Cobrey Farm - Pioneering Asparagus Growers
John Chinn, Pioneer Asparagus Grower
This project is a UK first and could revolutionise the British asparagus season. This is also one of the first projects that Marks & Spencer has co-invested funds from its Sustainable Agriculture Fund as part of Plan A. It feels this project should be used as a shining example to other farming businesses as to what can be achieved when you set your mind to something.
Cobrey Farm is a fourth generation family farming business currently under the stewardship of John Chinn and his wife Gay, together with their sons Henry, 34, and Christopher, 30. The farm is based in an old meander valley of the river Wye in South Hereforddhire. The sheltered valley has very early south-facing sloped balanced by late season north-facing fields. Following a serious fire on the farm in 2002, the family decided to stop growing onions and to look for an alternative cash crop. John looked into strawberry production and was amazed at the progress that had been made by that industry over the previous ten years in terms of yield increases and season extension. He decided that, rather than compete in the soft fruit industry, he would look for a crop that would benefit from a similar input of science and technology. He chose asparagus, a crop with production systems that had not changed in decades and where the British season lasted a mere eight weeks.
At first John extended the season by making the most of the micro-climate within the hidden valley. By using polytheme cloches and an early variety on the south-facing slopes, he begins harvesting in early April. And a system of alternate long season, short-season harvesting of a late variety on the north-facing slopes extends the harvest into July. Exclusively for Marks & Spencer, the Chinn family has already extended the British asparagus season from the traditional eight weeks to 14, and in the process saved 500 tonnes of carbon dioxide flying product from Peru.
Now John has gone a step further. Following two study trips to Peru to learn about different asparagus varieties and growing systems, he has developed 'reverse season' production on the family's farm in the Wye Valley. This entirely new and innovative concept produces a second season for British asparagus, with production from early September to early November. The production system relies on harnessing the sun's energy rather than artificial heating, but has only become possible thanks to the development of a special new variety and precise feeding and watering of the plants. The super-sweet spears will be in selected Marks & Spencer stores from early September this year.
As guardians of the land that they farm, the Chinn family seeks to balance profitable, sustainable food production with care for and improvement of the environment. Farming sloping fields of sandy coil adjacent to streams and the river Wye, they are developing swales, grassed waterways and rainwater harvesting techniques to safeguard their two most valuable resources: soil and water.