CORNWALL's VENERABLE VEGETABLES
IN THE VILLAGE OF NEWLYN EAST, PAUL AND LAURA SALMON ARE BUILDING AN ECOLOGICAL VEGETABLE FARMING MODEL FOR THE FUTURE.
- words & images by Beth Druce.
Newlyn East is a Cornish village dating back to the 13th century, named after its green-fingered founding Saint, Newlina. Newlina was rumoured to have walked to the top of the hill on which the village is built and planted her walking stick into the ground where it sprouted roots, before blooming into a fig tree which is still alive today. Like many holy people of her time, she established an enclosure where she would have grown food and herbs for local people.
Fact or fable, it's a fitting introduction to Newlina produce, an eco-garden just outside the village of Newlyn East. Founded by Paul and Laura Salmon in 2005, Newlina have been supplying Fifteen Cornwall in the years since. "It seemed to us to be a real mission to find ways of growing that worked for all species... so we both explored ways that we could grow food in harmony with nature that was truly sustainable."
Newlina's portfolio of vegetables is extensive. There are potatoes, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes, different kales, radishes and beetroots, winter squash, agretti, purple and white sprouting broccoli, and a plethora of different beans. Their chard and squashes are some of the seasonal ingredients on the Autumn menu at Fifteen Cornwall.
"Each year we talk to our customers to understand what they would like us to grow and approximately how much of it. Then we work out what is realistic with our climate and the rotations required for our growing spaces" they explain. "We have some real regulars like crown prince squash and rainbow chard, but other things change from year to year".
Newlina also cultivate a selection of herbs that include basil, mint, flat and curly parsley and lemongrass. Most recently they have diversified into Asian herbs and send me home with a bag of Shiso, a warm and spicy-tasting leaf with jagged edges. I'm instructed to stir it into a bowl of steaming hot rice, which I do obligingly and am wowed by the result; it's the tastiest rice I have ever eaten. A handful of basil leaves is so aromatic that it fills my kitchen with its heady, intense aroma.
There are salad leaves such as red vein sorrel, salad burnet, mustard leaves of all sorts of shapes and colours alongside wild rocket, claytonia and ten kinds of lettuce. The sheer extent of Paul and Laura's produce makes me realise the enormity of work on their hands each day to ensure each vegetable, fruit or salad leaf isn't spoiled when it arrives on the plate.
I learn how some vegetables are more high maintenance than others; their Zucchini flowers, for example, which they have supplied to Fifteen for over ten years. "It’s not an easy job producing Zucchini flowers", Laura and Paul tell me. "It has taken years to get the production down to a fine art and even now things can go wrong. If it is damp the fruit can rot; if it is hot they can be hard to keep watered. We have to be on call every day for the five months they are in season to pick them just when they are ready, which can be anywhere between 11am and 3pm, depending on the temperatures".
Sustainable is a word that is bandied around so regularly today it's easy to lose sense of its meaning. "We recognised that the market is ignoring the true cost of feeding consumers low quality food", Laura and Paul tell me. These costs range from health issues arising from exposure to chemical residues from non-organic farming to nutritional deficiencies, and the exploitation of employees. Appreciation of sustainable farming is so often limited to the land and the fruit it bears, but for Newlina it is about the people who work on the farm, too. "We need to treat pickers and packers fairly no matter where they are in the world if we want a balanced society. Slave labour is still used in many countries and many farmers in our own country are underpaid and overworked". They also highlight the issues of pollution of the environment, through the herbicides, fertilisers and pesticides that are used.
Ultimately, Newlina represents a model for a healthier future for farming; one which doesn't prioritise one part of the ecosystem at the expense of another. "We recognised that we needed to include other species in the equation of how we manage the land or else ecosystems would break down and ultimately threaten the survival of all species," Laura tells me. Their model would be characterised by lots of small, local food systems that are growing things ecologically which would ensure produce doesn't travel hundreds of miles before arriving on our plates. That, and healthy soil. "We see the importance of nurturing the ecosystem of the soil as the key to all food chains, encouraging a wide range of beneficial micro-organisms". This helps the vegetables to grow well and also increases their nutritional content. "Healthy soil equals healthy plants, which equals healthy humans" they conclude, before heading back to the garden to tend to their veg.