It all began in 1952, when Donald Watts started farming after returning from World War Two. He was a man who liked to do things properly. From mucking out pigs to pulling rhubarb and planting strawberries, he was nearly always seen in a shirt and tie. He made a great success of the farm. And, in fact, became known colloquially as the Kent King of Rhubarb.
More than 60 years later, the farm still grows rhubarb, among many other crops. It’s now run by the family’s third generation: Donald’s daughter, Avril Gray, her husband, Mike Gray, and their son, Ed Gray, all work on the farm, along with Joe. The farm has ten sites, spread around the Home Counties and south-east England, and covering 600 hectares. Having multiple fields and sites helps protects the family business – they can lose one crop from a sudden hailstorm, but other crops are unlikely to be affected.
Caring for the land
The main farming season is April to November, when Watts Farm grows 100-130 different types of produce. One site near the Thames Estuary has a warmer climate, and therefore a longer growing season. Also, Avril, Mike, Ed and Joe have two glass houses, where they can grow fruit and vegetables all year round.
Sustainable farming is very important at Watts Farm, which is a member of LEAF Marque, Field to Fork, Red Tractor Farm Assurance Fresh Produce Scheme, and Organic Farmers & Growers. One key initiative is conserving water: a natural spring on one of the sites feeds a reservoir, which is used to water the whole farm.
Keeping the number of food miles down is also important – and you can taste the difference. As Joe says,
“Eating fruit and vegetables from the UK isn’t just a delicious option. They are, of course, a lot fresher. For example, strawberries and asparagus are served in bartlett mitchell’s restaurants just two days after we’ve picked them.”