Growing ‘exotic’ crops in UK climate invites resilience and diversity to horticulture sector
3rd February 2023
Growing exotic foods in the UK climate can not only help offset emissions and carbon footprint, but also reconnect consumers to the food system while making the horticulture sector more resilient and diverse, experts at ORFC 2023 have said.
Taking place on day three of the conference on 6 January, a session looking at diversifying British fruit and vegetable produce featured two businesses that have built their reputation on growing and selling ‘exotic’ crops to the UK market.
Opening the session, Hugh Blogg, Soil Association farming and land use team horticultural advisor, said diversifying horticultural produce could pave the way towards a more resilient fruit and vegetable sector.
Speakers Rose Lewis, Soil Association senior program manager, and Michael Michaud, founder of Sea Spring Seeds, talked about how making the industry more inclusive can benefit the wider horticulture sector and the opportunities it can create for growers.
Through her involvement with the Soil Association, Ms Lewis has helped develop a new food and farming hub called Woodoaks Farm, based in northwest London. Her ambition for the project is to create new models for sustainable food systems and help communities reconnect with food and farming.
Woodoaks Farm is owned by the Soil Association Land Trust and has been set up as a platform inviting multiple growers to share the land, facilities and equipment maintained for common benefit. Spanning 300 acres, the farm is a mixture of pasture, arable and woodland scattered with outbuildings that are no longer in use.
The long-term vision for the farm, Ms Lewis explained, is to open up the land to new entrants and encourage the production of diverse agroecological food as a way of increasing biodiversity and fuelling public interest in unique and exotic crops.
The farm has onboarded two growers so far, including Rickey Bryan who has established a new horticultural enterprise on five acres, and another grower producing fresh cut flowers on one acre.
“Organic food and organic living is a way of life”
Within a year of joining Woodoaks, Ricky Bryan opened the doors to his very own market gardening enterprise, Rickey’s Alkaline Market Garden and Fruit Forest.
Passionate about growing organically the way nature intended, he believes society is on a downward spiral of not knowing what food does for the body, which will have negative long-term consequences. He is a firm advocate of organic living, saying it will be part of the solution to the crisis.
In a video message, Mr Bryan highlighted the benefits of growing exotic crops in the UK climate, which include reduced air mileage and carbon footprint, as well as more easily traceable produce.
Honouring his Jamaican heritage, Mr Bryan grows various crops from his home country at Woodoaks Farm, which has encouraged visitors to think beyond the classic fruits and vegetables available in supermarkets. Amongst his unique offerings is callaloo, more commonly known as amaranth, a spinach-like crop that’s both a vegetable and grain.
Originally grown by the Aztecs, callaloo is rich in iron, has a mild but discernible flavour and a little more texture than its look-alike. The dish that bears its name is a staple meal in Jamaica and involves cooking the leaves with aromatics and vegetables such as onion, garlic, tomatoes, thyme and Scotch bonnet pepper.
Meanwhile, callaloo grain is made into flour that is typically used as an additive, since it’s too expensive to sell under normal market conditions, Mr Bryan explained. The grain is also pressed for oil to be used in products for the cosmetic industry, such as lipstick and shampoo.
At Woodoaks, Mr Bryan first trialled growing callaloo in greenhouses, and has since moved onto using climatised seeds that can weather the UK climate. The crop has generated much interest in the local community and is reportedly in high demand amongst Woodoaks shoppers.
In his video, Mr Bryan urged everyone to visit their nearby market or community garden to learn more about how food is grown, connect with their neighbours, and support local producers.
Towards a more inclusive and collaborative food system
Speaking of the community aspect of Woodoaks Farm, Ms Lewis said it’s important to create diversity in not just the food that is grown, but the people who farm as well.
Having several public rights of way running through the farm has encouraged people from all ages and backgrounds to visit, which has helped reconnect locals to the food system step by step, she said.
Moreover, by opening the farm up to more growers, the project has helped remove the barrier of accessing land to new entrants. In addition, creating a collaborative community means that growers are not isolated, which is a common problem in the wider industry, Ms Lewis stressed.
While Woodoaks growers are regulated by a 5-10 year tenancy agreement, they are also partners who share a common vision, Ms Lewis said. Other than Rickey Bryan and the flower grower, the business also works with a crop nutritionist, “compost queen”, and on-site brewery who all share knowledge with each other and visitors, she added.
