Happy new year

One usually looks forward with optimism on the first day of the year. For us this year is based on work done from June 2017 onwards. The results of the 2017 harvest provided a blue print of what needs to be done to deliver success in 2018. Through autumn 2017 and right up to Christmas the plan developed as to how to harvest, process and market our sea buckthorn.

This coincided with successful acceptance of our application to put around 125 hectares of the farm into a new five year Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme. This environmental scheme will extend and improve works that have been building bird breeding habitats on our farm over the past ten years. The security of this agreement means that we can budget for the design and development work of the harvesting machinery needed for 2018.

The land involved in the CS agreement lies behind the Naze cliffs at Walton on the Naze. The sea has been eroding these cliffs at a rate of between 1-1.5m per year. This year is critical because the cliffs have almost completely eroded away in front of our land. In 2008 and 2011 a clay bund was placed against the back of the cliffs to re-inforce them, but this is now almost gone. Over 2017 we have partnered with local government, the Environment Agency and Anglian Water to build a new wall to protect both our land and the Anglian Water Treatment works that both stand at risk from flooding. If the sea breaks through, our five year CS agreement and the land will be lost. Hopefully it will be a “happy new year” and 2018 will see this protection wall built – as it represents a risk to both the land involved and funding security for the sea buckthorn.

Developing the funding for the new harvesting equipment has involved making an application for LEADER funding. This is EU funding, distributed through the North Essex and Suffolk area to support rural business development. In 2013 and 2015 the farm was involved in two EU funding bids with European sea buckthorn partners. The amount of work is massive and often to tight deadlines. This LEADER application is no exception, but the process has real value in questioning ideas and developing a more robust business plan. The need for funding support for our harvesting equipment will allow our own funds to go further and allow them to progress the plant trials that we are planning to develop with NIAB East Malling Research over the next three years.

Having now grown our Siberian sea buckthorn we now need to quantify our methods and improve them so that the resultant crop has consistent quality. The branch cutting harvesting process is a novel system that requires plants to rejuvenate rapidly to produce new branches so we can harvest on a three year cycle. Branch rejuvenation will need the right foliar fertilisers and management to minimise plant stress that might bring on plant disease.

The unpredictability of weather is also a concern. Long dry periods may be a cause of berries being smaller than average and also impact on variable ripening times. We need to look at possible low level irrigation below harvest to prevent such weather extremes from becoming a regular problem.

Understanding which varieties are best suited to our climate and soils is crucial to developing these plants into a commercial crop of the future. Our organic management will need to identify which varieties respond to these management methods, which yield best and which have the qualities that match market needs.

All of these issues will take a minimum of three years to define, but once achieved we can progress the crop with confidence.

This is not to say that we will not be expanding planting this year. As we enter the market in 2018, we need to increase the size of our orchard for the future. It takes four years to bring plants to fruit. The current orchard has plants established annually from 2011 through to 2015 so yield will be increasing to a peak in 2021/22. Plants established in 2018 will build on the current 4000 plant stock and provide for a growing market through into the next decade.

Alongside new plants will come a specialist tractor and weeding cultivator to mechanise field work. Machinery will not be the only investment for 2018 as the potential of the 2018 crop will push our resources to the limit, so we will also be looking to recruit this year. Time is always a precious resource and ensuring we deliver our best crop will only come with attention to detail delivered by an expanding team.

So as January starts, it feels like 2018 is going to be a year to remember, and as I write this I wish everyone a happy, healthy and successful New Year for 2018.


2018 Becoming a Practical Reality

After two mild winters it is refreshing to have frosts appearing nightly. It is also good news to finally see some signs of movement in the Brexit negotiations. As a strong advocate of remaining in Europe I have to accept the outcome. In agriculture it poses threats to how we trade and the need for seasonal workers. With threat comes fear which is not always justified but when there is nothing else to do but wait it is better to be positive and optimistic.

Autumn is a busy time for farming, but for our sea buckthorn project this seems to have been a particularly focused season of activity. At harvest is was disappointing to decide not to pick the crop. Variable size of berries, realisation that our harvest is both early ( July) and short ( one month ) brought home the scale of the task ahead to perfect the growing of our Siberian plants.

