For Chip and Anita De Greeff, the position of their farm has been crucial to the success of their award-winning asparagus crop. Located on an undulating 30-acre site near Bridport, just a mile from the Jurassic Coast, Bothen Hill has become West Dorset’s largest organic vegetable grower. Although they produce a staggering 150 varieties of vegetables, it is asparagus which is arguably the De Greeffs’ signature product.
Chip and Anita set up their business in 2001 and started growing asparagus four years later, beginning with around 200 crowns. However, Chip explains they had to wait three years before harvesting.
“One of the things about asparagus, which deters a lot of people from growing it in their gardens, is the fact that you can’t plant it and harvest it straight away,” he says. “You buy a crown, which is normally a year old, and you have to wait until it’s at least three years old before you start picking. The first year, you’ll pick for six weeks and then leave it to grow. You’ll then be able to start picking for eight weeks. Once it’s five years old, it will be at its full potential, which it will maintain until it’s been around for about 15 years, so it’s quite a long lived plant.”
Being situated so near to the south coast means Bothen Hill can harvest asparagus early in the UK season, usually selling it from mid-April to June. Its position may also help with the taste of the produce. Anita says: “We get the salt from the sea. If it’s really rough out there, the salt will travel on the wind and if you lick your fingers you can taste it on the asparagus.”
Chip explains that the quality of the soil is also a factor. He says: “Asparagus will grow well here because this is Evesham soil, which means you could grow hair on an egg!”
Careful planning and hard work is also, of course, a key factor in Bothen Hill’s success. The couple has developed a strategy of growing five varieties of asparagus in two different locations. Chip says: “We grow early and mid-season varieties, like Ariane which is the most attractive, with the purple in the tips. We also grow Millennium, which is technically a late variety although it comes out early here. We have mastered that by also growing at a site about four miles north to extend the season.”
Once the season is underway, tending and harvesting the asparagus is an intensive job. The asparagus is picked, sorted and bunched by hand to ensure maximum freshness and flavour, and because Bothen Hill has organic status, all weeding is also done manually.
Although the asparagus fills a gap when there are fewer other vegetables to sell, harvesting coincides with a busy time at Bothen Hill, when sowing and planting of other crops, including Brussels sprouts, as well as transplanting leeks and brassicas, takes place.
Chip and Anita now dedicate around five acres of their site to asparagus, growing around 40,000 crowns. Chip says: “We started on a small scale but soon found there is a growing market for it. We believe that one of the reasons that the demand for asparagus has increased is that it’s received more media attention with celebrity chefs who are using it as a product. Larger producers have got hold of it and are also putting more money behind promoting it.
“People are now finding that it’s affordable to everyone. It’s no longer seen as a luxury product, along with smoked salmon and so on, for the well-off or the elite. We have a very wide range of people who buy asparagus. There are no bounds or limits as to who will purchase it nowadays.”
Bothen Hill sells all of its produce in the Bridport area, including supplying a number of farm shops, and asparagus is no exception. Locals turn up at the farm gate to buy a bunch and, from April to June, Anita and Chip are a regular fixture in the town where they have two pitches to sell their spears to local shoppers.
Anita says: “Bridport is a very foody area and it has a great market. It has very wide streets, because it was involved in the rope making industry historically, so the whole town turns into a market every Wednesday and Saturday. Bridport Town Council lets us have pitches in the town whenever we have enough asparagus to sell.”
Anita adds that the large brown hat, which she almost always wears, plays an important role. “Everybody knows the hat,” she laughs. “People spot it and then they know we’re here again, selling our asparagus. We’re fortunate that people in Bridport are very loyal to us.”
Nick Bunting, Field Force Inspector from Bothen Hill’s insurer Cornish Mutual says: “Here in Bridport, the arrival of Bothen Hill’s asparagus crop is an important annual milestone in the year. When you see the Bothen Hill logo wrapped around the season’s first asparagus spears you know it’s the start of summer. Once Anita sets up her stall in the town and you start to see Bothen Hill asparagus appearing in local farm shops, it creates a buzz in the local area. Chip and Anita deserve that recognition. They work incredibly hard and are so passionate about what they do.”
Bothen Hill has been insured by Cornish Mutual for four years. Anita explains: “Our insurance renewal had just come through and the premiums had gone up considerably. We were recommended Cornish Mutual by a friend. We like the fact that we get to know them and they’re so friendly. We’ve now recommended them to several other people because the service is so good.”
Bothen Hill was the overall winner of the Fresh Produce category in the Soil Association’s Best of Organic Market Awards 2019. “I think people are becoming much more aware of where their food comes from,” Anita says. “Having organic status does mean more paperwork but early on we decided that, if you’re going to make it as a small niche business, you need something like a certification behind you. And food really does taste so much better when it’s organic.”
Despite its enviable location, the success of Bothen Hill’s asparagus crop always depends on the weather. “We’re anticipating a good harvest this year because last summer was hot and sunny,” says Chip. “It’s a crop that needs a lot of sunshine, like sugar beet. The more energy that goes into the crown, the more productive it is the following year.
“Late frosts can have an impact too. This year we only have one or two spears showing frost damage, but back in 2012 we had a nasty frost in April, which took 10 to 15 percent of the crop out. We were fortunate really – some growers elsewhere in the country lost 50 per cent of theirs.
“In Southern Europe they can grow asparagus every year without too many problems and in South America it’s a continuous crop. English asparagus is a short season crop, which is what makes it so special and unique.”