Published: 11:04, 05 May 2021
| Updated: 11:14, 05 May 2021
James Smith is the fifth generation of a farming family to work the land at Loddington Farm, but after nearly 140 years he has decided to take the business in a totally new direction.
His great, great, grandfather Fred Smith first began to farm the land off Loddington Lane at Linton in 1882 as a tenant of the then Lord Cornwallis.
Fred Smith was the first commercial grower of the Bramley seedlings, and Loddington has been a traditional top fruit farm growing apples, pears, apricots and cherries ever since.
But now James Smith has had a change of heart, abandoning many of his ancestors' old farming practices in favour of regenerative farming.
"It's all about the soil," he explained. "Good soil health leads to good plant health, good animal health and ultimately better human health."
He has abandoned the use of pesticides and herbicides and decided to work with nature to achieve a more nutritious product.
In most orchards, there is a strip of soil at the foot of the rows of fruit trees kept pristine and free from "weeds" by the use of chemicals. Mr Smith's orchards look scruffy by comparison - that is because he has actually planted 17 species of cover plants such as vetch and clover to add nutrients to the soil and to attract insects.
He said: "I want to produce food in a new environmentally friendly way. Farming has become over-dependent on chemical products. Instead of constantly trying to kill a pest with chemical, we've asked why is the pest on the plant?
"Left to itself nature always finds a balance."
He explained that all pests have a natural predator, but to encourage the predators you need to give them something to eat all year round, hence the mix of cover plants.
He said: "The good they do is not only on the surface but underground, where they add diverse nutrients to the soil."
He has also sown wild flowers in the grass strips between the rows of fruit trees and the meadow is now left to grow tall, before eventually being cut and the trimmings spread at the base of the trees to rot in.
He has also introduced livestock - sheep at the moment, but chickens and cattle may follow - and he has diversified his crop to include asparagus, juniper and aronia berries and is even considering planting a vineyard.
The small dark aronia berries - also known as chokeberries - are a 'power food' - high in anti-oxidants.
Mr James said: "I embarked on this journey two or three years ago. It is a bit scary, when you stop doing all the things you have traditionally done.
"I've effectively made a conscious decision to make my life harder, but I feel less stressed than I did before.
"I can now hand on heart say that the path my apples have taken will have helped the planet, not harmed it."
Part of the process that has allowed the change was his purchase of Owlet Fruit Juices.
Owlets had been started in 1986 by Colin Corfield, who had at one time been an employee of Mr Smith's father, Alan Smith.
Running the business at Owl House fruit farm in Lamberhurst, Mr Corfield built it to a successful business producing 250,000 bottles of juice a year.
On Mr Corfield's retirement, Mr Smith has brought all the production equipment over to Linton - and also three of Mr Corfield's key employees Alan and Carole Edwards and Paul Coles to run it.
In enables Mr Smith to fully utilise all his crop, from apple falls to those fruits that don't meet the supermarkets' exacting size requirements.
He said: "It's made a big difference.
"I've gone from having three key customers - Tesco, the Co-op and Aldi - to thousands of customers."
The juice is sold in bottles at many retail and leisure outlets and in 10-litre boxes to sandwich bars and restaurants, and has led to Mr Smith taking on Tom Pointing as sales manager and engaging the Hub PR agency to promote the brand.
Mr Smith said: "I've gone from two employees to 11, but that's good.
"Farming should become an employer again so that people can go to work in the parish where they live."
There are three lines to the fruit juice production process.
First the fruit is washed, then fired at high speed onto a grill which mashes it up.
The mash then passes through the press, where the juice is squeezed out.
Next it moves on to a pasteuriser where it is runs alongside water heated to 85 degrees, before being bottled and hand-stacked in a bin, containing 300 litre-bottles, or 1200 1/4 litre-bottles.
No sweeteners, colours or preservatives are added.
On a separate line, housed in a new building that Mr Smith has fashioned for the purpose, the bottles are cleaned, labelled and hand packed in boxes ready for sale. The line can process 1,000 bottles in half an hour.
Even the unused mush is not wasted - it is sold to a local farmer who mixes it with his cattle feed.
Mr Smith farms 255 acres - 180 at Linton and 75 at Laddingford.
He has further diversified by letting a number of his agricultural buildings at Loddington to other rural industries.
The farm is now home to Blooming Green, a cut flower business run by his cousin Jennifer Stuart and sister Beck Bibby; coffee roaster Kampa Coffee; abstract artist Alex John; gym One Twenty Fit; skateboard and surfing firm Blue Reef and the Musket Brewery, which also houses an outdoor "pub" in a marquee, called the Armoury, which has proved particularly popular since the easing of lockdown restrictions.
Asked what his father, award winner fruit-grower Alan Smith, now 80, made of the new direction, James Smith admitted: "He was nervous." But he said what had won him over was the bottom line.
"Fruit farming is not profitable when you are spending £1,600 a hectare on chemical additives.
"All agriculture should now switch to regenerative farming methods. It's time for the farming industry to admit we got it wrong."
For more details on Owlet Fruit Juice, click here.
For details about Loddington Farm, click here.