Conservation Agriculture at Castle Fruit Farm

Michael Bentley - photo by Chrissy Bentley
Michael Bentley – photo by Chrissy Bentley

Michael Bentley has long been involved in Farmers Overseas Action Group which is a charity for agricultural development and other projects in Uganda. This interest was sparked by 2 years in India as a young graduate volunteer with the Quakers. Trained as a soil and water engineer his particular passion is sustainable farming practices in the tropics which increase yields by paying careful attention to water management and soil structure, one of the fundamentals of what is now known as Conservation Agriculture or Climate Smart Agriculture. Continue reading “Conservation Agriculture at Castle Fruit Farm”

An Interview with Caroline Handley of Handley Organics and The Apothecary

Handley Organics Exterior
Handley Organics Exterior

At a time when everyone is paying greater attention to the sourcing and provenance of what they eat, it is very appropriate to be talking with Caroline Handley who has been a staunch advocate for fresh locally produced wholesome food for many years and who owns the shop Handley Organics in Ledbury’s Homend. Caroline says:

I became interested in the connection between food and health when I was diagnosed with cancer and my consultant advised me to eat an organic diet. I created a vegetable patch and started growing for friends and family. I became passionate about organic produce and the patch grew and grew. Eventually I decided to start a business from it and Handley Organics was born.

Today, 25 years on, the enterprise includes a 32-acre Soil Association-certified organic farm near Bromyard producing fruit and vegetables, a wholefood shop at 82 Homend and the more recently opened Apothecary. There is also a monthly stall at the Talbot Market in Knightwick and Caroline supplies local pubs and restaurants with seasonal fruit and vegetables. She is the main grower on the farm, supported by two full-time and one part-time members of staff. In the summer, she employs up to 40 fruit pickers.

Caroline Handley - the main grower
Caroline Handley – the main grower

Handley Organics aim is not just planting a few fruit and vegetables in a healthier way – it is more ‘global’ than that. For Caroline, growing organically is a way of protecting human health and the environment. She says:

I strongly believe that it’s not about making a premium, it’s about wildlife, protecting our ecosystems and providing people with safe, healthy food from a trustworthy source. We work tirelessly to produce excellent crops of exceptional quality vegetables – to do this properly is hard work. It’s not just a job; it’s a whole way of life.

I am a firm advocate of local sourcing and believe that shopping locally for fresher, healthier, less-travelled food supports our local producers and shop-keepers. Buying local organic food helps people reconnect with the land, the source of their food. When you eat with the seasons you can enjoy more unusual and traditional varieties and local specialties.

The benefits of buying local, organic food are:

  • It’s good for the environment – less road and air transport, less packaging, less pollution and less waste.
  • It’s good for the local economy – keeps money in the local area, creating jobs and businesses locally and giving farmers and growers a more economic return.
  • It’s good for the community – making links between people in the urban area and the countryside.
  • It’s good for your health – fresher food with improved nutrient levels, containing fewer contaminants.

I took a look around the shop at 82 The Homend, Ledbury. There is a wonderful array of vegetables supplied by Caroline and other organic growers. She also stocks a large range of wholefoods including tinned, jarred and pre-packed foods from Suma, Essential and Infinity together with a fantastic range of herbs and spices (fresh in season) sold loose or pre-packed. She keeps a range of teas and coffees from the best and most respected suppliers and baking products from the likes of Marriages and Doves Farm. There are tasty looking cakes and pastries from local producers and pre-packed bacon, gammon and mince from Cridlan & Walker, a prominent local organic meat producer. In the chiller units I discovered milk, local cheeses, butter, fresh yeast and many other choice products, some even handmade by Caroline. Loyalty Cards are now available from the shop which offers real savings in these challenging times.

Caroline - home baking
Caroline – home baking

Handley Organics used to stock a range of non-food products. Caroline had a dream of creating an ethical and organic shop selling everything from the very best in herbs and supplements through to natural remedies, organic and ethical products for hair and skin care, toiletries and make-up, essential oils for aromatherapy and massage and ethically sourced household products. In 2010 this dream was realised when she opened The Apothecary Shop, also in Ledbury’s Homend, providing a tranquil place where customers can source products and information about natural remedies and treatments for health and wellbeing. There is a cosy treatment room at the back which is used by local practitioners for a range of alternative therapies.

