The unique scent and sight of lavender has provided a farming couple with an award winning product whose journey continues way after harvest time. Jack Watkins visits Castle Farm.
From the highest hilltops on Castle Farm you can see the London Eye and the Shard. But in the summer months it is the lavender blossoming on the slopes of the Darenth Valley in Kent that draws the eye far and wide.
William and Caroline Alexander first began growing lavender on a large scale here almost 20 years ago. Today they claim to be the largest commercial growers in England, and their farm tours draw visitors from as far afield as Canada and Japan.
But their success stems from a decision to seek diversification opportunities on what was essentially a conventional mixed farm in the early 1980s.
William’s Scottish forefathers moved south more than 100 years ago, bringing a dairy herd down on the train from Paisley. Castle Farm was initially rented by the Alexanders in the 1930s, and finally bought a couple of decades later.
William, who was born and bred on the farm, began to assume control in the 1970s.
“It was a basic mixed farm at that time, with arable and cattle, but with a much bigger acreage of orchards and hops than we have now,” explains Caroline.
“But William wanted to see where the farm could diversify and generate income which wouldn’t be dependent on European faming policy and the price of overseas grain.
“We wanted to be a bit more independent. We started doing pick your own apples, for instance, which was helped by the fact that we have an old 0.8ha (2 acre) orchard with a rare variety, the Norfolk Royal, one of the few apples that tolerates our chalky subsoils. We are the only registered commercial orchard in the world.”
The farm also now sends the apples for pressing to supply juice to their farm shop, as well as local pubs and tea-rooms.
Caroline admits her background in architecture and landscape conservation, as well as farm business management, bought other skills to the business.
“My father had been a publisher with an entrepreneurial spirit and seized opportunities, so I learnt a lot from him.”
The first major change they introduced in the late 1980s was to supply hops bines for interior decoration.
“It took off really well and sales have stayed remarkably buoyant ever since,” says Caroline.
“We eventually decided to come out of growing hops for brewing in 1999 as we didn’t have the economies of scale that would allow us to compete on price with imported hops coming in from China and Eastern Europe.”
The hop gardens were scaled down from 12 ha (30 acres) to 1.6ha (four acres), but spacing was doubled between individual hop plants, to ensure an aesthetically pleasing evenness of hop growth all the way down the bine, setting high standards for the decorative market.
“We grow an early and a later variety so the season for marketing fresh bines can extend from mid-August to mid-September.
“During this time, we’re also bringing in the bines for drying in sheds, so we can pack and store them for sale throughout the year. They go to pubs and restaurants, to weddings, beer festivals, and for decoration on film sets,” explains Caroline.
Pulling out of the brewing hop sector left the Alexanders seeking an alternative intensive enterprise to maintain income, and the choice was lavender for the production of essential oils.
“We had confidence in lavender because we had already been successfully growing it for a cut flower enterprise we had developed,” she explains.
“It likes free-draining, slightly alkaline soil, so it goes well on the chalky, sunny slopes we have here.”
But she says another decisive factor was the fact three other producers in the valley were interested in growing the plant at a commercial level.
“That made it worthwhile to design and install equipment on the farm and to become the focus of distillation for the area.
“We share own the harvesting machinery and the trailers with the other growers and the oil is marketed internationally by a specialist fragrancer.”
Today there are 78ha (195 acres) of lavender grown in Kent, of which the 35+ ha (90 acres) at Castle Farm is the largest portion, but Caroline admits they began on a steep learning curve.
“We were starting from scratch, intent on doing it with the utmost economic efficiency.
“Although other places in the UK may have been growing lavender for a longer time, they are on a smaller scale.
“We adapted machinery from specialist engineers in France to do the harvesting.
“We were fortunate to be able to consult an expert in distillation from New Zealand who happened to be visiting this country.
“We have ended up with a very efficient distillation unit, which has become the envy of other lavender farmers, but it took a lot of investment to get to it.”
Varieties such as Maillette, developed from the sweet-smelling Lavandula angustifolia plant, are distilled to make perfumes, toiletries, and for aromatherapy and pharmaceutical uses.
A darker Folgate variety is used for cut bunches and decorative purposes. The variety Lavandula x intermedia ‘Grosso’ - more properly known as lavendin - emits the scent familiar to most of the public, and is used for room scents, candles and lavender bags. Its scent also make it an excellent insect and moth repellent.
Lavender planting can be in spring or autumn, and while it will take four or five years to establish itself before it yields a substantial crop, if well looked after it won’t require replanting for over a decade.
“Lavender is tough,” explains Caroline. “What it doesn’t like is being wet in winter, which is why it likes our free-draining soil, but it can stand temperatures down to -12-14 degrees.
“It’s susceptible to frost in late May, and a wet June will hit oil yields, which is what has happened to us this year, when our yield was half the previous year.”
“We start cutting for bunches at the end of June and the main crop is harvested in in July.
“We’ve finished the last variety by the second week of August. You have to get the timing correct to extract the maximum oil yield, but if you leave it too long and there is a thunderstorm, it can knock the plant heads off and you will lose a lot of the oil.
“Harvesting efficiency is also critical as we share-own the machinery, and have to select whoever’s field is the most crucial to be cut.”
The farm has developed a range of Kentish Lavender products which can be purchased online or in The Hop Shop, a large, converted timber-framed barn.
“The idea of the shop developed from the time when we were producing dried flowers.
“That had gradually increased to the point where we were selling 50 varieties and exhibiting at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
“It really helped us develop a brand name, but the farm shop was basically a converted garage outside the front of the farmhouse.
“With so many people coming to buy flowers, it got a bit intrusive. Constructing The Hop Shop next to our existing packhouse enabled us to increase our sales of beef, apple juice, honey and local produce, as well as developing our Kentish Lavender range to include everything from culinary flavourings, teas and cakes, to bath salts, soaps, and linen water.”
Also available, alongside products from other local businesses, are pre-packaged beef cuts thanks to the 240-strong cattle herd the farm has.
Based on a mixture of continentals and native breeds like the Sussex and Lincoln Red, they are purchased at between six months to a year from breeding herds on the Kent and Sussex marshes.
The cows graze on the steeper slopes of the farm or in the water meadows for up to nine months of the year, and are finished in the farm’s roundhouse at around 24 to 28 months.
The diet is primarily grass, with grass and clover silage rations.
The continentals are sold at Ashford Market, and natives are sent to an abattoir at Romford for the local butchers’ trade. However, each week one side of beef is kept for The Hop Shop.
With its native breeds grazing fields close to the shop, and with its special lavender tours and farm walks, its broad online presence, and The Hop Shop itself, Castle Farm presents a welcoming public face.
Just 17 miles from London’s Westminster Bridge, its survival as a working farm stands for something of immense symbolic value at a time when so many farms on the outskirts of Greater London have now gone. And it is something Caroline feels strongly about.
“That is why when it came to starting the shop we didn’t develop a café. We could see ourselves ending up with a complex of retail buildings and a car park extending into the meadow, rather than keeping the beautiful and historic landscape intact.
“Our customers value the fact that we are a genuine working family farm, not just a farm attraction.
“If you produce high quality goods, your reputation will grow by word of mouth.