For those of you who don’t know Jan Billington, you should! A leading light in the world of organic farming, Jan is one extraordinary lady – a brilliant, funny, hard-working and passionate flower farmer whose love for doing right by the land permeates all aspects of her life. No matter the challenge, and there are many when it comes to organic farming, Jan has overcome them with innovative solutions. She is the only flower farmer in the UK that is organically certified by Soil Association, working tirelessly to educate the masses about the incredible array and versatility of this wonderful ingredient.
We had a chat with Jan and found out how she found herself as an organic flower farmer, what she loves about her work, why she chose to farm organically and what her favourite edible flowers are…
ABOUT BEING A FARMER
Tell us about yourself – who you are, what you do, how long you have been a farmer…
My name is Jan Billington and I run Maddocks Farm Organics which is a small family business set on the edge of the Blackdown Hills. We grow award winning organic edible flowers and unusual salad ingredients. We started the business thirteen years ago when we moved to the West Country having been inspired by watching far too many episodes of River Cottage.
What is your background and what inspired you to start your own business?
I trained (well mainly played!) at art college and from then worked in an auction house for a couple of years (where I met my lovely hubby; long-suffering Stu), before moving to a management consultancy that advised on the building and funding of new arts projects with support of the National Lottery Arts Fund.
My work involved spending two years living and working in Cardiff Bay. Working for Lord Crickhowell and his team, I ran the controversial architectural competition to design the Welsh National Opera House which was won by the phenomenally talented Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. When I returned to working in London I undertook a part-time MBA which gave me a different perspective on running a business and the confidence to try something completely different.
What is life like on Maddocks Farm at the moment? What does a typical week involve?
Life at Maddocks Farm is phenomenally busy. I rarely start later than 5 in the morning, and whilst I try to finish in time to spend evenings with the family, I do admit that I fall asleep more often that not so am not great company. I am extremely lucky to have the support of Stu who is the cohesive force holding us all together.
I am lucky in the fact that my work is incredibly diverse. Three days per week I pick for local restaurants and chefs, and this is undoubtedly my favourite part of my job. Being a small business that has built a good reputation means that I am lucky enough to be able to pick who I want to work with (as long as they’ll have me!). Therefore, I choose to only work with chefs who I respect and like, and who share the same commitment to seasonality and local produce that I do.
They also need to be patient enough to put up with me trying to shoehorn edible flowers into every element of every dish that they cook. Superb chefs like Matthew Mason at The Jack in the Green are talented and inventive enough to be able to turn my pickings into culinary masterpieces and also patient, flexible and knowledgeable enough about seasonality to understand the difficulties of organic growing.
Once a week I send organic edible flowers to top chefs in London. Thursdays is exclusively dedicated to what is the most time consuming but also rewarding part of my business; sending edible flowers to bride and grooms for their weddings, whether it be for decorating wedding cakes, for cocktails or for strewing over salads and buffets. I love working with couples to create their perfect day and adore all the images that are sent back of their creations.
What do you love about your work?
The people! I have just the best customers and consider many of them as friends as well as customers. Also the diversity. This week I’ve sent edible flowers out for desserts at a party hosted by one of the UK top recording artists; edible rose petals have headed to the South of France for a cocktail party; one of my favourite customers Dorshi has visited to discuss the menus for their upcoming new Bridport restaurant, I’ve been involved in a bridal photoshoot on Dartmoor with some talented local florists, chefs and mixologists; a journalist from a national newspaper has been to stay in our holiday let on the farm to develop floral recipes for her new book and I’ve been involved in discussions about the development of a new floral gin….. Who has a better job than this?
Can you share your thoughts on the importance of supporting your local farmers?
Supporting local farmers is key to embracing seasonality and preserving regional delicacies and traditions, but perhaps slightly controversially, I would say that the responsibility lies with those farmers to ensure that their products are worthy of that support and that they are unique and of superb quality. Even in times of austerity there are people willing to seek out excellent local products, and social media has really enabled farmers to get their message across, but I admit that it is not easy with massive supermarkets undercutting prices at every turn. Being organic makes this even harder as our costs are higher and margins tighter.
ABOUT THE FARM
Tell us about Maddocks Farm – location, size etc.
We are a tiny farm of less than 5 acres, just outside Kentisbeare on the edge of the Blackdown Hills. It is very beautiful here and we are extremely fortunate.
Why did you choose to farm organically?
There are still a lot of misconceptions about what being organic really means, and many firms call themselves ‘organic’ just because they don’t spray their crops with pesticides. Apart from being illegal, this shows a huge level of ignorance. Being organic is not just about ‘not using pesticides’, it is about accountability and transparency to your customers, about being ethically and environmentally sound as a business, and also as a custodian of the land on which you farm. For example, many people don’t realise that as an organic farmer I have to have two licences with the Soil Association. The first is as a producer and audits every aspect of the growing at the farm here. Traceability is everything and I have to be able to provide an audited trail of my products from sourcing seeds, to planting plans and crop rotation, to pest management techniques etc. I also have a second licence as a Processor.