The trip to Siberia in September, followed by visiting the Euroworks conference in Warsaw in October provided a number of answers to how we need to solve some of the issues presented from the 2017 harvest. Finding solutions may be progress but implementing them is another. It is now essential that not only do we find solutions, but they are all implemented so that we have a successful harvest in July 2018 to take to market.

It is remarkable sometimes how opportunity arrives out of the blue that helps this progression.

When you are a very small business, time is one of the most important resources. Basic field work such as mowing and strimming to control weeds has been a daily task over the summers of the past four years. It has therefore been a huge relief to find a tractor and Ladurna cultivator that will revolutionise our field work for this coming season. The cultivator is small and specialist but works like a small, shallow rotovator, clawing out the weeds next to the plants. This year it will need to be used multiple times to get on top of our broad leaved weed population but I am hopeful in future years the problem will recede.

The fact we had variation in size and ripeness of berries this harvest will be solvable, but we need to be methodical in perfecting the combination of management that reduces the problem. The berries Ben and I saw in Siberia were huge – the size of olives. I am not sure we can aspire to this, as our soil and climate cannot be altered, but we can alter compost and foliar feed management, and possibly use a targeted, limited use of irrigation. NIAB East Malling Research have been contacted to help in this work and hopefully they will be able to help. It is hard to tell, but I suspect this is a 3 year project.

Field management is an issue but the greatest challenge right from the start of this project back in 2009 is the issue of finding an efficient harvesting system.

With only 4000 plants we are still a small operation. We have plans to grow more plants but expansion needs to wait until it is clear which varieties will provide the best crop for us. If we had 50 hectares – 60,000 plants then we could go to Germany to buy the Kranemann harvesting system, but the system needs this scale to be viable. It is however a great concept. We have seen it in operation in Germany, and we saw the concept of branch cutting is now accepted practice in Siberia.

Branch cutting as a means of harvesting has its drawbacks, particularly as branches cut take three years to recover. Cutting all the branches from a plant – as is the practice in Germany, means that you do not have a crop for another three years. It also works best with varieties that regrow rapidly. If we commit to this system we need to monitor our plants closely to see which varieties at Devereux farm have the ability for rapid regrowth.

Harvest 2017 practically proved to us that hand picking is too slow with our size of berries to be practical or economically viable. The alternative therefore is to build our own version of the German branch cutting system.

This will take time; need the right engineers and require funding.

To this end Ben and I are completely focused at the moment on raising the funding to develop this system. Grant funding is an option and following the acceptance of an Expression of Interest for help from our local Heritage Coast LEADER team we are filling out a grant application system to part fund the development of the harvesting system.

These grants are designed to promote rural economies and employment. Developing the harvesting system is our key to being able to bring a crop of the right quality to market. It also triggers the process for starting to develop products. Once we enter the market we will need to expand the orchard. This whole process means we will start to need staff. When this happens we can start to say that the Devereux sea buckthorn project is working.

I still consider it to be a 20 year project – that being from the first plantings in 2009 of german and Finnish varieties, through to having a mature orchard annually providing a quality crop to the demands of a growing market. 2029 seems a long way off, but as we plan the developments for harvest 2018 it now all starts to seem practical.

Networking and Whole Crop Potential for Natural Health Benefits

Our sea buckthorn harvest this year seems to have generated a whirlwind of travelling. Maybe it was naive to consider that flying plants several thousand miles to a new growing environment was not going to create some ticklish problems, but all new enterprise is about challenge.

Harvestability is key to developing any crop. This has always been a key area for development with sea buckthorn. It has resulted in the development of whole crop branch cutting machinery in Germany and this concept is the one that we are following. This developed as the alternative to traditional handpicking.

Handpicking we tried this year, but the berries were just too small to make this viable. It is standard practice in Siberia, and Ben and I watched it last month on a farm with over 700 hectares of sea buckthorn. The secret was the pickers were dealing with large berries on very mature plants. Their berries were the size of olives. They were also being picked for oil which meant that they could be picked slightly under ripe, so they were still firm.

