The farmer Calixta Killander, one of this year’s 30 Under 30 stars, does things differently – and the results mean her produce is in demand by our best chefs. Chloë Hamilton travelled to her traditional yet innovative land to find out more. Photographs by Katie Hammond
Calixta Killander is a name not easily forgotten, and is perhaps remembered by some for her YBFs win in the vegetable category earlier this year, and her appearance in Observer Food Monthly alongside chef Tomos Parry. She is not your average farmer. For a start at 28 she’s built her business, Flourish Produce, on her own and from scratch (note her place in CODE’s 30 Under 30). Secondly, her focus is on progressive sustainable agriculture. More uncommon still, she’s farming her land using a 100-year-old cultivator carted along by a pair of horses, Bill and Ben.
All of these things might be surprising, but of little further interest, were it not for the fact that what she is pulling out of the ground is turning up on the plates of London’s very best restaurants – those heralded for championing beautiful produce with simplicity of cooking. There’s Brat, St Leonard’s, Primeur, Anna Tobias at P. Franco, Pidgin, Kiln and Mãos. The list goes on and her waiting list grows longer. And it certainly grows faster than she can harvest her bounty and drive it from her Cambridgeshire farm down the M11 to the doorsteps of some of the best chefs in London.
How did she acquire such an illustrious customer list in less than two years of running her business? “I know it’s really frowned upon,” she says, “but I just went cold calling. I’m a farmer, not a marketer and I don’t have time to make phone calls and send emails. So I just did as much research as I could on the chefs themselves – because ultimately, whilst we’re working with restaurants, we’re really working with the chefs – and I’d go in with a box of samples and try and have a chat.” Her hit list was carefully thought out, targeting those she thought would understand what she was doing. And it worked.
For one thing, the type of produce she’s growing is unusual, both in the rarity of varieties and the painstaking care with which she cultivates them. It’s a blue-sky autumn day when we visit Cooks Penn Farm and Calixta’s tour begins in the nursery. “Lots of other people buy in starter plants – understandably – as it’s a lot of work to produce them,” she explains, “but everything here is grown from seed to harvest”. We’re standing in the warmth of a polytunnel, one of three that she retrieved from a derelict strawberry farm nearby. She’s careful not to divulge the details of her carefully sourced seed suppliers, but one of them is a big name anyway, it transpires, as she takes us out to the maturing crops in the fields.
“I say everything is my favourite, but these really are one of my favourites.” She brushes back the leaves of a badger flame beet, a type of golden beetroot created in the US by Dan Barber. “[Dan]’s been incredible and worked with some really amazing seed breeders to breed varieties that have a really special flavour profile. These are much sweeter and less earthy than the normal golden beet varieties, so are amazing eaten raw, just thinly sliced. Our chefs have been really excited about it, because there aren’t a lot of people growing them.”
We step over the rows of ripening crops, trying not to trample such good-looking vegetables. “Down here are some rose radicchio – the colour doesn’t look that interesting now but when it turns colder their heart turns the most amazing antique pink. And this looks boring but it’s amazing – it’s spigarello – Italian leaf broccoli”. Calixta pulls out her paring knife as we move along, slicing blushing pink scallions and cutting flowing broccolette for us to taste. “And here’s some amazing holy basil, quite a rare variety of it. We harvest it at flowering stage and Kiln uses loads of it.”
I ask whether she’s seen tastes change even over the short period of time she’s been growing. “I’m super happy with the celtuce,” she says. “Last year was my first season growing it and it was devastating having to compost it because I couldn’t sell it. I was literally crying. But this year, amazingly, I’ve found customers who love it and it’s selling out. It’s a kind of a Chinese vegetable – a stem lettuce, it looks kind of uninteresting but the flavour is delicious, it’s really crisp and nutty.”
I wonder how Calixta knows when to harvest varieties she’s never grown before. “A lot of it is just experimenting; and actually 40-45 per cent of what we grow is a trial. We invest a lot in trialling crops because we always want to find something special and with flavour. Then season after season you go with what’s the most outstanding.” It seems a lot like feeling around in the dark, a lot of risk to take on for a small business, but Calixta’s level of experience is deeper than most. Though the family business is traditional grain farming, her interest was specifically in sustainable agriculture and for that, she went to North Carolina. “I scoured England and Europe but there was nowhere where the educational opportunity was deep enough, where you’d learn something about soil science and not something more theoretical.” So it was to Warren Wilson College, at the edge of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, where studying and working on the university farm was a precursor to years of an intensive nomadic education.
