AU­TUMN BOUNTY

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - Words by char­lotte dear pho­to­graphs by lisa lin­der

For­mer teacher Greg Klaes pro­duces a colour­ful and abun­dant crop of or­ganic pump­kins and squash on the banks of the Ox­ford Canal

For­mer teacher Greg Klaes pro­duces a colour­ful crop of or­ganic pump­kins and squash on the banks of the Ox­ford Canal

few scenes evoke the feel­ing of au­tumn as vividly as a pump­kin field in the full swing of har­vest. At Forge Farm in north Ox­ford­shire, the frosty land­scape is ablaze with fiery colour as rows of the sea­sonal pro­duce in or­anges, reds, greens and yel­lows await col­lec­tion. Here on Greg Klaes’s five-acre hold­ing, this process is very much a fam­ily af­fair. Greg’s son-in-law Jonathan is among the small team of helpers cut­ting the pump­kins from their sturdy stems, while Greg stacks them into wooden crates and loads them onto his faded red vin­tage Ford­son Ma­jor trac­tor. Mean­while, his grand­son Gabriel, who’s six, is busy help­ing with qual­ity con­trol, check­ing each one for im­per­fec­tions. The sheer va­ri­ety is im­pres­sive – there’s Lakota, a flame-orange squash with green streaks and a nutty taste; Baby Pear, per­fect for pump­kin pie; and the smooth, pale blue-grey-skinned Blue Ballet, to name just a few – mean­ing that har­vest­ing by hand is a time-con­sum­ing and painstak­ing process. “The way we farm means that gath­er­ing them this way is es­sen­tial,” says Greg, plac­ing a laden crate on the front of his trac­tor. “Each pump­kin needs to be care­fully picked and in­spected.”

Non-mech­a­nised har­vest­ing tech­niques are not the only way Greg en­sures a su­pe­rior end prod­uct. He farms or­gan­i­cally across his land, us­ing tra­di­tional meth­ods such as the ‘three sis­ters’ ap­proach – where pump­kins or squash are grown among sweet­corn and beans: “The tall sweet­corn pro­vides shel­ter from the el­e­ments for the squash and beans. The beans use the sweet­corn to climb and pro­vide the soil with plenty of ni­tro­gen from their roots.”

With such a care­fully con­sid­ered ap­proach, it’s not sur­pris­ing to learn that be­fore he be­gan farm­ing full-time five years ago, Greg was a sci­ence teacher. It wasn’t an en­tirely con­ven­tional ex­is­tence, how­ever; dur­ing the early years of his teach­ing ca­reer, he and his wife Kate lived aboard Kather­ine, a house­boat they built them­selves. It was while float­ing down the Ox­ford Canal that they came across the site that would be­come Forge Farm. At that stage their fu­ture home was just a set of derelict 18th-cen­tury thresh­ing barns that were in the process of be­ing sold. Their story could have been quite dif­fer­ent if for­tune hadn’t, quite lit­er­ally, blown their way when a large storm re­moved the barns’ roofs, dis­cour­ag­ing the orig­i­nal buy­ers and re­turn­ing the plot to the mar­ket.

Un­de­terred by the state of the build­ings, Greg and Kate were drawn to the beau­ti­ful canal­side lo­ca­tion. After buy­ing them,

they set to work on the con­ver­sion, us­ing any re­claimed ma­te­ri­als they could get their hands on from lo­cal farms and busi­nesses. The ren­o­va­tion was a daunt­ing job but, nonethe­less, Greg, who was raised on a pre­dom­i­nantly self-suf­fi­cient small­hold­ing in Michi­gan, si­mul­ta­ne­ously set about farm­ing the five acres of land that came with the barns. “I al­ways wanted my chil­dren to be able to en­joy the land as I had and not worry about dis­turb­ing the neigh­bours,” he says. At first, he fit­ted the farm around teach­ing, work­ing the land mostly at week­ends and in the hol­i­days, and hold­ing the oc­ca­sional sci­ence class in his fields. In fact, it was while work­ing with his stu­dents one Hal­loween that he came upon the idea of spe­cial­is­ing in pump­kins. His pupils had been asked to bring in their carved dec­o­ra­tions and, notic­ing they had all used im­ported French va­ri­eties, it oc­curred to him he could be the one to grow them more lo­cally: “The first few crops were just for my stu­dents. It was good to be able to show them the breadth of what could be grown near their homes.”

