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.
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