Our trip to Siberia has shown the shape, size, colour and taste that our Siberian varieties should look like. It has turned out that we are not the only one’s with this problem.

Last week was the biannual Euroworks workshop. This year is was in Pruszkow, Poland. It was well attended as usual with delegates from Scandinavia, central and Eastern Europe and Russia. The networking opportunity of these events is invaluable. The interest in sea buckthorn is expanding and this year Rumania was well represented indicating an impressive level of investment. This has developed out of local recognition of the health benefits of taking sea buckthorn, particularly in reducing the level of winter colds in schools.

One of the presentations on Friday was from Humboldt university doing trials on Siberian varieties like ours. As previous trials in the Baltic have resulted failed with these varieties there has been a preference to use local and German plants. The Humboldt trial cleverly looks at grafting siberian stock onto german Leikora variety rootstock. The growth rates recorded showed a significant improvement with the grafted plants as opposed to whole Siberian plants.

The issue that has been recorded however is small berries – just like ours. This factor was also confirmed in some trial plants being grown in Greece.

Siberian plants have a number of advantages over European – thornless, berries with natural sugars that reduce the traditional sour taste, but large berries are a key characteristic.

I had the opportunity to have long discussions with sea buckthorn agronomists from Sweden and Germany and clearly we need to take a scientific approach to solving this problem. It could be an issue of maturity of plants, but this is unlikely to be the driving factor. Our use of foliar feeds, irrigation, soil type, soil fertility are all variables that may adjust berry size back to normal.

Ambient temperature always was going to be an issue. The cold winters in Siberia are a factor, but the fact that we have had some long dry periods may be causing some changes in characteristics. I have noticed a secondary pollination producing a few green berries in late August. This has also been noted in Greece. It has been suggested that this is a response to both heat and dry conditions making the plant feel it has been through a false dormancy.

The result of all this means we need to design a trial, measuring the impact on yield and plant growth of different levels of foliar feeds, composts and irrigation. I am hopeful that we will find a UK horticultural or agricultural institute to help in the trials and well as linking ours with the work being done in Humboldt.

These trials will be an ideal focus to then monitor and analyse the impact of branch cutting as a harvesting method. The German harvest system cuts all the branches of a plant using a large mechanical harvester. Berries grow on last year’s wood, so this method means that the plant takes three years to regrow sufficiently between crops. It is efficient and economical but means that you need three times as many plants as you would do if you picked every year.

An alternative would be to just cut one third of the branches on each bush. This will be our way forward. It raises the problem though of encouraging the principle pest of sea buckthorn – the sea buckthorn fly – Rhagoletis batava. This has the capacity to damage up to half the crop. It has been found in Germany in 2013/14 having migrated across from Asia. Our trials need to also look to finding ways of designing a growing and harvesting process that offers a minimum of fruit to the fly when it is active.

Trials are part of the process of developing a crop, but we have also to make the whole project here at Devereux farm viable. Next year we have to produce a crop and develop it into a product. Euroworks provided an insight into new sea buckthorn product developments in Europe. An EU funded project, investigating how extracts from sea buckthorn leaves can inhibit the harmful impacts of the consumption of red meat. The results of this project coming to fruition next March. Another presentation focused on Allantoin, a phtyochemical that is being isolated as providing the rapid wound healing properties long recognised as a sea buckthorn property. Work on the presence of natural serotonin in the bark of sea buckthorn progresses. Research both from Russia and Germany is focusing on extraction techniques. One of the long term objectives of the sea buckthorn industry has been to find value in the complete plant – the fruit, leaves and wood. Sea buckthorn has long been recognised for its health benefits – the work on allantoin and serotonin are both specific examples of where developing this perennial, sustainable crop is taking us.

Our precious environment, both here and in Siberia.