She moved from North Carolina to Hawaii to Massachusetts, spending at least a growing season in each place. “I saw it as an opportunity to work as much as I could on as many farms as I could, to meet as many farmers to learn from them. Their knowledge base is vast and they’re decades ahead of where British farming is.” Her inexhaustible passion and the fact that she was this ‘weird English girl’ propelled her from job to job. The next one was lined up in Pennsylvania, but a trip back to the UK for Christmas brought her home for good. Her path crossed with farmer Brian Cavendish, who offered her the gift of the handsome Comtois heavy horses Bill and Ben, which presented the opportunity to start her own farm back home in Cambridgeshire. “In some ways I would’ve loved to have stayed on but I thought, if I don’t do this now, I’ll never have an opportunity like that in the States.”
Whilst Bill and Ben came from Comté by way of an early career in Cornwall, the farm equipment they would be powering was sourced from an Amish community in Sugarcreek, Ohio. “Even though it’s such a foreign, faraway, different culture, the Amish are just such a big part of what I’m doing. They had the engineering that allows us to do the work we need to do with the horses.” One of the most-used pieces on the farm is the McCormick- Deering cultivator which looks rather rusty in its old age, but is in perfect condition. The other is an original John Deere plough, which was hardest to source. “I knew I needed one just like this because it’s what I learnt on and I knew they were amazing, but also super rare – I couldn’t find one anywhere.” Eventually a dairy farmer, Laverne, helped find the ploughs sitting in a hedge on his brother’s farm. And from those run-down parts they built the machine Calixta now uses in Cambridgeshire. “I was incredibly lucky to have their help,” she reflects. “It’s those relationships and connections that give you opportunities.”
Though the use of non-mechanised equipment seems like an antiquated way to run a farm, there are myriad benefits, beyond protecting a dying craft. “Because of the horses we have very little that’s brought onto the farm in terms of fertiliser,” she explains. “It’s all grown or made on site, which is quite uncommon. If you don’t have animals or have those systems, you’ve got to bring commercial fertiliser in from somewhere else to have a decent soil.” It also means no use of fossil fuels and subsequent pollutants near the crops (though Calixta admits to occasionally using ‘an actual mower’ for some bits of cover crops). The impact on the land is also much gentler under the hooves of Bill and Ben. As they’re harnessed to the cultivator for their photo call, they amble along the furrows much more nimbly than we do. In fact, the only collateral damage comes from Bill stooping for a quick snack of the radicchio.
Calixta knows her farming methods may not be for everyone but is sure there is a place for it in modern farming. For her land – 16 acres of which six is currently being farmed (the rest is fallow) – the horses and the astute Amish engineering are more than enough. Though it doesn’t stop her working 14-18 hours a day. In the spirit of a young start up, she just has one full-time employee, Fabio, whilst the rest of her help comes from a team of volunteers through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms programme, some of whom have been with her for a year. For 2019 she’s going to take on three apprentices both to help her and to educate others. “I’m hoping that coming and working on a farm like ours will help people gather the skills they need to learn and to do their own thing in the future.”
Having taken such a significant step away from the family business, what do they think of what she’s doing? “They’re very supportive. In fact my brother is often out here at 11pm at night helping me,” she says. “Lots of people around here are having to sell their farms to developers because they’re not making enough money. Farmers look to their children in the hope that they’ll do something new. My amazing neighbour’s son Sam is doing pastured Red Poll beef – people are trying to do things in a more forward thinking, sustainable way.
Beyond the furrowed fields, the skeleton of a new polytunnel rises out of the ground in preparation for spring crops. It will be twice as long and three times as wide as the existing ones and will allow her to take on some of the customers that are lining up to buy her produce. “At the moment we’re literally at maximum capacity, but we’re keeping in touch with everyone that’s been in contact. It’s so nice to see an enormous amount of interest in what we’re doing; that there are chefs that want to work with producers like us on a much smaller scale and very different to what they’re used to.”
Written by Chloe Hamilton
Photographs by Katie Hammond
This article was first published in Issue 17 of CODE Quarterly
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