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Good Ribes Only - Catching up with Tom Maynard

Maynards Farm has been growing fruit for nearly 70 years. Every summer they supply Square Root with fresh & juicy Blackcurrants. James Beeson heads to the Sussex countryside and catches up with owner Tom Maynard to get a glimpse of life on the farm.

Sign outside Maynard's Farm

Growing fruit is in Tom Maynards’ blood. The second generation farmer - now in his 60s - grew up on the family farm in Ticehurst, East Sussex, and had dedicated his life to the study of horticulture. But the tradition of farming in his family goes back even further. “My grandfather was a fruit grower as well just down the road at Stonegate a couple of miles away,” he tells me over coffee in the cottage on the farm where he grew up and still resides.

“My father was bought up on a farm down there. It was right down in the valley and the soil wasn’t particularly good and was always getting frosted.”

Maynards Farm barn

Keen to carry on the tradition of growing - but wanting to make more of a success of it than his father - David Maynard (Tom’s father), went looking for a site further uphill, eventually buying what is now Maynards Farm in 1952. He and his wife – who had both studied Horticulture degrees at Wye College - set to work transforming the derelict site to be fruit-growing ready.

Tom grew up on Maynards Farm as one of four children, moving away to Zambia initially after his studies, before returning in 1984 with his wife Alison to take over the farm from his father. At the time of writing, all of the children are currently living or working on the farm in some capacity (with the exception of one brother who is a barrister in the village), while David remains involved at the ripe old age of 92.

Tom Maynard picking fruits on the farm

"My father likes to keep his hand in to a degree,” he chuckles. “You’ll often see him going about the place on the mower. It’s a family business.”

On the day of my visit the sun is beating down, and the fruit picking season is well and truly underway. Tom greets me with a smile, inviting me into his home before taking me on a tour of the 55 acre site.

“My parents started out growing fruit in what was the typical way,” he tells me. “They’d grow some strawberries and sell them on the wholesale market as a price taker - you got the price that was going and that could either be high or low, depending on the market at the time.

“At the end of the season, people would be invited onto the farm to come and pick their own fruit, but it was just what was left and to clear up excess. It wasn’t the focus of the business at the time.”

Sign that says Berries at Maynards Farm

Sometime in the early 1960, David had what Tom describes as “a lightbulb moment”, switching the focus of the farm towards growing fruit with the specific purpose of inviting the public to come and pick their own.

“At the time people were just starting to get freezers and cars,” he explains. “It was sort of the start of consumerism in a way - people were looking for things to do at the weekend, but also still looking for economy. We’d advertise it in the Kent & Sussex Courier and people would come down for a day out and to pick their jamming strawberries and such.”

The resulting switch was a resounding success, with few other farms offering a Pick Your Own service at the time. Gradually, Maynards was able to grow newer and more interesting varieties of fruit on the farm, without having to worry about whether supermarkets would take them.

Man picking berries on Maynard's Farm

“We’re growing a wide variety and we’re growing things that there is no supermarket trade for,” Tom says. “It won’t justify its space on a supermarket shelf, but people will come here because they can get all sorts of things like tayberries and gooseberries they can’t get anywhere else.”

Tom estimates that Pick Your Own now accounts for around 35% of Maynards turnover, but around 70% of its profits. Last year, despite COVID, the farm had an average of 60 visitors per day over the summer months, including a high of around 600 people on one particularly sunny day.

“Most people that come here are coming for the fruit, but they’re also coming for a day out and an experience,” he says. “You’re effectively selling the sunshine, which last year was great and this year has been absolutely rubbish!”

Tayberries on a branch

The other major part of Maynards’ business is blackcurrant growing. In total, Tom grows over 150 tonnes of these small, dark, juicy fruits a year (both on his main site, and several other dedicated farms nearby).

The majority of these currants are grown for a particularly well-known blackcurrant drink, whom Maynard’s has supplied since the 1960s. What’s left, Square Root is only too happy to swoop in and scoop up to make its autumn seasonal Blackcurrant Soda.

“Tom is such a passionate person and his farm strikes a fine balance between space to innovate and try new crops, and commercial production at scale,” explains Square Root’s co-founder Ed Taylor.

