It has been hailed the powerhouse of nutrition and the linseed crop has certainly captured the attention of the Banks family whose persistence and care have created a unique diversification enterprise, as Sue Scott discovered when she went to meet them.
Like most middle-aged male farmers, Durwin Banks has never shopped in the high street branches of natural cosmetics firm, Lush. So why do his hands feature on their website?
Three years ago, the Dorset-based company went looking for a UK linseed supplier for its hair and skin products.
But they didn’t just want any producer – whoever it was had to complement the brand ethos for standing by their beliefs and demonstrate a desire to challenge the opposing, big pharmaceuticals business. Then they discovered the Banks family.
Durwin and his sisters Wendy and Gay, have spent the past 16 years at Muntham House Farm not just growing omega-3-rich linseed, but using it to challenge people’s attitudes to health and wellbeing.
After previously growing linseed as a break crop, Durwin began producing oil for the equine market but as the business grew so has his fascination by the crop’s potential impact on human health and its long history of medical and nutritional use.
It’s been a slow process for the West Sussex-based business, during which they have rubbed up against the VAT-man, the NHS and the European Union battling the status of linseed and its health benefits.
Today, they remain the only UK growers to cold-press and sell linseed and linseed-based products direct from the farm.
The multi-faceted nature of the business – cultivating, pressing, marketing, online retailing, and running a unique outreach programme that sees dozens of health practitioners visit them each year – forced the family to strip more than half their acreage in order to concentrate on building The Linseed Farm brand.
While the whole family make decisions on the direction of the farm, Wendy and Gay focus is within the office and looking after the farm’s thousands of customers and Durwin is the public face of the brand and picks up agronomy and marketing.
This season, Durwin will grow and combine linseed on a smaller percentage of the 107 rented and 50 owned acres of grass and arable land with wheat going into linseed in 2017 as part of a four-year rotation.
Most of that supplies the mill – around 53 hectares (130 acres) – will be grown under agreements with other Sussex farmers using seed supplied by Durwin, who will monitor the crops’ progress, treatment and harvest.
“Linseed needs rotation, so initially the challenge for us was how to achieve this with the small acreage we had left at home and yet still have control,” says Durwin.
“The answer came when a contractor we employed found land that needed a break crop; I supplied the seeds and we looked after it.
“Later, I was able to have the same sort of arrangement with some other farmer friends.
“They liked the idea and the surprising thing was that co-operation and being part of a real food chain gave them both a connection to the end product and a pleasure.”
Spring-sown Brighton and another Dutch-bred, high-yielding variety Batsman, are his preferred choice this year.
“They’re both early maturing and the fatty acid balance is what I am looking for to press oil,” he explains.
The fields around the home farm are about to turn blue as harvest approached and, if all goes according to plan, will be ready at the end of August or early September. But the challenge, as always, will be the weather.
“Linseed must have a fine seedbed and warm spring weather with rain and sunshine to grow away from the flea beetles, which, if a cold snap occurs after planting, can devastate a field,” says Durwin.
“In the past, neonicotinoid seed dressing protected the seed through this period but now it would need an application of spray.
“This year the weather has been just right for the linseed to get away quickly and the flea beetle has not been too harmful.
“Our aim, however, has always been to grow with the minimum of any kind of sprays and fertiliser.”
It’s a scarily unpredictable business, given the farm does not focus on any other major crop.
“The yield from linseed can be very variable – between a half a tonne to a tonne per acre. Harvesting needs sunshine to make combining as easy as possible and, of course, a sharp knife,” says Durwin.
“The only time you can know for sure about the yield is when the crop is in the barn.
“There have been times in wetter conditions when the seed can grow in the pod and then it is a total loss.
“In 16 years this has happened about three times. One particularly wet year, 30 acres was lost this way.”
Once safely in the silo, alongside the office and opposite The Linseed Farm’s purpose-built, gluten-free bakery, the seed is pressed only on demand to delay oxidation of the omega-3 oil and preserve its health-giving properties. In fact, the farm actively discourages customers from taking too much at a time.
With 150 tonnes of storage capacity and production running 24/7, 180 litres a day drips slowly off the presses at a steady 27degC and into settling barrels before being filtered through muslin.
The artisanal process was vastly improved three years ago, helped by a £40,000 European grant which included £10,000 for a sophisticated fractionating aspirator that allowed more efficient grain separation.
From here, oil is sent for encapsulation into Linseed food pods – the only process not possible on farm – siphoned into culinary bottles for low and no-temperature cooking or sent in larger volumes to a number of commercial customers in the natural products and health food market.
Most of the farm’s fresh-milled seed is dispatched in retail quantities to consumers direct but is also in demand from bakers and via wholesale for smoothie producers.
Lush, a customer of both the farm’s oil and its whole seed for hand cream, shaving cream and hair treatments, was impressed by the sustainability of a process in which nothing goes to waste as even the linseed cake by-product is sold for pet and livestock feed.
“The purchase of the first press was only the start; it needed to be fed and the oil and the oilcake collected,” recalls Durwin.
“At first this was all done by hand and in small containers, which meant a lot of heavy work.
“As the sales progressed, a framework with an old fertiliser hopper began to make life easier.
“The seeds could be lifted with the digger and the oilcake collected in big bags. Still, there was a lot of lifting but I had proved I could be an oil producer and sell to the public.”
A successful initial funding bid to rebuild the barn signalled a step-change in the Banks’ business.
A mezzanine floor was constructed for milling, fed by some changes to the seed cleaning and elevator systems.
The fractionating aspirator, acting as a secondary seed cleaner, meant the farm could ramp up production of milled linseed, which has become a key seller, and the extra capacity allowed it to take on larger, commercial supply contracts. It is now also an organically certified processor.
This Christmas they will bring the recently commissioned bakery into production, creating the first in what they hope will be a growing range of gluten-free linseed foods.
But while they upscale significantly, the family has remained true to their aim and strive to produce a fresh, healthy oil direct from the farm without the need for heat treating or preservatives.
This ambition has not always been the priority. Up until the late 1990s, Durwin admits he was like any other farmer.
“I was largely taken in by a system that turned most of us into producers of commodities in the 1970s and 80s, in much the same way as doctors have been sucked in by a system.”
These days he is more likely to be popping up on YouTube or in front of an audience of health professionals, talking about the relative value of fats to the body and specifically the anti-inflammatory and cholesterol-lowering properties of linseed’ ALA, or alpha linolenic acid, a member of the omega-3 family.
He’s even writing a book based on his experience over the past 16 years and the conversations he and his sisters have daily with customers confused by contradictory health advice.
“People talk to me on the phone and at shows like they talk to their doctor – men tell me about their cancer, women talk about their menopausal symptoms. For all of them, their underlying question is: ‘If I eat better foods, will I be healthier?” says Durwin.
“Nowhere is the food debate more important than in the area of mental health.
“Billions of pounds have been poured into research with very few positive results for people.
Later this month (July 29-30), Durwin, Wendy and Gay will open their farm for two one-day workshops for health providers and care givers, looking at the role of fats in brain health.
“Farmers are the most important people to make food that heals, but we have spent three or four generations de-skilling and devaluing them.
“The result has been our money has been transferred from agriculture to big pharma.
“The majority of farmers probably do not even realise the vital role they should be playing in keeping us healthy.”