One Year On

Well I can’t quite believe I’m writing this but this time last year we were a couple of weeks into life at what was then called Otter Farm, adjusting to our surroundings and trying to get our heads around our new lives. A whole year! In some ways it has flown by, in other ways we can’t imagine living anywhere else or not being the driving force behind the development of Heron Farm. Even the name feels so well established, despite it being very firmly ‘Otter Farm’ in our minds previously. We hadn’t come up with a name of our own before we moved but the sighting of a heron flying across our land on the first morning provided inspiration and now we can’t imagine having called the site anything else.

I’m aware that it is quite some time since I last wrote a blog post, what can I say we have been busy!! At times we have wished that nature would just slow down and that things would stop growing so fast, it’s hard to keep up! I have been very busy keeping on top of the pruning in the vineyard as well as managing our kitchen garden, including working out what to do with a huge surplus of marrows, courgettes, tomatoes and now pumpkins. With some help from Fran (and some tree shaking by Pete – see the video!) I also harvested nearly 500kg of perry pears which are now being turned into perry, as well as lots of rosehips, plums and lots more. Now I am consumed with making soup, jams, syrups, and whatever else I can think of to use the produce up! Next we are onto the grape harvest – in fact this will be starting this week with the harvest of the Solaris grapes – and then the apples in the cider orchard. At some point, we might slow down…maybe!

Pete has been in control of the grounds maintenance, including large amounts of mowing, strimming, weeding, spraying, sowing, ground clearance, the list goes on! To help with this we finally decided to say goodbye to our characterful but ancient and rather impractical Massey Ferguson, and hello to a brand new Siromer tractor with a few ‘toys’ to go on the back to help with mowing, pruning etc. It starts every time, has a vaguely comfortable seat, and feels a little less like a liability than the Massey. We were able to part-exchange the Massey for a surprisingly good price…apparently it will now be sent over to Africa where it will continue to be used for years to come, which is nice to know.

Most excitingly, building works have started on the café building and the walled garden. We had hoped to start this process a few months ago but being let down by the builder we had initially contracted pushed this back somewhat, so it is great to finally have builders on site. The builders estimate a 6 month build time, but these things are known for not sticking to schedule so we will see! Pete also took the lead in demolishing the existing walled garden in preparation for the construction of the new one. It was a hard decision to start over rather than work with what we had, but unfortunately too many aspects were just not quite right and it just made more sense to start afresh. Pete got very involved with the demolition aspect, including having a good go driving the digger and dumper truck. I think he quite enjoyed it! Ditto for our friend Richie who kindly came along and lent a hand…he practically had to be dragged away at the end of the day! It was a very busy couple of days, not helped by some classic Devon torrential rain on the first day. It also didn’t help that we were due to go on holiday immediately after the two days of demolition and levelling, meaning that Pete was out replanting plants that had been ‘rescued’ at 10pm at night while I frantically packed everything. A bit too stressful for my liking! However it is exciting to now be in the process of building the new walled garden, something that Pete has again taken the lead on…who knew he had a flair for landscaping!!

What else? We had two very successful Open Days, one in July and one in September. Between the two of them we welcomed around 150 people to site, most of whom attended one of the tours that we put on. Not only did we really enjoy both days and receive great feedback from all who came, we sold lots of wine which was very gratifying. We already have plans to commence regular tours once the café building is open, and can be used as a base. We also had our first private tour – a group of 15 retired gents – and have some more bookings over the winter. Now that word is spreading about us, we have also had quite a few occasions of people dropping in to buy wine and have a bit of a look around. So Heron Farm rarely feels quiet!

Oh, and our sparkling wine won an award at the start of July too, a Silver Medal in the annual WineGB awards! This was very exciting as it was quite unexpected, it is just fantastic to have that level of recognition. We also took receipt of our still Rosé wine from last year’s harvest, and spent some time designing a suitable label for this and for the cider that we have for sale. It’s great to have a wider range of products for sale in addition to our sparkling wine. We are focusing on selling our products from the ‘Cellar Door’ on days such as our Open Days (and of course from our shop when it opens next year) and at events such as ‘Gate to Plate’ which is being held in Honiton in a few days. It is hard work balancing family life with events such as this which inevitably fall at the weekend, but it is definitely worth doing what we can manage because it is a great way to spread the word about our products and everything that is going on at Heron Farm.

On site, a project that is almost finished is the construction of fencing around the Cider and Japanese Plum Orchards, to keep sheep in! These areas are particularly hard to mow so we have decided to see how we get on with sheep grazing the site instead. We hope to be ready to take sheep soon, which will be quite exciting! The wildflower meadow is coming on, hopefully by next Spring it should be looking really quite lovely. The design of the new bridge over to the far field and wildflower meadow is complete and we are starting to think about how we develop this space over the course of the coming year. We have installed a herb and rose garden next to our Shepherd’s hut, overlooking the vegetable garden. It’s really a rather pleasant spot! We have also been working quite hard to bring the vineyard back to a healthy and productive state. This has involved lots of pruning, as well as soil analysis and fertilisation to correct nutrient imbalances. This seems to be reaping rewards because the vines are currently mostly looking healthy, with a good crop of grapes. We have some infilling to do where vines have died in the past, and hope to do this next Spring.

We also have a couple of exciting collaborations developing, which, along with our other plans under consideration such as glamping/camping will help us to expand the business in new ways, more on that if/when plans firm up a little.

I completed my Level 1 course in Practical Horticulture in July and have decided to sign up for Level 2, which started last week. This is part-time for the next 6 months, so quite a commitment, but should give me a firm grounding in basic techniques of garden planting and maintenance, invaluable on a site like this where there is so much to look after. We have taken on some new resource in the form a great guy called Connor, who is helping us one day a week with grounds maintenance and anything else that needs doing. And Fran continues to help us out for a day a week, hopefully increasing over the winter as activities on site ramp up. We will soon be needing to increase the number of people we employ significantly, which will no doubt be a challenge in itself although it will be great to see the site with more people working on it.

Pete has been very busy with his consulting, working on several projects around the south of England simultaneously, while trying to keep up with working on site. While this has been a very valuable source of income it is clear that the time has come for him to step back from his consultancy work for a while at least while we prepare to open the café/shop. It will be good to have him home more as he has been away a lot over the last few months.

On a personal level we enjoyed two weeks in our motorhome, taking several days to drive up to and back from Scotland, where we spent time catching up with friends and family and taking in a bit of the Edinburgh festival. It felt quite funny to be there as a ‘tourist’ rather than a local! Although it was stressful going away as there is so much going on at the site at present, it was invaluable for us to have a change of scene and let off some steam. We have also had some lovely times as a family over the summer holidays, and have enjoyed having lots of visitors to stay. We are in the final stages of designing a ‘guest annexe’ in the form of a cabin in our garden so that friends and family can stay more comfortably in the future. Get in touch if you would like to visit…we anticipate it being popular!

Our family has expanded a little with the addition of two gorgeous little kittens, who arrived just last week. Jasper is ginger and Smudge is a tortoiseshell. The kids in particular are thoroughly enamoured with the new arrivals! And last but not least it was a big day for our little girl Chloe three weeks ago, as she had her first day at school. Lots of excitement all round, not to mention jealousy from her little brother who is desperate to go to school too! Will have to remind him of that one day….!

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