“From Tayberries, Sour Cherries, multiple types of gooseberry and an incredible selection of plums – he’s really got an amazing array of top notch produce.

“Working directly with growers was always a huge aspiration of ours,” he continues. “As a growing company finding the right suppliers is key – we need someone who’s keen and interested in trying out new things but also has the scale & size to supply us if something takes off and we need to grow it. Tom fits the bill in all of those respects!”

Blackcurrants on a branch

“The Ribena contract is a big part of my business,” Tom admits. “They’ve been a very good company to work with, but it’s nice to have a diversity of outlets to sell to. Square Root doesn’t need 150 tonnes of blackcurrants, but it’s an exciting, dynamic company. I like Ed and Robyn and the charitable work they do with Company Drinks. I’ve always enjoyed working with them.”

High in vitamin C and packed with antioxidants, blakcurrants make for a powerful and punchy ingredient in soda. Square Root takes whole currants and presses them fresh at its East London Soda Works. Because nothing artificial and nasty is added, sometimes the pectins in the fruit’s cell walls can’t be fully broken down, resulting in a juicy pulp-like sediment in the finished drink. The juice is totally harmless (and usually disappears after a quick shake of the bottle).

Maynards Farm - view across the fields

“Blackcurrant juice does tend to be thick with pectins if you don’t use an enzyme to help break them down,” Tom explains. “There has been a long term trend towards drinks needing to look clear and clean and that any cloudiness is not desirable, but pectins are just a natural part of the berry juice.”

“The apple juice that I sell here on site has a sediment in it, but of course in my particular selling environment it is much easier to explain and there is a much wider acceptance than there is for a product that’s sold on a much larger scale.”

Apple juice for sale at Maynards Farm

One of the biggest challenges in Blackcurrant growing is avoiding spring frosts, which can have a devastating impact on yields. Once the spring begins and the plant begins to pump water into the cell walls to create flowers, any sudden drop in temperature can be fatal.

“If the water in the flowering cells gets below a certain temperature and crystalises to form ice, then that will break the cell walls and kill the flower,” Tom says. “The plant won’t make another flower that year and that is the end of the crop. One frosty night can cause 100% crop loss if the temperature gets too low.”

One potential way of mitigating against spring frosts (other than selective breeding) is to try and grow fruit under more controlled conditions through the use of polytunnels. Nonetheless, Tom is adamant that growing conditions on site remain as natural as possible. “I think the best flavours come when the plants are a bit stressed and grown outdoors,” he says.

“The way that the industry in general has moved is that fruits like strawberries are mostly grown now under polytunnels and by controlling as many factors to mitigate the risk to the crop. However, I would say that this is at the expense of fl avour overall”

“I grow everything outside, and nothing under tunnels. When I am having a difficult time I don’t say it with such confidence, but that is my model. You are going to be a little bit at the mercy of the weather but you just have to build that risk into your model and take the rough with the smooth.”

Looking to the future, Tom hopes that Maynards will remain a family-run affair for at least another generation. His son Andrew, an accountant in London, is soon to return the farm one day a week to learn the ropes, and eventually put his own stamp on the farm.

“I don’t show him the books because if he knew how little he was going to make he’d probably have second thoughts!” Tom jokes.

“I think he will definitely do things differently to how I am. The problem that we need to solve is ‘who’s backside is on a tractor seat?’ I do a lot of that at present but I’m nearly 63 and I don’t want to be doing that forever.

“Finding that element of labour - with the required intelligence and education - is going to be a key thing to take us forward.”

Tom Maynard in the fields at Maynards Farm

For the time being, however, Tom’s focus remains squarely on this year’s harvest. A cold spring has made growing conditions difficult, but a few more warm days like today and the blackcurrants will soon be ready for picking.

When they are, Square Root will be first in line (once Ribena have taken their share, that is).

This article originally appeared in Issue Two of Fizzy Pop Magazine, Square Root's self published zine. Shipping now with every order from our online store! Use the code HOTOFFTHEPRESS for 10% off your order (expires 31/08/21). 

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