modern innovation we now grow them on tables so there’s no bending involved at all! Yet it’s not all about PYO, but also dig-your-own. For instance, we grow a choice of carrot varieties, and customers just come along, grab a fork and get stuck in. We do advise people to drive around our one-way farm roads, however, as it is a long way – over two miles in total.
What are the most challenging aspects to making PYO a business success?
Definitely the weather! No matter how much work and preparation go into each season, a hard frost can destroy an entire crop overnight. Also, a huge amount of work goes on behind the scenes: pruning and planting, irrigation networks, scheduling and long days. It’s labour intensive and risky, which is why there are so few PYO farms left. Here at Garsons, we do it on a large-scale, which does, to some degree, spread the risk, but it’s still fraught.
In addition to all that, planning ahead, sometimes by several years, is crucial. Take our cherry orchards; they are just 15 years old, yet we will plant 2,300 young trees this autumn with seven varieties – from the big juicy Merchant, which is ready in early July, to the Regina, which crops at the end of the month and sometimes into early August. These new trees will start cropping in 2020 when the present trees slow down their fruiting, although it will take a further couple of years for them to yield a robust crop, and that’s weather permitting.
Do you use any unusual methods to keep the plants healthy?
Crop rotation remains highly important to avoid the ground becoming fatigued, and feeding the soil always plays a vital part. In the old days, we would trade some of the spent vegetable plants with Chessington Zoo in return for zebra, lion and elephant droppings, which proved to be an amazing fertiliser. And going back to the 1940s, driving the horse and cart back from Borough Market, my grandfather, would call into Young’s Brewery at Wandsworth – not for a pint but to collect the spent hops to use on the fields! Although Garsons no longer relies on exotic animal dung and spent hops to fertilise the crops, farm manager Steve Gallimore and his team still swear by a nourishing dose of horse dung, which is applied to the land every now and again, provided by the farm’s stables. Irrigation, too, is still carried out in time-honoured fashion – by using a handy supply drawn from the nearby River Mole, which is pumped around the farm’s 150 acres.
Any favourite childhood memories of growing up on the farm?
As a child, I was incredibly lucky to be brought up living on the farm – the fields felt like my back garden, and the staff were like family. It was a healthy, outdoor life, spent riding on the tractors and helping with farm chores, such as collecting the eggs (in the days when we had chickens) and shutting up the hens in the evening. When I was about 10, I progressed to planting the brassica vegetables from the machine on the back of the tractor and, of course, tasting the odd strawberry along the way all helped form a love for Garsons. When I wasn’t riding on the tractor, I also used to like roaring around on a three-wheeled Honda bike – and occasionally crashing it.
We understand you’ve got your own young family now – do they enjoy it as much as you did?
Absolutely. My son will soon be three years old and he’s just like I was at his age, except I’ve no plans to let him loose any time soon on my beloved childhood Honda – although I have it kept aside for when he’s a little older! When it comes to PYO, strawberries are top of my son’s list; it really is a case of history repeating itself. My daughter is just a few months old but is already enjoying the fruits of our labours – she especially loves the strawberries and raspberries.
Finally, do you have any top PYO tips for our readers?
The time of day makes a difference – savvy pickers visit in the morning as it’s cooler for both the fruit and the people, and weekdays tend to be quieter. One of the benefits of coming to a well-organised farm like Garsons is that you can’t go wrong when it comes to knowing if a crop is ripe and ready; here, if it’s signposted, it’s ready to go. The important thing with cherries, for example, is to hold our nerve until they’re not only looking ripe but are truly ripe, and we don’t allow ourselves to be tempted to open the picking too soon. We make it all as easy as possible, with car accessibility all the way round, and crops such as thornless blackberries for children who can be put off by prickles. We even lift the potatoes and sit them on the soil!
• Garsons Farm, Winterdown Road, Esher KT10 8LS. Tel: 01372 460181. Web: garsons.co.uk. For a full crop calendar and opening times, see the Garsons website