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Vallis Farm continues Frome's market garden revival [WFJ #74]
A new food producer on Frome's outskirts opens proper for the Somerset Food Trail
When you next go into Frome Museum, take a look at any of the maps from the early 1900s, and you’ll see dozens of allotments and market gardens dotted around town.
Of course, a lot has changed since – the number of Frome’s residents has more than doubled in that time, while the post-war crisis of providing enough subsistence to a rapidly-growing global population was and largely still is addressed with a bigger, centralised, and mechanised approach to food and farming.
Depending on who you ask, market gardens (defined as somewhere veg, fruit, and flowers are grown commercially, but on a relatively small scale) don’t play much of a part in this development. Yields, it’s thought, are too low, and instead efforts are generally placed towards producing food at scale no matter the resulting costs to planetary or (ironically) human health.
Because the environmental toll that comes with this way of farming is more and more evident, we’re seeing a bit of a renaissance however. In the past few years, various market gardens including Root Connections (2018), Frome Field 2 Fork (2021), not to mention the rather seminal Vallis Veg (2008), have sprung up in and around Frome as part of a wider movement to produce nutrient-dense food for local communities while minimising their impact on nature and the land.
Vallis Farm (not to be confused with Vallis Veg next door) is the latest in this line of local and more responsible attitudes to fruit and veg production. Although, having officially launched its veg box scheme this summer – which includes a weekly supply of chemical-free veg, pickles and preserves all from their market garden – food plays only a part in its grander commitment to preserving biodiversity.
In fact, if you haven’t been through that part of Vallis in a while, it’s worth doing so to see the difference between what it was then – a dilapidated farmhouse, farm buildings, and grazing paddock – to what it is now. Tamsin Westbrook is Vallis Farm’s estate manager, and has lived in Frome for the last 16 or so years. “The horse field,” she says, gesturing in front of us. “That’s what I used to call it. It was grass and that was it.”
Now, and in the middle of summer, the roughly three-acre field and those adjoining it (Vallis Farm totals nine acres) are a cacophony of colour – yellow of the lady’s bedstraw, red of the poppy, purple of the scabious, blue of the chicory, and whites of the plantain and achillea. Evidently, these wildflowers are attracting hoverflies, moths (even, apparently, the spectacular hummingbird hawk-moth), and butterflies, as well as some not-so obvious species of snake, mice, and birds more indirectly.
Since the 1930s, Britain has lost 97% of wildflower meadows like this, largely due to land clearances for farming. Ironically, it’s also taken certain farmers to restore them back to the way nature intended. Of course, that means less land to produce food, but as far as these farmers – or ‘stewards of the land’ as they may be called – are concerned, it’s less of a choice than it is a necessity.
“Natural England has been out here,” says Tamsin, “because the middle field, where we have sheep now, is an SSSI [Site of Special Scientific Interest] as it's considered part of Vallis Vale’s ancient woodland. We wanted to graze it naturally so we're not using fuel to cut it, and I had to get special permission to put an orchard in there. We're only allowed certain species, and because we've got bats there, it's better for biodiversity.”
As well as food and biodiversity, the farm’s main tenets extend to a place of ‘community’ and a ‘centre for learning’. Though both are related, the latter involves a programme of things like scything courses and apprenticeship schemes (four people are currently working on the land as part of their horticulture studies), while the former is a work in progress that seeks to bring together artists and makers – including potters, herbalists, and fibre-spinners – as a place to practise and share their work.
Vallis Farm is developing into a lot of things – as a market and ornamental garden, as a place to learn new skills and a place to perform them, as a place for events, as a place to stay, and as a place to decompress.
Ultimately though, whether it’s through skills, community, or food, the ideas behind it are designed to help people connect with nature and the land. Which would be much more difficult on the much more conventional farms that dominate the local landscape. Tamsin points to the crest of a field next door recently mown for hay, and laments the habitat wiped out in the space of one afternoon. “It's important that people get outside,” she says. “People aren't going to want to look after our planet if people don't care about it.”
Somerset Food Trail: Farm tour and feast at Vallis Farm, 29th July
At 3pm on the 29th, and as part of the Somerset Food Trail, Vallis Farm invites local people onto the land to have a drink, see the market garden in full swing, enjoy wildlife, eat produce from the farm and wider Somerset, and – especially if the weather becomes inclement – wind down in the 250-year-old farmhouse.
“We will run a bar from the beginning until people want to leave,” says Tamsin. “At four o'clock there's a farm tour, and then at around five we'll lay loads of food out. I'm thinking feast, abundance. Lots of pickles and ferments we've been making, local meats and cheeses. Basically a farm table full of food.”
Booking essential via Eventbrite.