Sector trends

Sustainable agriculture: the business with nature at its heart

As a champion of regenerative agriculture, Loddington Farm is a showcase for a modern, locally focused approach to business. Owner James Smith shares his insight on how to think like an ecosystem manager and turn sustainability goals into an opportunity.

The Managing Director of the Loddington Farm business, which has two sites in Kent, says:

“There’s a significant part of the population that is increasingly conscious of their food, and consumer choices. Whatever the sector, businesses have a real opportunity to be on the front foot and demonstrate that they’re effecting positive change.”

For James, whose business predominantly grows fruit and covers 225 acres, that opportunity – to grow as a business as well as effect change – lies in his business’s market offering: “What I’m trying to move away from is just being an apple grower that produces an apple. We want to produce an apple that is good for the environment, good for the consumer and good for us as a business.”

To that end, the business, which started in 1929 and has been part of the same family for nearly a century, is looking to integrate its offering with what ultimately works for the planet.

“I’ve seen that I can’t make the status quo work in terms of trying to only supply UK retailers in the way that I have,” he confesses. “I’m interested now in pivoting away and going more local. We have planning permission for a new farm shop. With our juice business we’ve been doing a lot of marketing, and we can produce less volume and sell for more by adding value. I don’t believe I need to feed the world, I think I need to run a sustainable business that earns me a living.”

A local approach to sustainable agriculture

A testament to James’s approach, and the success it has brought to the farm, can be seen in the growth of headcount. During the past two years, Loddington Farm has grown from employing a staff of three, to employing 13. During the harvest, the farm needs a further 40 or so seasonal pickers. 

“We’ve been through a pretty painful process involving the hard economics of fruit growing at our scale. And that’s down to how I see the world. I’ve gone from wanting to quit, to having a strong vision, and now, I have more passion than I’ve ever had. It means we’re very busy, but my vision is that over the next five years we’ll be a larger, profitable, food-producing business that is relevant to our local community.” 

Regenerative farming is all about putting something back and making natural food so that it starts to mimic nature. That means farming in a way that actually enhances the farm environment while producing healthy food

James Smith
Managing Director, Loddington Farm

Changing its attitude to the local community is not just about the business finding new customers, however. The development of James’s strategy means employing many more people from the local areas. “We have more and more people buying houses around us in what is an incredibly densely populated part of the country,” he explains. “To make ourselves relevant means people coming here to learn about where their food comes from. They should be happy to meet the farmers producing their food and be happy to buy their food direct from a farm which is as near to their village as possible.”

In recent times this approach stretched to James’s purchase of Owlet Juice in 2020. As a brand that started in 1986, Owlet has always enjoyed a close relationship with Loddington: Owlet’s founder, Colin Corfield, got the idea for the juicing business – and indeed started his fruit-growing career – with James’s father Alan Smith in 1979. 

“We bought Owlet as a way of augmenting a part of our crop that is otherwise of inherently low value. So rather than being a stream of waste or by-products, we’re actually bringing that into the business and now adding value.”  

Indeed, this shift was reflected recently when Owlet won the category for Sustainable Use of Natural Resources, as part of the Footprint Awards.

Regenerative practices in sustainable agriculture

Underpinning the farm’s marriage of localism and ability to make a viable business is the idea of regenerative farming – an approach to agriculture that aims to focus on inputs as well as outputs.   

“Many modern farming techniques are largely reductionist,” explains James. “We’re generally taking something out of the natural environment and we use our natural capital in terms of the soil, and then try to replace it with chemicals. Over time – really from the Second World War – we’ve used our natural capital to a point now where we have fairly fragile farm systems and the quality of our food isn’t as good as it should be.” 

The first step, according to James, is in recognising that agriculture needs to stop that process. “Regenerative farming is all about putting something back and making natural food so that it starts to mimic nature. That means farming in a way that actually enhances the farm environment while producing healthy food.”

If that sounds easier said than done, there are some tenets of regenerative farming, which James advocates in his approach to integrated farm management:

  • soil management and fertility

  • crop health and protection

  • pollution control and by-product management

  • animal husbandry

  • energy efficiency

  • water management 

  • landscape and nature conservation

  • community engagement

At heart, however, this can be summed up as “about bringing in diversity and trying to mimic what would happen in a natural ecosystem – to get growers to think of themselves as ecosystem managers rather than just producers”.

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