Living on a farm has its advantages. A principle one is the landscape you live in. Our farm, being on the coast has the sea as its neighbour. During the summer, this is a benign environment of great beauty. Often, as a family we go down the Island lane that runs through the farm, down to an old wartime concrete pillbox which sits on the top of the sea wall. There is something magical about watching the sun go down across this tidal marsh. The sounds of wind and tide and birds settling down for the night is timeless. It is one of the most restful and yet awe inspiring experiences I know. it is no wonder that this area is designated a national nature reserve with international protection as a Ramsar site.

Against this calm and all absorbing landscape, our farm also stretches onto the Naze, a pensinsula that envelopes the eastern side of the tidal nature reserve that is so precious to us. The Naze protects this 2000 hectare area of slat marsh, creeks and mudflats from the North Sea.

The same sea that gently rolls in and covers the nature reserve on every tide, is also destructive.

Every year the cliffs on the seaward eastern side of the Naze, approximately 0ne kilometre in length, are eroded back by 1.5m per year. The cliffs form the high point of the Naze, falling back to sea level across our farmland to the western side of the peninsula, with a 5m high sea wall keeping the sea out of this low lying land. Only a few thousand years ago the North Sea was dry land. It would have been possible to walk across what is now sea bed between the UK and Holland. The end of the Ice Age saw the whole area flooded. Constant erosion with the occasional surge tide has continually pushed back the land to its current form.

For us this time is now critical. Where the cliff slopes down into the lowland, it no longer presents a barrier to the North Sea. Whereas no more than six years ago there was over 15m of cliff between the sea and the low lying land this is all but gone with only the landward face of a protective sea wall bund keeping the sea from flooding in.

Plans to build a counterwall to keep this flood out have been under discussion since 2010 between local authorities and all involved. Now it has come to a time when we all face imminent flooding and the wall is still not built. Winter storms face us. This is a form of environmental crisis which is very real. Not as instant as a hurricane, but threatens all.

The constant coastal process of erosion is not a factor of climate change. Climate change adds to our concerns for the long term future of living on the coast, but part of the BBC’s latest program presented by Simon Reeve travelling across Russia illustrated a really stark revelation.

In Siberia, the permafrost is thawing. A vast crater has appeared as the land slumps inward. The permanently frozen soil can no longer hold itself together. It is shrinking back exposing rock cliffs that where previously buried beneath this massively deep, once permanently frozen organic soil. It presents a graphic illustration that the world is warming and the ramifications need to be fully understood by all of us. We should all take a little time to personally investigate what the thawing of the permafrost means. The rate of climate change; the world it will change and what that means for how we will live.

Against this backdrop of doom I was struck by some really good news this week. President Putin declared that the last of the Russian stocks of chemical weapons had been destroyed. In a world where war prevails and political instability seems rife, this statement is a really positive action and sets an example for those that seem to treat human life as trivial.

Returning now back to Devereux farm, there is a really positive mood prevailing.

The sea buckthorn harvest presented a number of reality checks. It was earlier and much shorter than anticipated. There was a high yield of berries. The berries however presented themselves with wide variation in size and ripeness. We all pick fruit when it is ripe because its taste is perfect at that time. Perfecting the ability to harvest only ripe berries is going to be the art in harvesting sea buckthorn.

It will seem that this blog has travelling to Russia as a key theme, but presented with varying results at harvest it seemed the best resolution was to go back to where our sea buckthorn plants come from – Siberia.

Ben and I were honoured to be asked to attend the International Sea Buckthorn Association Scientific committee meeting at the Lisavenko research Institute in Barnaul, Siberia. Those around the meeting came from Russia, China, Scandinavia and Europe. The committee is a catalyst for developing sea buckthorn, scientific research into its benefits and properties, perfecting breeding and growing commercial varieties, and how to bring its qualities to the consumer.

Our trip included visits to processing factories, where advanced European technology is being used. A visit to the Lisavenko Institute plant propagation unit producing around a million plants per year. A 700 hectare  sea buckthorn farm using the same varieties that we are growing at Devereux. This opportunity has given us a chance to understand better how we need to manage our plants and perfect our interpretation of harvest techniques being perfected in both Russia and Europe.

