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Sea Buckthorn and the future for our Essex coastal farm

Devereux Farm 2

My family has farmed on the Essex coast for at least 5 generations and each generation has faced its own particular challenges. However, one challenge that seems to have been constant, and is indeed becoming an ever-greater threat, is that of sea level rise and its potential impact on the farm as we lose land to the sea. The last time that the sea walls breached to a significant extent was the great tide of 1953 when over 50% of the farm was submerged and the sea wall broke through in over a dozen places. With climate change and sea levels rising it is likely that we will face similar, and perhaps more frequent events in future. Roughly half of the farmland is below sea level and so we are faced with a long-term challenge of changing what we do so that the business can adapt.

Historically we were a dairy farm for several generations. For the last twenty years we have been a conventional arable farm, with a hundred acres alongside this of coastal grazing marsh, which is grazed by sheep. However, assuming that half of our farmland floods in the long term, this model is unsustainable and so we took the decision about a decade ago to diversify the business and our cropping. This is when sea buckthorn came on the scene. We planted a number of varieties sourced from Germany and Finland to see which, if any, would work in our soils and our environment. These have been joined in future years by varieties from Russia and Latvia. We were attracted by the diversity of potential uses and the fact that it was a hardy perennial, able to cope in harsh conditions around the world.

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Sea buckthorn is a shrub with silvery grey leaves, bearing bright orange berries. It grows across the northern hemisphere from Scandinavia and northern Europe to Canada, Siberia, China and the Himalayas. Its berries can lay claim to being one of the richest ‘functional foods’, in that its nutritional profile supersedes that of many other fruits, particularly in vitamins A, C and E and omegas 3,6,7 and 9. As a result it is attracting increased interest from the health and wellbeing market as well as from chefs and ‘foodies’ interested in its unique flavour opportunity. The richness of vitamin C gives it a particular sharpness that cuts through alongside other flavours.

The first challenge we had was proving that sea buckthorn would grow commercially on our farmland and after ten years of trials we have generated a system whereby we can commercially grow and harvest the berries. Growing a new crop in the UK is difficult, and we have had to learn our own ‘agronomy package’ as we have gone along but we have been encouraged throughout the process by the great potential benefit of sea buckthorn for the UK health and wellbeing market. After all, if farming is to survive and thrive into the future it should be more market led and we recognise this with our sea buckthorn crop. Sea buckthorn can after all be used for a wide range of different products, from cosmetics to food and drink. We have particularly enjoyed as part of the process getting to know it as a food product and have tried countless recipes ourselves over the years, from smoothies to sorbet and salads. To know that it has an added ‘health boost’ is the icing on the cake for us. As an increasing number of people get to know the berry and its benefits we hope that it can become a more established part of the UK nutritional berry scene, as it has become so elsewhere in the world.

Whilst sea buckthorn remains little known in the UK at the moment it is much better known in continental Europe and particularly in Russia and China where it has been used as a food product, an oil and in traditional medicine for decades. Research in these countries is also far beyond the extent we have in the West to date, and more human clinical trials are required to show the broad benefits of these special orange berries. However, we are able to show through analysis of our own berries the nutritional profile of the fruit, and we have been pleased with the results from our harvest of this year. The next stage for us is to take our berries to market and we are selling through our website as well as to restaurants across the UK. We are particularly enjoying reading about the various uses that people are putting the sea buckthorn to, whether that is drizzling oil on their porridge each morning, making sorbet or adding some berries to a smoothie or salad.

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It is said that it takes about twenty years to establish a new food crop in the UK, and so anything new should not be taken on lightly. We are in this for the long term and sea buckthorn has become part of our new identity as a farm. We are expanding our orchard this year so by next year we will be growing over 8000 plants across 20 acres. Whilst we look at our sea walls with concern and hope that we do not face a breach for many years we are confident that our business will be robust enough in future to battle the new climate storms. We are excited to take sea buckthorn wider in the UK and get more and more people trying it and using it. Whilst we cannot control the sea we can control how we live in its midst and we hope that we will continue to farm on the Essex coast for generations to come, even if the location of the coastline may well move further back in the coming years.

All images courtesy of the British Sea Buckthorn Company.

Ben Eagle, British Sea Buckthorn Company

Ben has been part of the sea buckthorn project at Devereux Farm since its early days in 2009, having helped to plant BSC’s first orchard. He now manages the family farm alongside his father David. In addition to working on the farm, Ben is an environmental and agricultural journalist, writing for a number of rural related publications.