Last week, on an unseasonably sunny hot morning in Jan, I visited Ripple farm to talk about planting plans for the coming season. 40 mins by train from London, Ripple is a small 14 acre farm situated in the Stour valley at the foot of the North Downs. Growing Communities partnership with Ripple goes back 10 years, when we visited them to persuade them to have a stall at our farmers market in Stoke Newington. Ripple then began supplying the box scheme and is now one of our main suppliers.
The farm is rented by farmer Martin Mackey, originally hailing from county Cork, Ireland. Martin first went to Wye to study for a masters from the (now defunct) Wye valley agricultural college. After graduation, a job at Ripple farm later led to him renting the site with a colleague from the landowner and assuming the management of the farm in 1999.
‘Home farm’ is the hub of the farm: The two fields surrounding the barn are a visual testament to Ripple farm’s commitment to small scale, sustainable, organic mixed farming. Phacelia is grown to encourage bees. A patchwork of different vegetable growing is interspersed with pollytunnels of salad and strips of fallow ground, where grass and clover is grown to rejuvenate the soil before crop rotation ensures the soil’s nutrients are once again utilised to grow the food that GC members eat. On the other side of the valley an ancient earthwork is evidence of the 2000 year old agricultural history of the area.
As well as Martin and his wife Sarah, the team at Ripple consists of local growers, harvesters and packers. Many have worked at Ripple for years. Some have come through the apprentice programme that Martin runs in conjunction with a local college. Being a tenant farmer is very far from a lucrative occupation. It is also very hard work, with long hours and six day weeks the norm. But get Martin on the subject of organic farming (particularly potatoes) and you get a sense of the drive that keeps this operation going.
The story of the relationship between Ripple and Growing Communities symbolises everything that Growing Communities was set up to try to achieve. As the box scheme has grown and thrived so it has provided a stable, predictable income to Ripple farm. This in turn has enabled Martin to be confident in renting and utilising more land in the local area for sustainable growing: which includes an unused Victorian walled garden complete with Haversham-esque collection of dilapidated buildings and glass houses, now used for propagation. Both organisations have been able to generate employment for their communities and train the much needed growers, processors and farmers of the future.