You can smell the fresh, sweet aroma of lavender at Castle Farm long before you see the vibrant blue and purple fields. The sunnier it is, the more intoxicating the scent.
National Grid grantors William and Caroline Alexander decided to devote part of their 1,200-acre mixed arable farm to lavender growing 17 years ago. Gridline visited the farm, with 80 acres under cultivation, in 2012 to find out more…
Built on the site of an 11th century Norman castle, the farm nestles in the Darent Valley, part of the North Kent Downs in Shoreham, but only 20 miles from London. Wheat, beans, rapeseed oil, hops and apples are also grown, while the lush meadows are grazed by a herd of cattle. Fifty acres are managed specifically for wildlife under an environmental stewardship scheme.
Developing a successful farming business at Castle Farm over the past 35 years has involved a process of adaption and diversification that continues to this day.
In the mid-80s, the farm became one of the first to sell dried hop bines for decorative purposes. Over the next decade William & Caroline became a large-scale producer of dried flowers – growing 50 varieties – and winning five consecutive gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Built on the site of an 11th century Norman castle, a successful farming business at Castle Farm has been developed over the past 35 years
When that market matured and declined, the couple converted an old cattle building into a farm shop – The Hop Shop – to direct sell home-sourced beef, apple juice and honey, as well as food from local producers. Another landmark was reached in 1999 when the farm ceased commercial hop growing for the brewery industry, once it became unviable.
“By the 80s the brewing process had become more efficient, requiring less hops to impart the bitterness, and at the same time beer consumption was in decline as tastes shifted to wine drinking,” explained William.
Along with other hop growers, the family investigated the potential for growing traceable essential oils, which were in demand by manufacturers increasingly seeking natural ingredients. A small lavender crop was trialled on the farm in 1998. The free-draining, flinty soil and chalk of the Darenth proved a good fit for the plant, which is native to the dry climate of the Mediterranean.
As a crop, lavender doesn’t need much fertilizer, prefers a slightly alkaline soil, and requires regular attention to remove weeds, often by hand. Crops grown for lavender oil are machine harvested in July, while flowers to be sold fresh or dried are hand-picked from late June.
William and Caroline are part of a small co-operative with three other growers who jointly harvest and then process it in a distillery at Castle Farm. Steam is passed through the lavender to extract the oil, which is then stored for at least six months to mature.
While the bulk of the lavender oil is supplied to manufacturers of pharmaceuticals, toiletries and perfumes, Castle Farm has continued to diversify by developing and selling lavender-based soaps, hand creams and aromatherapy oils, as well as distinctive lavender-flavoured foods.
“To grow a farm business you can either add more and more acres to deliver a lower cost per unit of production through economies of scale, or you can diversify,” said William. “Making and selling your own food gets you closer to your customer, adding value to what is produced on the farm, and generating additional income.”
Lavender flower heads were initially used to flavour The Hop Shop’s biscuits and other foods, but in 2006 a lavender essence was specifically developed for culinary use, with two versions available – one for cold preparations and drinks, with a hot essence for use in baking and cooking. These essences are now ingredients in a selection of artisan food products, including ice cream, chutneys, jams, cakes and chocolate.
Lavender is also widely recognized for its relaxing and calming properties. The Hop Shop’s Sleepy Scent, is a blend of the essential oils of hops and lavender and when launched, attracted a huge amount of interest in 2009 following a BBC TV programme by James Wong on the power of lavender to assist insomniacs.
“We’re now asking customers to provide feedback via our website on their sleeping habits and how our Sleepy Scent works best for them, so that we can further refine our products,” said Caroline. “Recent research has also highlighted the calming effect of lavender with dementia patients and its role in skin repair,” she added.
Regular magazine and TV exposure, as well as the endorsement of top chefs like Raymond Blanc and Gordon Ramsay, has all helped build brand awareness. Up to 10,000 people flock to the annual lavender festival in July, which is held over two weekends, to tour the growing areas, attend food tastings, or have a lavender oil aromatherapy massage within the colourful fields.
The endorsement of top chefs like Raymond Blanc and Gordon Ramsay has helped build brand awareness for Castle Farm
“First and foremost we’re a working farm, and we’ve no plans for a massive visitor centre that might attract busloads of tourists,” said William. “But we enjoy informing and involving people in our seasonal farm activities, which certainly develops (customer loyalty would be better here) more loyal your customers.”
Three years ago the Alexander’s were presented with the Diversification Farmer of the Year Award by Farmer’s Weekly magazine. “It confirmed we must be doing something right,” joked William.
Photography by Roy Kilcullen