BY BEN EAGLE
Normally I write about general countryside or farming issues for Country Squire Magazine but, this time, the editors asked me to write about something that has become surprisingly significant for my family’s farm on the Essex coast.
Almost all farms have diversified to a certain extent in recent years and our farm is certainly no exception, with lots of diversified enterprises going on. There is one however that we are particularly excited about.
Back in 2009 we did something that perhaps raised quite a lot of eyebrows amongst the conventional farming fraternity. We planted around 180 sea buckthorn plants, importing specific varieties from Germany and Finland and working with the University of East Anglia to establish a trial. At that point we didn’t even know if they would survive in our heavy clay soils. However, several years on we have an established sea buckthorn orchard. We put more plants in the ground in 2011 and 2012 (around 4000 Siberian and Latvian varieties this time), we formed a company (the British Sea Buckthorn Company) and we have learned a lot about this very special plant since those early days, travelling around the world, meeting growers and researchers, increasingly fascinated. We are part of a growing number of farmers and growers in the UK who are looking outside the box, to niche markets or even creating their own markets, and sticking their neck out by doing something that’s a bit different and providing something new.
But who else has heard of sea buckthorn? Despite it growing wild on some areas of our coastline those Brits who have heard of it are probably in the minority.
In short sea buckthorn is a (usually but not always) spiny shrub with silvery green leaves and bright orange berries in the summer which have a distinctive sour taste due to their very high levels of vitamin C. The oil in the berries and the seeds is of interest for its health boosting potential and has been used by several companies across the world in a range of cosmetic and nutraceutical products. There are lots of people who forage our native British plants for their berries but these actually taste very different from the varieties we are growing on the farm, many of which are sweeter than the ‘conventional’ sea buckthorn taste, although still with the distinctive sour flavour.
In Scandinavia, Russia, China and Eastern Europe the berries are well known and much used, especially with potential health benefits in people’s minds. However, simply as a food product it is really interesting and pairs well with a range of other ingredients, from chocolate to chicken, pork to beetroot and oily fish to honey and nuts.
This year we will be undertaking our first major harvest, which is a very exciting prospect. We will cut whole branches from the plants and then mechanically separate the berries and leaves from the branches. We will be selling whole frozen berries and sea buckthorn juice – mainly to restaurants and mostly in London. As a seasonal product however (and with a limited supply!) our berries will only be available after harvest, so not until late July. Until then we must do our best to look after the plants as well as we can. Currently, we are giving them a winter prune, removing any dead or damaged plants, rather like you would with any other fruit tree, and shaping them before they enter the new growing season.
Sea buckthorn has allowed our farm to diversify what we grow as well as take products right to the consumer end of the market, which we don’t with our wheat and oil seed rape. For us, that is very exciting. We have already launched a few products based on sea buckthorn’s health properties but now we are looking forward to showing people its potential as a food product following harvest 2018. We hope that Britain is ready to make the most of what sea buckthorn has to offer, like other countries have in recent years, such as the US, Canada, India, Germany and the Scandinavian countries. If you’re interested or would like to learn more about sea buckthorn you can visit our website britishseabuckthorn.com , our facebook page or follow us on twitter or Instagram @britishseabuck.
Ben Eagle is a rural commentator, who blogs at thinkingcountry.com and a young farmer from Essex.