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Meet the mistletoe farmer who is growing our Christmas cheer
Life on a Herefordshire mistletoe farm
ON A DARK December afternoon, Peta Darnley heads out into the cider-apple orchards of Netherwood Estate in Herefordshire to cut back the mistletoe. ‘If we know that there’s going to be a big frost that night, we’ll pick it and store it in the barn for sorting the next morning.’
The estate had been in her husband Ivo’s family for 40 years, but when her father-in-law retired in 2009, Darnley took over, leaving behind her career in advertising and marketing (most recently at the BBC) and moving from London to the estate with Ivo and their three sons, Harry, now 19, Ed, 15, and Al, 14.
Darnley, who is now 50, grew up on a farm in Devon, but left when she went to university and never imagined she’d live on one again. ‘My father thinks it’s hilarious that, like so many people growing up in the country, I went off to have a glamorous city life. I knew that farming was very hard work so always swore that I would never marry a farmer. It never occurred to me that I’d end up becoming one myself.’
The estate covers 12,000 acres and along with mistletoe, Darnley grows cider apples, quinces, medlars, mulberries and walnuts, and keeps cattle and sheep. She also rents out holiday homes and plans to open a restaurant in January. ‘We will be cold-pressing our own rapeseed oil and try milling flour.’
However, the mistletoe is her star product. It grows in abundance in the region due to the rainy conditions, and there is even an annual mistletoe festival in nearby Tenbury.
On the estate it grows all year round, blooming in April, but the distinctive white berries only form in winter. ‘It’s actually parasitic, so we have to remove it from the host trees – the cider apples – or it will kill them,’ explains Darnley.
She began selling mistletoe three years ago. Back then she sold 50 bunches. This year, she estimates she will sell 450 of them (priced from £45).
Darnley’s three sons, as well as a gardener, all pitch in when it comes to chopping it down. The harvested mistletoe is shaped like a ball, roughly three feet in diameter. ‘We send it off as a big bunch and people can either cut it up into smaller bits or keep it as huge bunches and hang it in their hall.’
Darnley fills her own home with it too. ‘I love it because it’s as much a part of the festive tradition as hanging up your stocking on Christmas Eve,’ she says. ‘For me, it wouldn’t be Christmas without mistletoe.’ netherwoodestate.co.uk/mistletoe/
Above The mistletoe crop is shaped like a ball. Right Peta Darnley on her farm in Herefordshire. Interview by Jessica Carpani. Photographs by Photopia