Sandy Lane’s secret is in the soil

AN ORGANIC farm between Oxford and Thame has become one of the latest to be featured on the Soil Association’s website.

Sandy Lane Farm is a 40-hectare family farm selling produce via veg boxes, markets and to local restaurants.

ANIMAL MAGIC: new arrivals at Sandy Lane Farm

The Soil Association, formed in 1946, is a campaigning charity which believes human health, environment and animal welfare issues cannot be tackled in isolation. It lobbies against harmful food and farming laws, runs a certification scheme for organic farmers and researches ways of improving existing farming systems.

The association believes that healthy soils hold the answer to growing better food: “They produce healthy crops that nourish people and animals. But when chemicals are used and lands are intensively farmed, soil is damaged. Keeping it healthy is essential if we are to feed a growing population, and protect our environment.

“All farms, big and small, organic and non-organic, have a part to play in making farming more rewarding for all. It’s a challenge, along with the stark financial and environmental changes farming faces. But the solutions to these challenges are coming from farmers who are finding new ways to grow better food, and protect our land for future generations.”

At Sandy Lane, the family partnership is managed by George Bennett who returned to the family farm eight years ago after working in IT.

FAMILY BUSINESS: George Bennett returned to the farm PICTURE: Mark Lord

The farm has grown organic vegetables for nearly 30 years and runs a produce market in their barn selling organic eggs and fresh vegetables, as well as rearing free-range, traditional breed pigs and lambs.

Sandy Lane has also hosted various ‘pop-up’ seasonal suppers, weddings and open days showcasing their produce, and maintained a click-and-collect service during the coronavirus crisis before reopening their barn to browsing visitors.

Certified organic for growing vegetables for more than 30 years, the farm has about 10 hectares for vegetable production and also grows arable crops, as well as rearing pigs, sheep and chickens.

In the Soil Association feature, George speaks about soil types, crop rotation and pests, as well as the need for biodiversity.

PERSONAL TOUCH: visitors enjoy an open day at the farm

As he explains: “By far the most important pest control is biodiversity. If you try and artificially create an imbalance somewhere down the line, it’s going to come back and bite you.”

When George returned to the farm, the focus was on wholesale vegetables, but he flipped the model to direct sales. He says: “Wholesale had been flat, so by selling direct we have kept the volume the same, but the value is much greater.”

There has been a growing demand for more provenance, flavour, freshness and organic, he says, which has offered huge opportunities. Now 80 per cent of their business is veg boxes – more than 200 a week – and the farm works with a local company Ten Mile Menu, that has a slick online ordering system and delivers the boxes.

SENSE OF COMMUNITY: visitors meet the lambs at a farm open day

The farm shop in their barn provides an outlet for other local businesses selling bread, milk, cheese and honey in what he describes as “a small, humble operation, that’s not at all glossy and loved by locals”.

It has created a sense of community for locals of all ages to come along for a coffee and chat, and to buy great food.  

George says it’s important to be entrepreneurial: “If your budget and acreage is small, go for high value crops, such as salads, unusual veg and edible flowers.”

Among his specialities are a range of unusual oriental vegetables, not to mention 29 different varieties of pumpkins and squash which have proved a great hit in the autumn.

Looking to the future, he is continuing to think about ways of adding value to his produce, maybe through high-value organic ready meals. There’s no magic secret for business success in such difficult times, but expect more of the approach that has already put Sandy Lane on the map. As he advises: “Be different, interesting and connect with your customers.”