It is said that travel broadens the mind. Siberia is a very long way to go, but it was well worth it. Our knowledge has been expanded and again it is clear that whatever nation we come from, people are people and when there is a common interest there is a warmth and friendship that breaks down all barriers.

Back to Siberia and Lisavenko

The primary objective of growing sea buckthorn here at Devereux farm has always been to produce a commercial crop of consistent quality berries. This crop then has to be acceptable to the UK market. With sea buckthorn growing wild in the UK this might not seem like much of a challenge. All crops at some stage have been derived from wild stock, but it takes many years of breeding to tame them. Our wild varieties are picked by foragers who I admire as the plants bristle with thorns potentially making harvesting difficult and painful.

From the outset the Devereux farm project started by looking for plants with less thorns and easier harvestability. German commercial varieties fitted this criteria and commercially proven. To undertake this work you have to be inquisitive so our original thoughts widened the choice of which varieties to plant, so the German plants were joined by plants from Finland. Varieties of Terhi, Tytti, Raisa together with males of Rudolph and Tarmo joining the initial trials back in 2009.

At the time we also looked at trying to source other varieties from North America. These plants were primarily of Russian genetics, but regulations made it difficult to import them. This was frustrating as it was clear then that as plant breeding of sea buckthorn had been developing since the 1930s in Russia, this was the place to source varieties.

Projects such as ours often develop from opportunity rather than an exact plan. So in that same year of 2009, when the chance to attend the International Sea Buckthorn Association (ISA) conference in Siberia was offered this seemed like a huge leap forward. The visit was planned by the Incrops Enterprise hub, then based at the University of East Anglia. The University of East Anglia was developing then, and since has become a centre of excellence in plant breeding and research.

Attending the ISA conference was a real eye opener with several hundred delegates from around the world. Over a week there were many research papers presented indicating the huge depth of work going on in Russia, China, Germany, Scandinavia and Himalayan India. Results of the EAN Sea Buck project – an EU funded analysis of the global sea buckthorn industry; farming issues from organic methods, pest and disease management, harvesting, and processing. Papers on benefits, including one on improving cognitive impairment. This was inspirational.

The conference hosts, the Lisavenko Research institute of Horticulture for Siberia also arranged a visit to their facilities and orchards to view their varieties. Varieties that were being bred for the global commercial market focusing on harvestability, taste, yield and nutritional content. This presented sea buckthorn farming as a new reality.

In the following year a collaborative agreement developed between Lisavenko and Incrops Enterprise hub. The result was access to Siberian varieties for our farm.

That is now all history, the practical result at Devereux farm is one field with our original german and finnish varieties and a second site containing ten Siberian varieties all sourced from Lisavenko.

Six years on from when the first Siberian plants went into the ground, much has been learnt from trial, error and solving each problem as it presents itself. The plants are maturing and the fact that our soil and climate is alien to them means that they are still acclimatising.

This year approximately 2500 of the Siberian plants presented a good crop – our first real sight of delivering our primary objective, a commercial crop.  A commercial crop has to have consistent quality and it is to this subject that we now have to focus.

The objective of planting mixed varieties is to have early, mid-season and late ripening so harvest is staggered over maybe two months or longer. This year has indicated that even though the varieties we have present a long harvest period in Siberia, for us they almost all ripen together. The weather we have had this year has been unusual so it difficult to assess whether the short harvest season is a factor just for this year or not. The second issue has been variable size of berry on the same plant.

Lisavenko declare the average size of their berries so we had a guide and an expectancy. The variable size of berries present a confused position on this and it is important. Large berries are easier to pick. Our crop had maybe 10% large berries and even these were not as large as the Lisavenko expectation.

To deliver a crop of consistent quality, understanding ripening times and size of berry are key, but there has been a third factor. German berries develop in thick clumps on branches. Siberian berries being larger, appear as individual berries on stalks. Our plants are presenting their crop as clumps which means that as the berries grow in size they become squeezed between each other often creating mis-shapen fruit. As we all know the UK market in supermarkets requires size to be uniform, and mis-shapen fruit is unmarketable.

