John Walter Symons
“Organic, for us, happened after a meeting with Guy Singh-Watson,” says John. “We were looking for an interesting project, we’d always been environmentally focused, and we hardly ever used sprays, so it was a logical step. I was also keen on farming without lining the pockets of the agrichemical companies. Having said that, it was still very nerve-wracking and we had no way of knowing whether we could make it work.” But work it did, and all these years later John’s farm is still going strong.
Borough Farm is just outside the village of Holbeton, not far from our own Devon farm. Like many organic farms, it’s a traditional mixed system; the rolling fields are filled with vegetables and cereal crops, as well as free-roaming organic sheep. Working together with his son Mike, John supplies Riverford with outstanding staples of potatoes, sweetcorn, purple sprouting broccoli, cabbages, kale, cauliflower and French beans, plus organic lamb for our meat boxes.
As well as these much-loved essentials, John is always keen to experiment with weird and wonderful veg. Most of our crops are meticulously planned long before the seed is bought, but the first Riverford founder Guy heard of John’s organic edamame beans was when a heap of bean-laden plants were dumped on his desk, mud and all. John was inspired to plant them by, of all people, Victoria Beckham – who apparently puts her svelte figure down to a diet of frozen grapes, steamed fish, raw veg and edamame beans. You won’t catch us eating frozen grapes or claiming superfood status for anything, but these field-fresh pods (never frozen, unlike most edamame) are a rare treat indeed; we look forward to them coming into season in John’s fields every year.
After becoming organic, John joined the South Devon Organic Producers co-operative. Founded by our own Guy Singh-Watson in 1998, the SDOP was designed to bring small-scale Devon farmers together, allowing them to share resources and meet the ever-increasing demand for UK-grown organic produce. They’re a fantastic bunch, equally passionate about the flavour and the sustainability of their crops; more than 20 years later, we rely on them to put all sorts of tasty things in our boxes across the year. John has remained at the co-op’s heart, and even did a stint as chairman.
One of the things John likes about selling his produce through the box scheme is the direct link with the consumer. “We used to sell lamb and not have a clue where it would end up, and I’m very glad that isn’t the situation anymore,” he says.
John also says there has been a “significant” increase in wildlife on the farm since they went organic. “Organic farming is for me like getting back to the way I farmed when I first started in the early 1970s,” he says. “When things were still not too intensive. When there were proper rotations, and break crops, and people cared about the soil structure and didn’t just throw chemicals at it. It’s good to get back to that."