Having multiple entrepreneurs on site also means growers can open up and access diverse new markets, thus encouraging more people to buy into the system, Ms Lewis pointed out.
Over the years, Woodoaks’ whole farm approach has created a more efficient and collaborative system where growers can share infrastructure and customer bases, supporting small growers in becoming economically viable.
“Giving support to our growers is important to us,“ Ms Lewis said. “We work with them on business planning and financial planning to ensure that ultimately all of our growers are successful.”
Reflecting on the past year, Ms Lewis provided delegates some insight into the work carried out at the farm with the help of local volunteers. In 2022, Woodoaks has been able to run school visits, opening its gates to a huge variety of kids eager to learn about how food is grown.
The past twelve months have also seen more helpers come onto the farm through corporate volunteer programmes, helping to plant hedgerows and make high-quality “worm-ridden” compost from woodchip and livestock manure, amongst other projects.
Looking into the future, Ms Lewis is hoping Woodoaks will soon have the capacity to up the number of farm visits per year and be able to welcome a more diverse range of people onto the farm whilst promoting a more modern and sustainable food and farming system.
Giving customers “something different”
Following on from Ms Lewis, Michael Michaud shared how his small market gardening enterprise grew into a reputable web-based company selling seeds of exotic vegetables.
However, the term ‘exotic’ can have different meanings depending on who’s saying it and what is being addressed, he pointed out. For example, food that might seem exotic to those in the UK is commonplace in its native country, and Mr Michaud encouraged the audience to always use the term in relation to where they are.
Once terminologies were out of the way, Mr Michaud told how he started Peppers by Post with his wife Joy in 1993, a business venture that continued up until 2015. The concept behind the business was simple: growing, picking and delivering fresh peppers direct to customers by post.
Mr Michaud explained that, since chillies are lightweight, high value, and have a long shelf life, they were good candidates for posting. The business model also ensured customers have a unique experience and easy access to otherwise unattainable produce.
When doing something different, such as growing and selling exotic produce, Mr Michaud believes it’s essential to define the target audience accurately. Peppers by Post was mainly targeting a white, middle-class, middle-age audience, who are more likely to have disposable income and comprise a large part of the UK population, he explained.
Another important aspect of the business was having a dependable seed source to ensure good germination and a reliable outcome, he added.
According to Mr Michaud, the peppers sold were generally absent from greengrocers and supermarkets and were of various shapes and sizes, suitable for different styles of cooking. The catalogue included nine varieties in total, in addition to tomatillos and epazote (also known as Mexican tea), such as:
- Joe’s long cayenne – about 30cm long
- Poblano – Mexican, quite mild, very popular
- Anaheim – popular in southwest US cuisine, quite mild
- Hungarian hot wax – easy to grow, very versatile, not overly hot
- Orange habanero – quite hot
- Jalapeno – expected by the public
- Rooster spur – very small, very hot
Peppers were picked and posted on the same day with first class post, with the aim of giving customers something that no one else can. Unable to afford advertising at the time, the team of two focused on direct marketing to promote the business, alongside recipe sheets, cooker demonstrations, and TV and magazine endorsements.
While looking for new and exciting chillies to grow, Mr Michaud and his wife came across a Bangladeshi naga chilli in Asian shop in Bournemouth, which they later developed into one of the hottest chillies in the world. Boasting a heat level of over a million Scoville Heat Units, the Dorset Naga attracted ample publicity and was recognised as a distinct variety in 2009.
Mr Michaud and Joy soon started Sea Spring Seeds, a vegetable seed company specialising in Capsicum spp. Out of the 130 varieties sold by the company, up 94 seed varieties have potential to be produced at the Michauds’ nursery in West Dorset.
Peppers for which seeds are produced in-house include super tramp, fairy lights, and pencil cayenne. Some varieties, like NuMex Twilight and Joe’s Long Cayenne, were abandoned by their original producers in the UK and are being preserved solely by Sea Spring Seeds.
Meanwhile, some varieties were found during shop searches, such as:
- friggitello – a sweet pepper from an Italian shop in Peterborough
- sicri biber – a Turkish native
- kpakpo shitto – the world’s smallest bell pepper from Ghana
Future plans for the business include expanding the existing Bangladeshi market and continuing the hunt for rare and exquisite peppers to offer customers within the ever-expanding chilli market, Mr Michaud said.