So this harvest has presented the next raft of problems to solve. This is no different to past issues. We have resolved issues with pests, with diseases, with acclimatising the plants to our soil.

To start the process of resolving these issues we decided this year that there was only one way to understand them. Travel back to Siberia and visit Lisvenko itself – see their plants at their harvest time; see their berries being harvested and assess their ripening times. By compare their management techniques with ours we can make a plan to improve our agronomy in the field so that we can grow berries of consistent size and marketability. Extending the ripening season may be an issue we have to live with, but a shorter harvest will require the most efficient harvesting technique.

So with all this in mind, Ben and I have just travelled to Siberia for a six day visit. We were honoured by attending the Board of the directors of the Scientific committee of the International Sea Buckthorn Association. We saw new processing machinery that makes sense of our harvesting issues. We visited the largest sea buckthorn plantation in Siberia, saw it being harvested and assessed plants of all ages of maturity within that site. The visit provided the opportunity to discuss our issues with those at the fore-front of the global industry. It has been an intense visit, but provided much food for thought and resolved in our minds how to move forward for successfully delivering our aim to produce a commercial crop of siberian sea buckthorn in the UK.

Reality and Unpredictability

Plans and budgets are all very well, but reality is unpredictable. I had anticipated that our harvest would have been spread over at least 50 days. Generic information about each variety indicated large berry size. The order in which varieties were likely to ripen was formed from actual Brix measurement trends. In reality all this has to be logged as life experience. All eight Siberian varieties ripening over just 28 days. The speed at which berries went from ripe to over ripe. Variable berry size, the proportion of large to small, and how each size ripen are all critical to creating a viable harvest.

How many times have I had to remind myself that growing these varieties is a trial not a commercial crop. Every year edges it forward to becoming commercial. Every year comes with successes, but with this comes new questions. A principle achievment this year has been a collective agreement about taste.

Taste is the most important issue. This has been the first year where there has been sufficient crop to assess taste across varieties, plant ages and conditions. The one variety that is questionable is Elizaveta. For some reason the berry, although large and impressive has a slight fermented flavour. This in itself might be useful in particular product, but it could have a potential to taint other variety berries, so it will need using carefully.

A huge amount has been learnt from this harvest, but there are also many unanswered questions. Next year’s harvest is now the focus. With conventional farming there would be many sources for this information. For Siberian sea buckthorn there is only one choice but going back to source – so next month Ben and I are going to Siberia to test our thoughts on those who have been growing this crop for years.

Being able to assess each of the varieties here at Devereux farm provides understanding of the raw berry. The objective of growing the crop is to turn it into a marketable product. As a new product on the market it has to achieve immediate impression. Consistent quality in flavour, colour, function is essential. Taste has to inspire to become a credible ingredient in recipies and products.

While there has to be focus on clarity of the issues that arose from this last harvest, there must be equal importance put on what to do with it.

As soon as the berry is picked it has to be handled with care to capture and retain its quality. Storage has technical options that can influence how to transfer this quality from bush to product.  Once again, there is little or no experience in developing the best system to achieve the sea buckthorn product that is best suited to the UK market.

Investing in equipment therefore has to find a flexible line to adapt to future needs. Scale will soon outmode what is bought for the purpose now. The crop will grow in yield and we will improve out harvesting efficiency. Growing multiple varieties creates challenges in itself as each has its own quality parameters that need to be managed and brought into the context of delivering a consistent product to the market.

This autumn and winter’s diary is filling fast with tasks that need to be achieved. Until now investment has been moderate and in small tranches. The farm has been able to absorb this new enterprise into its cashflow without issue. The coming phase will require a new level of finance in buildings, infrastructure, equipment and ultimately new staff.

This comes at a time when the UK is entering the Brexit negotiations. Regardless of personal views on the subject this is unsettling. The reality with this whole subject is as unpredictable as our growing sea buckthorn. The difference is that a poor outcome will impact on the economic wellbeing of our internal market. Confidence is difficult to find when there are uncertainties and instability. Finding finance will become more difficult. Finding markets for new product will require additional levels of faith, trust and belief.

