"This is a very clean place," says Jane Scotter of Fern Verrow in Herefordshire, a remote farm overlooked by the English and Welsh Black Mountains. "The air is clean and it's all irrigated by spring water." We are discussing why and how this farm is so special. Of course it's not just about the air and water: Fern Verrow is run biodynamically, and growing is a vocation for Jane and her husband Harry Astley. "We like it to be beautiful," she says, and it is.
Biodynamic agriculture, one of the earliest concepts of organic farming, was the idea of Austrian social reformer Rudolf Steiner, whose life spanned the late 19th and early 20th century. He saw nature as a self-contained entity. Look after it and it will look after you.
Photography by Howard Sooley.
Above: The bounty of Fern Verrow is taken to market every Saturday, in London's Bermondsey. "Jane's market stall is the most beautiful in Britain," says Allan Jenkins, editor of Observer Food Monthly. The cookery writer Nigel Slater wrote in OFM last month: "Above anything in my working week, the trip to market, and to the Fern Verrow stall in Bermondsey in particular, is the bit I love best."
Cow horns have something to do with this, as do the planets. And manure. Shown here: Six months after being buried in a field, the nucleus of Biodynamic Preparation 500.
Above: "The earth is at its most active in winter," Jane Scotter explains. Last weekend the Fern Verrow farmers were busy filling horns with cow manure, ready to be incubated in the earth until spring.
"The impetus is in the care, the understanding and the respect," says Jane. It is an approach to farming that is highly nurturing. Concentrated, prepared manure is mixed with water when the farm is looking thirsty, and it is applied about a dozen times a year. Stirred for a full hour, by hand. "You are putting your intention into it, and yourself," says Jane. "How much care you put into it is demonstrated in it."
Above: Biodynamic Preparation 500 works along similar lines to homeopathy: water dynamizes its essence. Preparations also accelerate and activate compost. Again, a little goes a long way. Shown here: Dandelion compost preparation (BD 506). Buried in autumn, exhumed in spring.
Above: Jane and Harry believe in doing things well and getting it right. Shown here: Nekker Gold climbing beans sprout in the spring sunshine.
Above: Broad beans sing out in one of the Fern Verrow fields, untroubled by pests and weather.
Above: Freshly dug carrots. "The proof is in the eating," (Allan Jenkins again). "There is a vibrancy and vitality to Fern Verrow food that I've never found anywhere else."
Above: Jane protecting a compost preparation from the birds. BD 502 is one of the more intriguing compost preparations: yarrow flowers are dried in summer, sewn into stags' bladders the following spring and then strung up in full sun. Around Michaelmas (29 September), the stags' bladders are buried in the earth, with other preps. Yarrow has long been associated with reproduction and growth, drawing on the powers of the planet Venus.
Above: Why, how and where did Steiner get his ideas about biodynamic farming? Does logic play a part? It may be more about intuition. Steiner grew up among the peasants of the Austrian mountains in the 19th century, who had used the same methods for millennia. Life and livelihood revolved around the seasons and the "breathing of the earth." He acknowledged that these traditions had influenced his philosophy of biodynamics.
Jane Scotter of Fern Verrow. In her former life, she was a partner at Neal's Yard Dairy in London. A model for Toast, she has contributed to Toast Travels Nourishment, a celebration of British food heroes.
N.B.: Nourishment also features the London Honey Man, a market neighbor at Spa Terminus in Bermondsey.
For more of photographer Howard Sooley's biodynamically grown vegetables, see 5 Favorites: Veg Plot Must-Haves.