Locavore: factory farm

At the end of last year, we got wind that the Tobacco Factory group had a new project on the go, and have been keeping tabs on its progress ever since. Finally, the time came for us to have a proper nosey around to see what’s, ahem, growing on…

Former bank worker Jonathan Boundy closes the gate behind us and leads me from the chickens to the beans, via a soon-to-be flower patch. As I stoop to get a good look at the borlotti beans – which will be dried out and used for soups and stews over the winter – Jonathan, wide-eyed and full of energy, has already moved on to talk about the next variety, explaining how the colour of the flower determines its attractiveness to bees. He apologises for his geekiness, and will go on to excuse the length of the farm tour he’s taking me on – but he doesn’t mean it. And nor should he; there’s plenty to be excited by here.

At the end of last year, Tobacco Factory Enterprises Limited (which runs both the Tobacco Factory and Grain Barge bar and restaurants, and is owned by former Bristol mayor George Ferguson), bought five acres of land in Backwell. Jonathan, who was general manager of the Tobacco Factory at the time, would be in charge of turning the fields – formerly a rather spacious home to just four cows – into flourishing farmland.

“I had an allotment for 10 years, and used to take all the produce I grew into work – I just couldn’t eat it all myself,” he tells us. “Sarah [Ford, managing director of the group] would always joke about getting a piece of land for me to grow food on for the restaurants. Last year this plot came up, and it just all came together.”

It’s been a huge change of direction for Jonathan, who worked for a bank before joining the Tobacco Factory team, eventually becoming farm manager in March. “I used to get headaches all the time when I was at the bank,” he says. “I remember once counting boxes of ibuprofen in my desk drawer – there were 14. I don’t get any headaches now. It’s a total change of lifestyle.”

It was a surprisingly warm and bright Wednesday morning in September when I dropped into the farm, and as I drew in a deep breath of fresh air and noted the remarkable silence (we were only 20 minutes from the city, near Backwell, and just metres from the A370), I totally got how a job like this could have some serious benefits for your quality of life. Then Jonathan said, “I’m quite excited about winter, really, and seeing what it’s like being out here then.” At which point my romantic notion of working the land full-time disappeared in a puff of smoke, of course, and I shivered with an imaginary chill.

I’d already been introduced to the other members of the team that were spending the morning on the farm – including the executive chef of the Tobacco Factory and Grain Barge, Charles Mooyaart – as well as to the chickens, who mosied around their large enclosure merrily while Jonathan pointed individuals out, describing their personalities.

They’re kept for their eggs, which are collected each day at noon. “Five out of ten of them have double yolks,” Charles tells us. “You just don’t get that from ones you buy. We use them for breakfasts, and customers love them.”

Jonathan had been a little apprehensive about keeping animals at first – his experience being solely in growing – but is now planning to add more livestock next year, with sheep coming in the spring.

Speaking of those woolly-coated folk, they’ve been breaking in from the next field to tuck into the aforementioned beans, while deer have also invited themselves in for a nosey on several occasions, I’m told…

As we’re led from plot to plot, we walk past two kinds of beetroot, several types of squash, four different kinds of courgette (“I know four seems excessive,” says Jonathan), and then up to the bees. There are two hives here, and Tim Myers – whose own bees live on top of the Tobacco Factory and are responsible for making Southville Honey – has been generous with advice. Eventually, there will be more hives and more bees to produce Five Acre Farm’s very own honey.

In the large polytunnels (of which there are three, soon to be joined by three more) I’m presented with both white and black aubergines, wonderfully knobbly and robust-looking Japanese cucumbers, and tomatoes in orange, red and black. There are peppers too – of all sizes and colours – and six different types of chilli, including an interesting wrinkly variety from Hungary. There are lots of plants here from abroad, allowing the chefs access to a whole spectrum of produce from around the world that they’d otherwise not be able to get hold of.

“Charles, he’s from the Netherlands, knows so much about this produce,” Jonathan says. “Without him, it might not have worked. He just has so much knowledge.”

The group’s solid environmental and sustainability principles have had a big influence on this new project – something that is clear in everything from the comfrey that’s grown here, to eventually be used as fertiliser, to the glee of the Gloucester Old Spots, who are fed on the spent grain from sister business the Bristol Beer Factory.

The chipper pigs bound over to us excitedly, huge ears flopping up and down with the motion, when we climb over the gate into their large pen – although I admit it’s more to do with the bucket of feed Jonathan is carrying than my mere presence. There are two girls and two boys here, and they’re all being reared for their meat; the males will reach maturity in November and females in January. Charles explains how he intends to use as much of each pig as possible – although both he and Jonathan mention how tough sending them off to the abattoir will be.

Having surprise deliveries of ingredients such as offal, and the fruits of Jonathan’s growing experiments – i.e. less-familiar produce, which the kitchen teams wouldn’t order from suppliers on the regular – is something that Charles and the group’s other chefs are enjoying getting to grips with.

“How it works now is that we’re not ordering anything from Jonathan,” Charles says. “He just comes in and gives us what’s been harvested. Sometimes, it’s a bit like, ‘Oh no, what are we going to do with that?’, but really it’s great, and we always make good use of it. And it gets us really in sync with seasons. The other week he came in with a massive box of cucumbers. We decided to pickle them to use in the burgers.

“It really ignites the creative spark of the chefs, and it brings the whole team together – front of house as well. Everyone gathers around to see what’s come in.

“Having this land, and being supplied food in this way, means we get to work with ingredients that are largely forgotten about. [Charles holds up a gorgeous white aubergine.] This, we just wouldn’t have ordered, or wouldn’t have been able to get hold of. It gives us access, as well, to things we couldn’t otherwise afford.”

From one day to the next, then, none of the chefs know what surprises they’re going to be working with. And, as it’s all properly homegrown, this stuff is unlike what you’d get from a supplier or in the supermarket – in terms of looks and taste: “I’ve had chefs that didn’t believe one of Jonathan’s cucumbers was even a cucumber! We’re just too used to them straight and green and tasting the same.”

The idea is to be as organic as possible here; realistically, the farm won’t be certified due to the paperwork and expense involved, but organic principles are very much in place on Five Acre Farm. And that’s both to make sure the produce is of the best possible quality – in terms of taste and nutrition – and to ensure that the farming processes are being kind to ol’ Mother Earth, as well as all the wildlife that calls this patch of land home.

It’s still early days here, but there are already plans to build an on-site classroom barn and host open days, and the Tobacco Factory Sunday Market already has a stall selling produce from the farm, along with that from other local growers. Despite how new the project is, these five little acres have seen some pretty big changes, and if the team’s enthusiasm levels and sense of ambition are anything to go by, it ain’t seen nothing yet.