The Coker family has a long history in South Devon. They have owned Home Park Farm (just a few miles from Riverford’s own Devon home) since 1897, and the family can be traced in the area as far back as 1550. The current Coker is Antony, who – together with his wife Mary – converted all 100 acres of Home Park to organic; having a long history doesn’t mean you can’t be cutting edge. Antony operates a solar-powered weeding robot - we want one!
Home Park Farm has south-facing slopes (“They’re steady,” says Antony affectionately), where Antony and Mary farm vegetables and sheep in a traditional mixed system. They went organic in the 1980s, in the early days of the movement. Ethically, the decision to convert was a simple one; in Antony’s view, farmers have gone too far down the chemical road, and it’s time to start turning back. His genuine passion for working in harmony with nature is clear; “Organic farming comes from the heart,” he says.
In 1997, Antony became a founder member of the South Devon Organic Producers co-operative (SDOP). Like all the best projects, the co-op was dreamed up in a conversation down the pub. Riverford’s Guy Singh-Watson was struggling to grow enough veg to fill his increasingly popular organic veg boxes. He realised that a co-operative would allow small organic farmers across Devon to share knowledge, equipment and a pool of skilled staff – and that Riverford could be their main customer. Over 20 years since Guy founded it, the SDOP has gone from strength to strength, becoming the largest organic grower co-op in the UK. It’s enabled a host of family farms to not just survive, but thrive, and facilitated the conversion of hundreds of acres of land to organic. Antony has remained a vital member from the very start.
Antony and Mary’s fields have medium loam soil – which is ideal for growing vegetables. A brief soil lesson: loam is a mix of sand, clay and silt. Large sand particles provide good aeration and drainage, small particles make clay denser and rich in nutrients, and happy-medium silt helps the other two mix and bind together. The result is a nutrient-rich, beautifully crumbly and loose soil that holds moisture well without becoming water-logged. On the edge of Dartmoor, between 350 and 550 feet above sea level, Home Park Farm’s fields get plenty of rain, too: 60-80 inches per year, compared to a national average of 45 inches. South-facing for sunlight… All in all, it’s a happy situation for a farmer.
“I wouldn’t grow anything I don’t like to eat myself,” says Antony. That means fields full of flavoursome courgettes, sugar snap peas, leeks, cabbages, runner beans, French beans and Calabrese broccoli, as well as a flock of 200 merrily roaming sheep to provide tender organic lamb for our meat boxes.
One of the main reasons Antony believes the Riverford box scheme became such a success is the short route the produce takes from the farms to your doors – and that it introduces people to food they may not otherwise eat, creating a more varied and healthier diet. We couldn’t have done it without Antony, helping keep our boxes bountiful year-round for decades.