The Le Gresley family have been farming the 88 vergées of land on the Eastern corner of Jersey for decades, but it was the return of Justin to the farm around five years ago which sparked their transition to an organic way of life. Now Soil Association certified with a shortlisted award for their ‘Organic Farmer of the Year’ in 2019, the family farm run by Justin, father Robert Le Gresley and cousin James Spackman puts soil health and natural food systems at the heart of their farm.
“From the outside it may seem like farming organically is a step backwards. It might be perceived that we are stripping back all the modern advances. It is my experience however, that when you begin to delve into the ‘conventional’ farming system, what you find is a method which has attempted to simplify arguably one of the most complex systems known to us,” Justin explains. ”Soil health is therefore our biggest priority at the moment. In our short time being certified we have seen some significant changes - whether it’s been in soil remediation or crop vigour - there is always something to observe. Time and finances often mellow dreaming, so every year we try to make small changes in the direction that seems right.”
Justin Le Gresley standing amongst the cover crop on one of the overwintered fields of Anneville Farm.
Justin’s route to the land was initially a reluctant one, after “escaping” to study architecture at The Plymouth School of Architecture and Design the recession hit as he graduated stunting the industry. Moving backwards & forwards to the UK to follow his wife’s medical training he spent time working on an inner-city, community based farm, which changed his outlook. “Falling back into” the family farm with a new sense of perspective at a time when Jersey’s Government’s Agricultural Support Scheme was moving to ‘natural capital’ and the pressures of working to the supermarket system were mounting, the Le Gresley’s began to feel like their system “didn’t add up.”
A decision to move to a more human scale approach, switching out their small reliance on synthetic fertiliser to organic, measuring carbon accounting and capture and moving to a more direct to consumer model "just made more and more sense” not just for the environment, but for costs too.
“Our soil PH is absolutely perfect for growing the crops that we are and for hopefully facilitating good nutrient cycling. It’s pretty clear now that over-use of synthetic fertilisers causes acidification of the soil and so through not using those, you've actually cut out a cost and hopefully enabled the natural systems to take place. So you’re seeing the benefits of working with the natural system, as opposed to forcing it to your will and compensating after that fact.”
Justin explains that on top of this, “with the supermarkets there were a lot of problems, especially when they took over distribution. Working to their orders increasingly forced you into becoming a monoculture, which put pressure on the soil as well as having problems with disease and persistent pest pressure.”
Edible flowers and micro greens grown over winter in the Anneville polytunnels.
What was once a fairly monoculture system primed for the supermarkets is now filled with an abundance of rotating seasonal produce managed with cover crops, companion planting, compost cocktails and no-dig methods to get the best from the land.
“Because the scale of our fields is so small, we’re working towards a planting schedule that makes use of every inch, to keep a living root in the soil as long as possible and try to get things working together.” Justin explains. “ It’s about trying to take steps in what feels like the right direction, which does take time, but what we’re aiming for in the future is resilience; a resilient farming system with resilient soils.”
Harvested winter crop of micro greens and salads grown in the polytunnel at Anneville Farm.
It’s not just diversity and variety that drive these crops but a complex system of soil management, pest control and preparedness against the challenges of an increasingly erratic season.
“We’ve had horrendous flooding recently in parts of the island with water running over our land, but actually our soil seemed to be holding up pretty well, which I think is sort of testament to the changes that we've made,” he says.“We’ve used clover and herbal lays but also experimented with buckwheat a little bit. That was absolutely buzzing with all sorts of pollinators; we want to attract that diversity to our farm to help us deal with some of the other pests that we might have. Hopefully you can continue to see the benefits of that as time goes on.”
Apples for sale in the Anneville Farm 'Veg Shed' farmshop where customers can buy produce direct from the farm gates using their honesty box system.
Cover crops used in rotation on overwintered land alongside mushrooms, a sign of good soil health.
It’s not always easy, an unusually dry season disrupted their wildly popular veg box scheme started in the Covid lockdowns, alongside the unique challenges of an Island location and global labour issues, has meant that the family farm is constantly evolving to best suit the needs of customers and the land they are carefully stewarding. Supplying local chefs and restaurants like No.10, their successful farm shop veg shed overlooking the Anne Port Bay still stocks their seasonal produce with an honesty box system with the potential for further growth as they look to export to the UK.
The upcoming season will see big hitters like Jersey royals, revert to tomatoes alongside a mix of cucumbers, peppers, beans and a few more unusual items like cucamelons and different types of chilli in the polytunnels. Outside will see the traditional brassicas that grow so well in their soil alongside carrots and parsnips, spring onion, chard and more.
“Having that diversity means that we don't build up the same disease or pest pressures. It also hopefully keeps it exciting for some of the people we supply as well, creating a naturally more seasonal local menu should they choose. And that's also so important for the public who buy our produce too; for us to be able to meet demand for nutritious, delicious and varied local food. Ultimately it offers a way of breathing life back into kind of all sides of the system in a way, which is quite nice thing."