Our core business of the rest of the farm will also need to assess its future. 50% of the farm has been managed as conservation land to enhance the neighbouring Hamford Water National Nature reserve for over ten years. Predicting future agricultural policy for the UK is impossible until the results of Brexit are delivered. This conservation land has become part of the ethos of the farm. Developing habitat and biodiversity is not something that can be switched on and off at will. We are told that this is important to the government at the moment, but if access to markets changes and the demand for home grown food changes then all this might change.

Climate change is a reality we now live with. Every winter the risk of surge tides overtopping our sea walls rises. Sea level rise and increased winter storminess come with this. We are all aware of extreme weather events becoming part of life. Extreme though these are, they are natural events and therefore accepted as part of life. The variables brought about by political and economic events are somehow less easy to accept as they should be more manageable.

But life is about opportunities and although political tensions are sometimes worrying they are only a distraction from the need to keep focused on one’s own future.

Growing sea buckthorn is something this farm is committed to and 2017 has been another positive year in its development. 2018 will become formative in the future of the whole enterprise.

A first crop and a taster for the future

In farming the environment contributes probably more than 80% towards results of growing sea buckthorn here in the UK. By environment I mean, soil, weather, pests and diseases. The other 20% represents the amount of impact one’s management has on the end result.

Over the past five years, the 20% includes the compost spread, weed cutting , compost tea applications, pruning and all those actions that go towards creating a healthy environment for the plants to live in. Each arising from a problem identified and a solution tested.

The 80% however is a problem. Harvest 2017 promised to be good. Pollination worked well and all sea buckthorn plants presented berries. Berry ripening monitored from June indicated a steady week on week improvement through into July.

Colour change, firmness, Brix (soluable solids) figures provided guidance as to when each variety would ripen and in what order enough to create a plan. Etna, as in 2016 was the earliest. Chuiskaya, Augustina and Elizaveta looked as if they would be next in July, followed by Klaudia. Sudarushka, Altaiskaya and Inya would then come through in August as later varieties.

Added to the physical assessments tasting has been a key tool to assess ripeness. A process in which the whole family has participated. As the farm’s first crop there has been nothing to guide us from previous years, except for memories of the first time I tasted them in their native Siberia in 2009. The concept that Siberian berries are sweeter provided a broad guide but this only applies to some of them. Taste is part of the growing process. Again, the fact the plants are in an alien soil and climate might alter the end result.

In the back of my mind was the concept that the Siberian harvest extends through August and September. From last year I knew that Etna came early in July, so it is logical that our harvest should extend through July and August.

Reality has been a hard lesson.

Etna did ripen first, from June 28th. Klaudia, as unpredictable as ever developed from being  unripe in the second week of July. Not only that, but the taste was still sharp and measuring a lower Brix. Chuiskaya and Augustina were developing well in this time and we started to pick them. Within a few days Klaudia rapidly ripened and its smaller berry made it difficult to pick.  At this time there was still a concept that three varieties would ripen in August. They remained firm, although the colour was a uniform orange and Brix moving through 11. Some Inya berries looked as if they would develop into long and large berries of around 0.9gm or even bigger.

The inconvenient truth is that all the varieties at Devereux farm ripened very rapidly. With an expectation of berries to grow in size and taste to sweeten we waited. The majority of the berries did not grow and became over ripe in the process. Whether this is an issue of the plants being young, a problem of soil or weather we will have to ascertain during the year ahead. We have always known that hand picking is an problem that holds sea buckthorn back as a crop, but this becomes extreme if a berry is no bigger than 0.5g.

There has to be a solution to harvesting the smaller berried varieties. In Europe harvesting is often a process of cutting branches, then freezing them making the branches brittle. When shaken the berries and leaves fall off easily without damage. This works well with some, but not all varieties.

