Iain Tolhurst has turned 20 acres of low grade farmland into an organic, stockfree vegetable powerhouse
The importance of Tolhurst Organic in the world of stockfree farming is immense – a living example of a thriving farm business set in just under 20 acres in Oxfordshire, using absolutely no animal inputs and producing a vast array of vegetables and fruits for a local customer base. The land is split between a 2-acre walled garden with open beds and several polytunnels, and a further 17 acres of open fields with strips of agroforestry between wide growing plots.
Iain Tolhurst has been growing organically for over 40 years and stockfree for over 30. It’s clear from listening to Iain describe what he has created – either through interviews and talks available on YouTube or in person during one on his ‘farm tours’ – that much of the success he has achieved is a result of embracing a constant journey of exploration and experimentation, where the ‘know how’ has come from doing a great deal of looking, listening, and giving things a go, and where failures and the subsequent lessons learned are held with as much importance as the moments of success.
The backdrop and arguably the gift to what has been achieved at Tolhurst Organic is the decision, made over 30 years ago now, to take animals out of the process completely. Tolhurst Organic gained the UK’s first ‘stockfree organic’ certification back in 2004. Organic farming is reasonably widespread but what many people don’t know is that organic vegetable growing systems are still reliant on animal inputs either in the form of manure, or waste products from the animal slaughter process. So, what on the surface appears to have good ecological, climatic, and ethical credentials is often dependent on systems that work in opposition to these ideals.
Self-Sufficient Soil Fertility
To be self-sufficient in fertility in the modern farming world is rare. Stock farmers have the use of manure from the animals they keep to apply to their fields, but this is often not enough and so they have to add off-site produced nitrogen in chemical form which needs manufacturing and transporting.
Nonorganic arable and vegetable production use a great deal of manufactured chemicals and although organic systems are an improvement and include some type of natural rotation schedule, there is still a requirement for external materials to increase or maintain organic levels in soil in the form of compost or animal inputs. For well developed rotations nitrogen is not a limiting factor if appropriate legumes are used in fertility building
Tolhurst Organic, on the other hand, does not rely on someone else’s land to produce its soil fertility, rather they are close to self-sufficient in this regard which has become the key to achieving high yields – year after year.
Iain has achieved this by using a rigorous and highly planned system of green manures sown as after crops, and undersown into growing vegetables, along with woodchip compost produced on the farm from tree prunings, coppiced willow, and hedge management cuttings. In addition to this, innovations discovered over the years include spreading a small amount of un-composted Ramial chipped wood over the surface of the soil which serves to encourage the life-giving worm population and soil fungi, which at peak times can number around 1,200 per square meter of soil.
The only thing that needs to be brought into the farm from the outside is seed, but even with this the farm’s carbon footprint and ecological credentials are, relative to other systems, incredibly low. The total carbon footprint for the farm equates to that of an average UK household. Compared with conventionally produced supermarket produce, Tolhurst’s system is 90% more efficient*.
Another important feature on the farm is the relationship with ‘pests’. On a visit to the farm from late spring onwards, significant amounts of ‘weeds’ such as nettles and cow parsley are visible as well as wildflowers, grasses, tall hedgerows, and beetle banks. Allowing them to be present, and to grow freely in specific areas around the vegetable beds, pretty much eradicates pest damage by letting the natural processes of biodiversity establish the perfect ‘balance of the bugs’. Iain has even discovered how to nullify the infamous ‘cabbage white’ larvae and subsequent caterpillars – who wreak havoc on all thing’s brassica and without the need for nets – knowing who their predator is, and how to support this predator’s ability to reproduce each year, is critical to success. Iain has often said that biodiversity is the primary product of the farm, with food production being secondary. Working with nature rather than against it, and learning how to manage biodiversity to the farm’s advantage, is central to Tolhurst’s methodology.
The other main element of Tolhurst’s system is crop rotation. Iain operates a 7-year rotation with two of these years being set aside purely for regeneration in which a diverse group of green manures, each with their own special qualities, are sown and grown. These plant manures play out their individual roles drawing nutrients from below, fixing nitrogen from the air, and storing carbon in their fibres whilst feeding biodiversity and supporting the bacteria and fungi in the soil. The sowing of these manure plants is also implemented throughout all phases of the rotation. There’s rarely a moment where any soil is bare except just long enough for a vegetable crop to establish itself. At first glance, the farm might not look as well kept as you would expect. We have been conditioned to believe that an absence of ‘weeds’, neatness, and lots of visible brown soil equals quality, care, and productivity. This is a much-mistaken view.
Iain’s farm has achieved success due to an enormous amount of work and attention to detail. Ultimately Iain’s job is to manage a very complex biological system which takes a great deal of knowledge, time, and experience; knowing exactly what to sow and when, seizing every opportunity to regenerate the soil after hungry crops, and constantly preparing and planning ahead.
The final part of the process is to get the produce to the paying customers. This is achieved via two main methods – a veg box scheme and an onsite shop – Lin’s VegShed.
Through the veg box scheme customers can sign up for different sizes of veg box containing a seasonal variety. Boxes are delivered at set times to a local representative who offers a collection-point for customers in their locality. This one-stop delivery for each group of customers reduces the resources, such as fuel, needed to get the produce to the customer. Door to door delivery is available but only for customers living close to the farm itself.
Through an online ordering system customers can also order specific items for delivery via the same means. The veg box scheme also includes produce from other local food producers allowing a more varied range of products (such as bread), whilst providing a way for other local producers to get their products to the customer.
Lin’s VegShed, named after Iain’s late wife Lin who worked alongside Iain to create Tolhurst Organic, offers 24-hour access during the main growing season for customers to buy directly from the farm using an ‘honesty box’ system to take payments. All the produce available at Lin’s VegShed is produced on the farm itself.
On top of these two methods of selling their produce, other income streams come from farm walks conducted by Iain, where groups can experience the processes of the farm explained firsthand. Tolhurst Organic also hosts seminars and other educational events catering for them with their own produce.
Tolhurst Organic is an oasis surrounded by the traditional grassland and monoculture systems that still dominate UK agriculture. Yet, it is as ‘real’ a farm as you will ever see in our modern western world, requiring a deep and intimate relationship with the ecosystem. By working with nature rather than battling against it, and carefully nursing the soil to optimum health, a relatively tiny amount of low-grade land, that could easily have been dismissed as no good for growing anything, has become a thriving business. More than that, Tolhurst Organic is a hub for a community of customers and fellow producers, and an international knowledge base for others to learn and put into practice the tried-and-tested strategies that have produced results. A world with a network of ‘Tolhurst Organics’ would go a long way to improving our food security, productivity, biodiversity, sustainability, and health.
Iain is a member of our advisory team and is available for farm consultations at firstname.lastname@example.org
To order fresh produce and read more about Tolhurst Organic go to https://www.tolhurstorganic.co.uk/
*Verified by Professor Tim Jackson, BBC Climate Change special programme.