Iain Tolhurst (Tolly)
Tolhurst Organic is located on the Hardwick Estate in south Oxfordshire, between the Chilterns and the river Thames. The farm is made up of 17 acres over two fields and 2 acres within a 500 year old walled garden. I have farmed here for 40 years, Tolhurst Organic is one of the longest running organic vegetable farms in England. Hardwick was the first to attain the 'Stockfree Organic' symbol in 2004. There have been no grazing animals and no animal inputs to the farm for the last 33 years.
We supply a wide range of organic fruit and vegetables through our box scheme, farm shop and stalls at local markets. A ‘Neighbourhood Rep’ scheme helps to keep our prices down and minimise food miles. We believe that food should be as local as possible and are proud that the majority of the vegetables we sell, we grow ourselves.
We hold farm walks, seminars and community events on the farm as well as onsite catering. I also run a consultancy service giving advice on organic conversion and production, and helping to train and educate farmers and growers for the future.
Stockfree organic horticulture
Most vegetable producers do not have livestock so there is a need for fertility systems that are sustainable and not reliant on bought in fertility. Importing manures from non-organic farms poses a number of problems. Bringing in manure from another farm deprives that farm of its own fertility and is not sustainable in the long term. Non-organic manures may contain high levels of antibiotics or other chemical residues, such as anthelmintics. The transport of manures is expensive, energy intensive and contributes to traffic and pollution. Non-organic manures are often a by-product of livestock systems that depend on imported feedstuffs, some of which may have travelled halfway around the world. Stockfree provides an alternative.
The primary fertility for our farm comes from fertility building crops and green manures that are grown as part of well-designed rotations. We also make vegetable and woodchip compost from our own waste materials. Regular soil analysis has shown that we are steadily improving fertility especially phosphate and potash, due to the deep rooting legumes. The soil fauna at Hardwick has improved dramatically and this ensures better health of the crops we produce.
Farmers often believe that external inputs are essential for maintaining productivity. Use of green manures means you don’t have to buy much in at all, apart from seeds which can be produced on-farm. In terms of implementation it is a straightforward approach, although it does take more management and requires thinking ahead. Of course the biggest challenge is the weather, but as a grower if you can’t work with the weather then you’re in the wrong job! Over the years as our system has developed we have reduced incidents of pests and disease and increased our yields. There are still things that can be improved, as in any farm system. For example, we have relatively minor issues like how to get enough nitrogen in the spring for early crops, but that’s similar for any organic producer.
The main challenge is selling our produce for a reasonable return in order to reinvest in the business. To improve our marketing we have gradually moved towards more on-farm catering and have opened our own farm shop. It’s not ideal as it encourages more traffic to the farm but we have to stay in business. Having survived for over 30 years we don’t let that hold us back, we just keep reinventing ourselves. We see a big future in stockfree organic systems and are proud to be at the forefront of its development.
Coming from a non-farming, working class background I entered farming in my early 20s, primarily because my young family needed somewhere to live. Four years working as a herdsman on a conventional dairy farm in Buckinghamshire opened my eyes to the problems of modern agriculture. The land was under intense pressure to produce and the animals were unhealthy. Reading Silent Spring around the same time marked a pivotal moment for me. I had always loved watching nature and wildlife and am a bit of an ornithologist on the quiet! The book resonated with my own observations and concerns about the impacts of agricultural pesticides on bird life, and problems in farming more generally. That led me to explore other ways of doing things.
I have been farming organically since I went independent in 1976. In those days there was almost no organic sector; there was no advice, organic certification had just begun and the Soil Association was in its infancy. As a result I am mostly self-taught, the way I farm is based on experience, making mistakes and getting it right. I developed the stock free approach over a period of time. When we first started out we followed other organic growers and relied on bought in manure, but it became increasingly difficult to find ethically acceptable sources. I didn’t want animals on the farm, partly because I am vegetarian, and because producing animals and vegetables together is very challenging. Farming without animal inputs came out of necessity. But stockfree farming goes beyond not using manure, it is about good land management, looking after the soil and feeding more people from less land.
Apart from my children, my greatest achievement is longevity. I have seen many people drop out of the sector over the years, so surviving whilst maintaining our core values is a real triumph. We have demonstrated that stockfree works. It is more productive than many organic systems, it is more sustainable and uses far fewer energy inputs. In the future we will continue striving for greater sustainability by reducing our carbon footprint and by making the business more financially viable. Our main challenge is to ensure that this work continues. Hardwick is a unique long term experiment, and an excellent example of working with nature without artificial chemical or animal inputs.
Tolly took part in the 'Farm System Health in Practice' project - which you can find out about here. Listen to this podcast in which he talks about his involvement with the project, what farm system health means to him and how he relates his practices to the 10 principles of health defined in the project: