“There’s a real movement for seasonal food. You appreciate it when things come in, it’s a joy to get it.”
Rob Tilsley, farmer
Tablehurst Farm in Sussex is one of our two main veg suppliers. It’s part of a plot of land that has been at the centre of organic biodynamic agriculture for the past 40 years.
Rob Tilsley started the market garden at Tablehurst Farm in April 2010 and he is having a great time. I catch him for a chat just as he is about to head in for the communal lunch prepared for all the workers each day. He generously puts his meal of Lasagne and salad on hold to tell me how he landed up here.
Rob’s an unlikely farmer. He grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham and was an engineering apprentice before he followed his heart. “I was always interested in the countryside,” he says. “ I liked walking and fishing. And I wanted something else.”
It was a friend who told him about the WWOOF scheme, which offers places to volunteers on organic farms around the world. He ended up in New Zealand picking fruit and working on a community farm. When he returned to England he wanted more of the same. He took up gardening and had an allotment before starting training in biodynamics on a general agricultural course at Emerson College.
He’s now working on the College’s land which has been leased to Tablehurst Farm in Forest Row, itself part of a larger co-operative called the St Anthony’s Trust.
And just 30 miles south of London, Rob is in his element amid six-plus acres of fertile land. He will soon have six polytunnels housing fresh produce including salads, tomatoes, fennel, peppers, aubergines and broad beans. And six acres outside for field crops.
Working with Sarah and Amelia, and helped by volunteers in the summer, Rob is confident he can keep a steady supply of vegetables growing, year-round, particularly if people come to accept that they have certain foods at certain times of year.
“I accept the seasons,” he says. “I don’t produce tomatoes when they shouldn’t be growing. There’s always an abundance of something and customers accept it here.“
His specialism, he thinks, is his mixed salad bag, which can boast up to 14 different leaves and herbs. And its contents are a closely guarded secret - all he will share with me is that mizuna is sometimes in there!
Rob lives in a house on the farm with three other workers, three adults with learning difficulties who work on the farm, and his dog Flo, a Gordon setter he got last August who is now his constant companion. She travels with him in the car and accompanies him as he works in the fields.
Every morning he looks out on the cows and sheep, which are also kept on the farm, as well as the pigs, which live just over his garden wall. The turkeys and chickens are a little further away, which is handy when he fancies a well-earned lie in. And it’s a communal way of life that Rob enjoys. “ I love it,” he says. “I’m very happy with it.” And with that he heads back eagerly to his Lasagne.
Tablehurst is an open farm and encourages people to visit. The market garden produce is sold in the farm shop, which lies in the centre of the farm. There is a barbecue most Saturdays and the pie shop selling award-winning pies and sausage rolls is open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. People also visit the farm to go walking, as there are a number of public footpaths running across it.
Tablehurst Farm, Forest Row, East Sussex, RH18 5DP
Approx 30 miles away