Steve’s Leaves at Mullens Farm

In our increasingly rushing lifestyles, bagged salad leaves are the apogee of modern day consumer convenience. Unless you grow your own, it is more than likely that, on your way round the fresh vegetable section of your supermarket, your hands reach out for those pillowy bags of cool, ready picked, sliced, washed and mixed salads leaves. You cut the bag open, pour out the contents, mix in the dressing, and all the work is done. Simple.

According to the British Leafy Salads Association (BLSA) approximately 75% of British households buy bagged salad leaves every week. The recession has meant that price points have had to tighten, meaning that margins have dropped, but quality has had to remain high, as consumers view the product as something that has to offer them immediate gratification, without wastage.

A great deal has been written about the bagged salad leaf industry in the past, however, and the accounts have not always been favourable. Food journalists such as Joanna Blythman have written at length about traces of e-coli, salmonella and listeria being found in the air sealed environment, nitrogen and carbon dioxide being pumped into the plastic bags to make salads look bright and fresh, torn leaves losing Vitamin C and antioxidant content, and pesticide residues being found on some salads. The list goes on.

I set out to find out the facts for myself, to inform The Foodie Bugle readers of how today’s bagged salad standards are shaping up. I made an appointment to meet Andy Elworthy, Farm Manager and Serena Read, Relations Manager, at Mullens Farm, in Manningford Bohune Common, right in the heart of the Pewsey Vale of Wiltshire.

The 350 acre salad leaf growing operation, eponymously branded “Steve’s Leaves” was established in the mid 1980’s by Dr. Steve Rothwell, a man who, in 1983, was awarded a PhD in the Nutritional and Environmental Physiology of Watercress from the University of Bath. He is now the Group Production and Technical Director of Vitacress Salads Limited, headquartered in St.Mary Bourne, Hampshire.

If ever you are driving through Alresford I do recommend you stop and look at the watercress fields. You will see the gate with the Vitacress sign on it, and I do not think you are able to stand right inside the plots, but you can certainly look in. It is breath taking. Watercress grows on narrow, long water beds, and the amount of wildlife, like herons, ducks, frogs, toads, dragonflies and otters that inhabit this landscape makes it a very important centre for bio-diversity.

Agribusiness imperatives command that size is everything: you cannot run a small, artisanal operation making bagged salads. To compete in this price-sensitive, low margin, supermarket led and volume driven industry you not only have to provide a consistent, high quality product on a very large scale, to the whims of supermarket dictates and outwitting the unpredictability of the British weather but you also have to tick all the ecological and environmental boxes.

From where I am standing the view is flat, the sky is wide and the sun is high. We are doing a tour of the baby leaf spinach, rocket, pea shoot and mixed salad leaf beds. They are each approximately 1.5 metres wide, and run in furrowed lengths and widths that fit within the exact dimensions of the harvester tractor’s wheels. One inch too short and the tractor would trample over leaves.

At the moment the leaves I can see measure no more than 2 or 3 cm above the ground. The yield of these crops is seldom more than 700 g of salad leaves per square metre.

Andy Elworth explains that the policy at Steve’s Leaves is to do the first seed sowing in March, and then they sow every single week, up to 3 or 4 times a week during the growing season. They do a younger cut of the leaves, compared to some growers who let the salad leaves grow bigger.

“The younger you cut them, the more tender in texture they are and the flavour is much more subtle. They are not cut and come again salads, which is why we have to do lots of successive sowing, right across the season, from spring till autumn, and the first frosts” explains Andy.

The tongue and groove bedding structure of striped soil and emerald green foliage stretches like a carpet in front of your eyes. This soil is classified as green sand, it is very well drained and in order to nourish it green manure in the form of red clover is added when the soil is resting.

In the distance there is a boom irrigator spraying water across a field of baby spinach. Water runs through a turbine and the turbine drives the gear box. The water is sprayed out of the sprinkler in minute, splashing droplets, and the green carpet beneath it shimmers like silver.

There are no poly tunnels to be seen anywhere, all of the salad leaves are grown outside, at the mercy of the elements. Andy tells me why: “The leaves need to be grown in the air and in the sun if they are to taste good and to look bright. It is the only natural way to grow food, rather than to force it in unnatural conditions.”

The extreme weather conditions hedging mechanism is diversity of location: there are three farms in the supply chain of this salad empire, in Kent, Hampshire and Wiltshire, so the likelihood, say, of getting sharp hail in all three locations at the same time is minimal.

Yet the strain for any farm manager working in this sector is palpable: how do you ensure that you can get the right amount of leaves harvested and ready for collection, to a consistent quality, with the vagaries of the unpredictable British climate?

“That is the challenge we face year round, and the margins are very tight, so you cannot afford to get anything wrong” says Andy. One of the risks, drought, is mitigated by the chalk streams that run across this landscape. The farm has a 45 000 cubic metre winter reservoir, fed by a bore hole, from where the water is irrigated into a holding lagoon. The bore hole is fed by the same spring from which Hildon Spring Water is sourced and bottled. This spring water is the very same that Steve Leaves use to wash their salad leaves when they are harvested.

