That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, catches up with Erin Bunting & Jo Facer of The Edible Flower.
“We are in the drumlins of County Down, Northern Ireland and are about 2 miles outside of the town of Saintfield and about 10 miles south of Belfast.
“We are Jo (an organic gardener and teacher) and Erin (a cook, recipe developer and food stylist) – together, we run The Edible Flower, a 7-acre organic small holding in Co. Down.
We run supper clubs, cooking and growing workshops, volunteer days and a CSA scheme called Farm & Feast.
Erin attended Ballymaloe Cookery School in Co. Cork in 2015 to re-train as a chef.
The cookery school is set on an 100-acre organic farm, and there is such a close connection between the kitchens and the farm – everything is used seasonally, and everything is so fresh and delicious.
It makes the cook’s job an easy one! And, it really made me appreciate how connecting cooking for events to the produce that is actually growing on site – that customers can see when they come for dinner – is absolutely magical.
Growing own produce
Jo’s always dreamed of growing her own produce, but it was only when we moved to Northern Ireland she got the opportunity to explore that passion.
She did a course in Growing Organic Fruit and Veg at the local, regional college – a course she now teaches – as we as volunteering with other local market gardeners.
She went on to complete the RHS Level 2 in Horticulture, but more importantly, she just started growing her own vegetables.
There was a lot of learning on the job! She’s obsessed with soil and improving our soils – and as we all know, if you have good soil, you can grow marvellous vegetables!
Erin worked in arts and event management for about ten years in London before re-training as a chef.
Jo studied engineering at university and then worked in property development for about ten years in London before we moved to Northern Ireland.
Neither of us come from farming backgrounds. Jo grew up in London – so quite far from the countryside.
However, we always had a dream that she would one day move to the countryside and have chickens and pigs and grow her own vegetables, and here we are!
Originally, we ran supper clubs and gardening courses and did outside catering for weddings and parties.
We always grew our own produce, but we used it all for our own events.
During lockdown – when we could not feed people in-person anymore, that shifted, and we explored options to sell our produce.
We ran a small veg box scheme that year and sold salad bags to local greengrocers and delis.
The Covid-19 pandemic made us explore how we could sell our produce direct to customers, and that has definitely shaped the business we have now.
Our land is about 7 acres, but only about an acre is in vegetable production.
We have plans to expand the vegetable growing space a bit in the future, but we would also like to establish an edible forest – basically a forager’s paradise – on the remaining land.
We purchased the small holding in October 2016 – the previous owners had not been farming on it for some time, and most of the land was leased to a local farmer for grazing cattle on a con-acre agreement.
The land has not been used for growing vegetables in recent years. We started by turning over the whole lawn to make a large kitchen garden.
So, we grew all our vegetables using the no-dig method and without the use of herbicides or pesticides.
Taking back control of land
We took back control of the land that was being used for cattle a few years ago, and have slowly been cultivating more of the land for growing vegetables.
Last year was a big year of expansion for us – we got a big polytunnel and created a lot more growing space.
In January 2023, we were certified as organic – though we have always grown with those principles in mind.
Moreover, we have also been slowly converting lots of the dilapidated outbuildings into usable spaces for our workshops, supper clubs and other events.
In June 2022, we completed a big project to convert a stone barn into a beautiful event space (seating 30 guests) and a new catering and teaching kitchen.
We started out running supper clubs (pop-up dining events), and then everything grew from there.
Supper clubs were a great place to start as they have a low initial investment, and you can test out your ideas and whether you enjoy running events.
For a few years, we did lots of catering, but we have come back to doing more of what we love which is running supper clubs, teaching people, building a community and growing amazing, delicious vegetables.
We have been very lucky because we have such loyal customers.
Honestly, we really pour our heart and soul into everything we do, and I think that comes across – so people come back again and again, bring different friends, telling people about us. That is a big part of how our business has grown.
We host supper clubs – pop-up dining events with a set menu – every 5-6 weeks with multiple nights, and many are themed around the seasonal shifts on the farm and in the land around us.
We use lots of the produce we grow at our events. They are really popular, and if you want to come, you really need to be on our mailing list over on our website.
Farm & Feast
We run a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) scheme called Farm & Feast, where our members essentially buy into a whole season on the farm and get a weekly share of the produce. So, they are sharing the risks and rewards of farming.
The scheme will run from May until December this year – 30 weeks of veg boxes!
We also bring all our members together regularly throughout the season for a big day of farming activities and feasting, and we send out bespoke recipes for each veg box.
Through our CSA scheme, Farm & Feast, we sell produce directly to the customer, but we also have a small farm shop where we sell any excess produce and we make jams and chutneys to sell in the farm shop too.
We provide some online cooking and growing content and classes for people who want to delve in more deeply.
Also, we run regular classes and workshops – including some lovely ones on using edible flowers for cooking and baking.
And we run a volunteer scheme where we bring people together once a week to work on a big project on the farm, and then we all have lunch together.
Farming in hand with nature
We run an organic farm that is all about leaving the land in better condition than when we received it.
We want it to be a place where future generations can grow food in harmony with nature to nourish themselves and the land forever!
And we are all about promoting people eating local, delicious produce – we provide our produce direct to our members through our Farm & Feast CSA – cutting down food miles and providing a product that has been grown organically.
Any excess produce we have is not wasted – it is used in our kitchen at events, volunteer lunches or made into chutneys and preserves that we sell in our farm shop.
We have also just recently written a book – The Edible Flower: A modern guide to growing, cooking and eating edible flowers.
It is all about how to grow your own edible flowers and then use them to transform your food.
But it is also about connecting to the seasons and to getting joy from growing your own food!
Getting the work-life balance right is a challenge – both cooking and farming are time-intensive activities, and we run our business from our home.
It is very hard to switch off from work and make time for fun and relaxation.
Our ultimate goal is to grow and cook truly sustainable food – for the customer, grower and the planet – in a truly delicious way.
We are not really involved in traditional farming and agriculture, and at a national or world level, there are so many challenges to overcome.
I feel like our food system, especially in richer nations, is broken because we are so disconnected from the seasons and the land.
Our feeling is that there is a real appetite from customers to connect with their food and how and where it is grown.
And I do not think that interest is going to disappear. There is an opportunity for governments, farmers and others to educate people about what is seasonal, what is local and what food should really cost.
And an opportunity for some farmers to get their customers and community more closely involved in food production.
We do think when our members come to our farm and dig up the potatoes they have planted or pick tomatoes off a plant they have helped nurture, that can change their relationship to food, the soil and the land forever!
In terms of our own journey, we have no regrets, but sometimes, I wonder if we would have known how difficult it is to make growing and hospitality add up – especially in today’s economic climate – whether we would have made the leap! It is probably better we did not know!
Our website is theedibleflower.com, and you can follow us on Instagram.
Our book – The Edible Flower: A modern guide to growing, cooking and eating edible flowers, is published on March 9th, 2023, by Laurence King.
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