The pump­kins grew so well that Greg’s pro­duce soon in­creased be­yond the school’s needs, so he de­cided to ex­pand to a wider mar­ket. Since his days liv­ing aboard Kather­ine, Greg has had a pas­sion for nar­row­boats, so he ini­tially chose to use this un­usual mode of trans­port to dis­trib­ute his crop – load­ing up four boats with squash and pump­kins and trav­el­ling along the canal to dis­trib­ute them to lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. Mean­while, he also used his boats to take his stu­dents on trips on the wa­ter, teach­ing them about Bri­tain’s wa­ter­ways. “I think there are some real his­tor­i­cal les­sons to be learned about how we used canals, not just for leisure but for busi­ness,” he says.

How­ever, the an­nual trad­ing fee for river­boats even­tu­ally proved pro­hib­i­tively high for Greg’s rel­a­tively brief three-month trad­ing pe­riod. This is some­thing he is cur­rently cam­paign­ing against, but for now he dis­trib­utes his pump­kins by road in­stead. Ris­ing be­fore dawn, ev­ery Tues­day be­tween Oc­to­ber and Fe­bru­ary he loads an age­ing hatch­back with 800kg of pro­duce while the Forge Farm fields are still blan­keted with early morn­ing mist. He then drives the 80 miles to Lon­don, where he de­liv­ers

“Squash and pump­kin va­ri­eties are now much more a part of the Bri­tish diet”

his cargo to the doors of some of Lon­don’s top restau­rants, in­clud­ing Polpo in Covent Gar­den, Mu­rano in May­fair and those at Kew and the Royal Academy: “It’s a race against the clock, as my list spans the length and breadth of the cap­i­tal and I don’t like to dis­ap­point any­one.” Greg has also no­ticed a re­cent surge in the de­mand for pump­kin as it be­comes in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar due to its ‘su­per­food’ sta­tus. “The nu­tri­tional ben­e­fits and de­li­cious flavour are some­thing we’ve known about and have been try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate for the past 30 years – now, many dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties are be­com­ing much more a part of the Bri­tish diet,” he says.

Since he re­tired from teach­ing, Greg has had more time to spend on the other crops at Forge Farm. When he first started cul­ti­vat­ing the land, a field that had pre­vi­ously been oc­cu­pied by a sin­gle wil­low tree be­came home to a spin­ney of na­tive oaks plus an or­chard of fruit trees – Greg uses his har­vest to make cider, vine­gar and jam. He has also in­stalled hives for honey, in­tro­duced chick­ens for eggs – much of which finds its way into his car for his trips to Lon­don – and grass­land for or­ganic hay. None of his crop is wasted; blem­ished pro­duce is ei­ther given to a friend’s grate­ful pig or ends up in Greg’s own kitchen, where it is made into pump­kin pie or, if his favourite green kabocha are on of­fer, sweet pump­kin bread, a Klaes spe­cial­ity. Even the seeds are used – after hol­low­ing out the globes, some of his cus­tomers re­turn the seeds to Greg, and he posts them off to a nurs­ery in Cam­bridgeshire. They are later sent back to Forge Farm as small plants ready to be planted in the soil in May.

For Greg, Forge Farm pump­kins are very much a pas­sion first and a pro­fes­sion sec­ond. Much of his prof­its go to­wards en­sur­ing his land re­mains as sus­tain­able as pos­si­ble, and he and Kate have turned down many lu­cra­tive of­fers from land agents hop­ing to use their care­fully cul­ti­vated plot for hous­ing. “You have to be part of the so­lu­tion or you’re go­ing to wake up and find your­self part of the prob­lem,” says Greg, climb­ing into his fully loaded 30-year-old­trac­tor. “It’s im­por­tant to me to show peo­ple the ex­tent of what you can do with the land when you treat it with re­spect. With time and con­sid­er­a­tion, the things you can pro­duce are re­mark­able.”

For fur­ther de­tails, visit forge­farm.com. To learn more about Greg’s cam­paign to re­turn trade to Bri­tain’s wa­ter­ways, go to ban­burycanal.word­press.com.

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THIS PAGE Greg is pas­sion­ate about grow­ing lo­cal va­ri­eties of squash and pump­kin, such as Patty Pan, Knife River, Sweet Dumpling and Red Kuri, and has passed on his en­thu­si­asm to his grand­son Gabriel, who is hold­ing a Crown Prince

THIS PAGE A small team of work­ers helps with the har­vest, pack­ing the squash into crates be­fore de­liv­er­ing them to restau­rants or sell­ing them di­rect on the farm

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