In the hope that this might work with some Siberian varieties we have selected four varieties for cutting trials – Etna, Altaiskaya, Sudarushka and Inya. All these we have observed as being stronger growers. Hopefully they will react to branch cutting by producing a biannual cycle of harvestable branches and a solution to cropping smaller berries.

Some of these small berried varieties have distinctive and attractive taste. In our tasting trials we have noticed the subtle differences between varieties. Tones of apricot, apple, pineapple have all been expressed. All have the promised sugar/acid flavour balance characterised by Lisavenko varieties,  with this ratio varying between varieties. This will be useful in the future for blending when mixing for different product use.

This harvest is not over as there are still non-Siberian varieties still to pick. Picking the Siberian berries has provided the first opportunity to prove their taste is second to none. Delivering berry quality has always been the focus. This first harvest has provided the opportunity to understand the quality standards that we want to achieve. Some of these require technical solutions that will be be part of the on site processing facilities that we are having designed for installation this winter. Others are part of the process of developing growing techniques. For this we need to go back to the experts, so this means a trip to Siberia itself.

Growing any crop is a natural process and to get it right we just have to be patient – for one more year.

Understanding growing quality in berry and standards

As the Devereux farm sea buckthorn project has progressed each year has achieved some milestones. From 2012 to 2014 the Siberian sea buckthorn plants were imported and established. 2014/2015 disease became an issue and solutions were found following the principle that the project was to be organic. 2016 the Soil Association started the three year organic accreditation process. 2017, non lethal anti-bird measures to protect the crop were installed and the first crop developed.

Having found a stage where there is a crop of up to 10kg on some varieties there are two clear objectives for the next twelve months. The first of these is technical. Investing in facilities that pass Environmental health inspectors, and pursue quality accreditation for our product to add to our Soil Association application which will make us organic by 2019.

As farmers and growers we are a primary producer, producing a simple berry product the only processing being put into a punnet for market. As such the Environmental Health regulations are not tight, but if we are installing processing equipment this winter so the regulations will have to conform as to full food manufacturing standards. In the long term this will be worth it, but this adds a significant learning curve to the project at this stage.

Alongside this the other objective is to really get to understand how to grow Siberian sea buckthorn here in the UK. It is one thing to grow the plants successfully. Achieving a good pollination has shown that we can produce a significant amount of berries. The next stage from that is growing a consistently larger berry.

In siberia berry size varies, but for some of the varieties we have a target of over 1 gram per berry is achievable. So this has to be a target. Currently we are seeing berry size of an average of up to 0.85gm. Soil type has always been an issue as our clay soils are the direct opposite of the soil that sea buckthorn likes. To improve our soils we have to improve the organic matter and moisture retention in the soil and ensure that all the nutrients that are key to developing good fruit are available to the plant.

Soil samples taken earlier this summer provide guidance, but as a new crop in an unfamiliar environment success will come from more exacting trials. The taste of the berries we are producing is superb, but perfecting taste, size and nutritional quality will take time.

As this harvest progresses we are starting to understand the way each of the varieties ripens. So far Etna started the process with small sweet berries, slightly red in colour. Klaudia – having given an impression that this was still maybe two weeks from maturing has ripened incredibly quickly. The berries are long, but not filling to a size that was anticipated. Thick clumps of berries are ripening at different rates on the branches, making picking a difficult process. Next year we need to start earlier and it is clear that picking Klaudia will require multiple picking visits over a period of time to make harvest effective. Chuiskaya is ripe now, but Elizaveta is also very close.  Chuiskaya berries are rounder and full, which is how one would expect other varieties to present themselves. Some Chuiskaya plants have bigger berries than others indicating that maybe variation in soil in the field is an influence.

As these factors need to be considered and a program developed for next year to focus on improving berry size across the crop.

With this melting pot of ideas we are picking all varieties, but trying different approaches with different varieties trying to find the most effective way to hand pick quickly, accurately and without damage. We are picking some of all varieties and freezing them down for processing trials this winter. Without full Environmental health inspected facilities we will not be selling this year, so picking is down to the family. But we are confident in perfecting growing method, picking, storage, processing and that is a huge leap forward.