The Apothecary shop
The Apothecary shop

So whether you are looking for wonderful tasty, life giving local food or something to make you look or feel better, Handley Organics and The Apothecary have it covered for you on the High Street in Ledbury. Caroline says:

We see ourselves as trustees of the land and everything has to be taken into account – the wildlife, conservation, human values and an ethical business style.

Handley Organics:


The Apothecary:

Interview with the producer: Ann Stanier of Once Upon a Tree

Update on 12/12/2016: Ann & Norman have now retired from the business but Dragon Orchard continues to grow orchard fruits and supply Once Upon a Tree.

Update on 28/11/2012: Once Upon a Tree are the winners in the Drinks category of the BBC4 Food and Farming Awards. Congratulations to Ann & Norman, Simon & Hannah!

The Ledbury Food Group sets out to discover more about the people that produce our rich, abundant local food and drink. I talked to Ann Stanier of award winning Ledbury cider and apple juice producer Once Upon a Tree at Dragon Orchard about the development of this successful business.

What is the background to your business?

Dragon Orchard has been owned by my husband Norman’s family for 80 years. It is a small fruit farm of 22 acres and supplied fruit to traditional local wholesalers, markets and food and cider processors. Norman and I returned to live in Herefordshire 20 years ago, after careers elsewhere, to learn fruit farming and take on the family business. It was a time of change. Traditional markets were disappearing and we soon realised that the farm would not be sufficient to keep us.

What did you do faced with such difficulties?

We realised that our best asset was the orchard itself, and we put great emphasis on maintaining its traditional character in our husbandry and our planting. We explored organic options, but decided that our orchard would benefit best from the minimum intervention regime that had always been practiced.

Our first development was our Cropsharers’ scheme. We saw this as a way to re-establish traditional links between producers and consumers. For an annual subscription, Cropsharers receive a generous share of the produce of our orchard. They also enjoy four weekend visits to the orchard at different seasons for orchard walks, visits to local producers and craft workers, communal meals, and seasonal events such as wassailing.

Then, when we needed to replant part of the orchard, we launched a “sponsor a tree” scheme. We found out later that we were early adopters of Community Supported Agriculture.

How has your business developed more recently?

Six years ago, wine maker Simon Day who grew up at the local Three Choirs Vineyard, was back in the area with the idea of applying wine making techniques to traditional cider production, and looking for orchard fruit in Putley. He was attracted to our traditional style orchard and fruit varieties and approached us with a proposal to make cider with our own cider apples. Once Upon a Tree cider production was born.

In the first year of production we won three first prizes for our cider and at Christmas that year we opened the Once Upon a Tree farm shop at the orchard. We now also make perry using locally grown perry pears and our shop is open from March to Christmas annually selling fruit juices, cider and perry, biscuits and cakes, farm-produced preserves, gifts, hampers and local crafts.

What makes your cider special?

It is ‘wine-style’ cider – the apple varieties are kept separate during fermentation and are blended later to obtain a consistency of flavour from one year to the next in our popular blends such as Putley Gold and Marcle Ridge. We do also produce single variety ciders, e.g. Dabinett and even an oaked cider made with Michelin apples.

We make dessert style cider and perry. The fruit juice is concentrated by freezing it at local ice cream producer Just Rachel’s, and then allowing the frozen juice to defrost just enough for the concentrated fruit syrup to melt, retaining two thirds of the volume in the ice as water. The concentrated juice is then fermented to produce dessert style cider which has 8% alcohol and perry which has 12% alcohol.

What does the future hold?

Well we have just opened our second shop, which we have called Three Counties Cider, in Ledbury High Street selling cider and perry from other producers in the area as well as our own, along with local foodie delights and hampers. And this year we are finalists in the drinks category of Radio 4’s Food and Farming awards and are eagerly awaiting the results at the BBC’s Good Food Show at the Birmingham NEC on 28th November. On top of all that, Simon has been investing in our production facilities and we hope to have some new products in the future.

When I visited, apples were being crushed at the orchard press. The bagged up pomace – the solid remains – gets recycled to local pig farmers at Noggin Farm and Alumhurst Farm. Alongside I was surprised to see debris from recent grape juice extraction. In the barn were some plastic wine storage tanks. They had been recently acquired from Three Choirs Vineyard 5 miles away who have converted to use only stainless steel. Next to those were some smaller stainless steel tanks. These came from another local vineyard, Coddington, whose owners have recently retired and sold up.

Whatever happens next at Once Upon a Tree it is sure to be exciting.


Ann Stanier
Dragon Orchard,
Tel No: 01531 670071

Web site: Once Upon a Tree