Andy shows me the salad harvester. It is a self-propelled tractor, with a band saw at the front which cuts the salad leaves from the plant, the crop goes up the first belt, any foreign objects fall off, and the salad leaves continue their way onto a cross conveyor. Two people stand at the back of the tractor, and they manage the empty crates which are filled with the leaves that pass firstly round the conveyor system and are then passed onto a trailer which runs alongside the harvester.

Andy is explaining that in order to reach the Conservation Grade organisation’s “Nature Friendly Farming” status, Mullens Farm has had to carry out a wide ranging set aside programme that needs to be managed across the four seasons and year on year. Ten percent of the land on Mullens Farm is set aside, of which 2% is planted with wildflower seeds, 2% is planted with pollen and nectar rich plants and 2% is planted with wild bird food. The farm provides nesting boxes for owls and tree sparrows, organises farm tours and wildlife days out for nearby schools and undertakes research and analysis into the preservation and conservation of wildlife associated with chalk streams. Farmers awarded Nature Friendly Farming status also have to manage all their hedges, ditches, ponds, old barns and woodland.

The work to maintain bio-diversity also forms part of the Vitacress Conservation Trust, a charitable organisation, run by specialist trustees, of whom Dr. Rothwell is one, to focus on environmental initiatives associated with salad growing.

Steve’s Leaves also provides corporate sponsorship for the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) Hampshire Countryside award.

On land that is only marginally productive, like the damp meadow area where a wildlife corridor has been created, Andy plants an Emorsgate Seeds mix that includes: yarrow, knapweed, oxeye daisy, cowslips, ribwort plantain, yellow rattle, common sorrel, ragged robin, crested dogstail and red fescue. Thistles, mayweed and teasel attract hoverflies which eat aphids and red clover not only fixes nitrogen back into the soil but provides nectar for long tongue bumble bees.

I ask Andy, after many years of trying to establish my own flower meadow, how they have achieved theirs. “We just keep cutting it down, every year, and taking all the cuttings away. We are depleting the natural resources in the soil every year, and as the soil becomes poorer the conditions become more attractive for wildflowers and less attractive for the dominant grasses. Parasitic yellow rattle also helps as it feeds off grasses.”

Some of the fields at Mullens farm are certified organic, but in some pesticides have to be used, as a last resort, where they comply with Conservation Grade rules. Mizuna salads, for example, are very susceptible to flea beetle. If any pesticides are used, the policy is to not harvest the leaves before 5 days after the application. Any potential fungal infections are warded off with the use of UV light.

As soon as the leaves are harvested the natural decomposition of this very fresh and very perishable product begins. Freshly bagged salad leaves constitute a short-shelf life commodity that relies on speed: speed of harvest, washing, bagging and delivery to the cool section of the supermarket vegetable aisle, where time short foodies are waiting for their fresh rocket, shelled peas and pea shoots for tonight’s dinner party.

The motto that underpins the production cycle is “Keep it cold and move it fast”. The leaves are washed and bagged, with only natural air in the bag, and have to be kept cool during the entire time they are transported and delivered to the supermarkets, delicatessens, farm shops and food halls. Bruised, darkended and slimy salad leaves do not sell. The clock is ticking from the moment that zig-zag band saw touches those leaves.

Andy is a South African, an Agriculture BSc graduate of the University of Natal, and his family are beef farmers in the Drakensberg area. He has only been in the UK for fourteen years, and his wife and little son and Andy are now settled here in a landscape and agribusiness very different to the one he grew up in as a boy.

I ask him how he copes with British winters, or even the British summers, for that matter, as there is very little difference between them at times. “When the pressures or the weather all get on top of me I come here” he says, pointing to the wildlife corridor in front of us.

I see a swathe of parchment white daisies, at least half a metre tall, swaying in the wind. There are germinating shoots running the length of one bed, and they include borage, triticale, quinoa, millet and fodder radish for use as bird feed. On the reservoir bank are red poppies and blue cornflowers, as well as bright orange achilleas and yellow buttercups.

During the peak of summer the farm hires part time staff to do the picking, weeding, packing and sowing, but during the winter months there are only 6 full time employees. The cold days are useful however: they are used to repair equipment, prepare for the next year’s planting, carry out staff environmental training and take holidays. Andy tries to go back home to South Africa every 18 months or so.

As far as farms go, this is certainly a very beautiful one. As I drove away, back out towards the picture postcard thatched village houses and brick farmsteads that dot the Wiltshire-Hampshire border, I got somewhat lost in one of the many labyrinthine, Hansel and Gretel long, stony winding tracks that surround Mullens Farm.

I stopped at a wooden gate to look at my Ordnance Survey map, and raised my eyes only to see a wooden frame displaying a wildlife and nature trail poster. This shows illustrations of all the different flora and fauna habitats on the farm, so that if a rambler or school children are walking through they can jot down what to see and where.

I think they’ve thought of everything at Steve’s Leaves. It is a very complex and unforgiving business, however, where, if you are going to continuously maintain such high standards, the delicate balance between nature, sustainability, food production and profitability has to be carefully managed on a daily basis. That is probably why you need a PhD to work it all out. So next time you buy a bag of ready salad leaves I hope you will spare a thought for the work and skill that has gone into it. For me, this journey has really been an education.

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