Effectively, this means that I am the only person growing edible flowers in the UK that is actually regulated in any way. The Soil Association assesses all aspects of the processing of the flowers from their cropping techniques; food hygiene standards; ensuring that all packaging is recycled/recyclable and biodegradable, and also checks that Maddocks Farm Organics is meeting exacting standards as a ‘green business’. In our case this has involved investing in solar power, photovoltaic cells, a natural reed bed filtration system and the installation of a bore hole and UV filtration system to ensure naturally clean and sterile water for the crops.
Why did you join the Soil Association?
Because it is the best without a shadow of a doubt.
You work hard to do your bit to help the bees, can you explain how you do this.
You would need to be living in a bubble not to be aware of the world’s concerns about the plight of bees. This worry stretches not just to honey bees but also to bumble bees and other pollinating insects. Given that the vast majority of crops destined for human consumption are pollinated by bees, the stranglehold that powerful companies such as Monsanto have on farming and the stealth introduction of GM crops across the globe is of massive concern.
Only a very few years into growing organically here I became aware that, even on such a tiny plot, all the bees were thriving and that there were literally hundreds of different varieties of them. Who knew? Therefore, not only do we grow for ourselves but also for the bees by putting over to some areas of the plot flowers that are non edible to us (such as the poached egg plant, Linmanthes Douglasii) but that are adored by bees. We donate 2% of our profits to bee conservation each year. Effectively, because of the investment in infastructure on the farm to date this has been limited but as the business grows this will become more significant. I’m also exploring more natural methods of honey bee keeping and hope to invest in a couple of locally made sun hives as soon as funds allow and the building of some insect hotels etc.
As you look at what you have achieved with the farm, what has been some of the challenges you’ve encountered – physical or managerial challenges, time management, space etc.?
Time management has definitely been an issue and I am the first to admit that the balance between home and work life has been skewed negatively. Whilst everybody looks enviously at our ‘ideal’ lifestyle here, the reality is long, long hours and weekends spent catching up with watering and weeding instead of enjoying both family and this perfect part of the UK in which we live. I’m also addicted to outdoor living as well so resent any time spent inside catching up with paperwork, household chores etc…I really resent it!
ABOUT YOUR EDIBLE FLOWERS
Why do you choose to grow edible flowers?
We started growing edible flowers as part of the organic practices of companion and sacrificial planting that are examples of good organic growing techniques for attracting both pollinators to your crops and predatory insects to naturally tackle problems such as greenfly. When we started the edible flower business there was only one other grower in the UK, a lovely chap called Derek in Wales, and edible flowers were still a bit more ‘hippy’ than hip. Over the past few years the interest in them has grown enormously and a lot of the large commercial firms that were previously growing microsprouts have moved into the industry.
I love edible flowers. I love the huge diversity of flavours, and spend a lot of time at night online talking to chefs and growers from around the world about different varieties. I get frustrated at programmes such as Masterchef when I see the ‘wrong’ flower being used for dishes. Edible flowers are far more sophisticated that just a wee viola bunged on the side of the plate and it is the exploration of which flowers work well in which dish that fascinates me. I’m also keen to revive the centuries old knowledge of the culinary and medicinal uses of flowers…….hmmm….. there are simply not enough hours in the day.
Describe some of the ways you sell your flowers & salads locally?
Locally we supply edible flowers and salads to restaurants such as The Jack in the Green at Rockbeare and The Five Bells at Clyst Hydon, both of whom have fabulously talents teams of chefs that are a joy to work with. We also supply numerous local catering companies. We sell some floral salad bags via local shops as well. The rest of our edible flowers and salads are sent out both locally and across the UK via our online shop. We have customers as diverse as mixologists, bakers, and sushi makers. We supply a lot directly to families for weddings and also supply some very prestigious chefs and caterers working on private planes and yachts.
What’s your favourite edible flower recipe?
I am a massive fan of salsa verde and adjust the contents according to the seasons. I work long, long hours in the summer and salsa verde is quick and easy to make and serve with all sorts of dishes – my absolute favourite is with lamb and salad but even spooned over some chicken salad it is great. The kids love it and I reassure myself that, as it has a lot of raw organic herbs (and some hidden edible flowers) in it that it is a great healthy option.
Favourite edible flowers?
Very fickle…. the first wild garlic and wild primroses make me ecstatic as they show that Spring is on the way, likewise the perfume of broad bean flowers is heady in the Spring. I love all the allium flowers and mustards. As each season heralds new flowers I get excited to see them all over again. Probably my all time favourites are our organic edible roses though. We pick kilos of them each week and I can smell their perfume on my hands for the rest of the day. I really do have the best job. 🙂
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT MADDOCKS FARM ORGANICS