It’s the scent that hits you first. Heady, luscious and seductive – the smell of summer fruits ripening on the vine and crying out to be plucked. It’s hard not to come over all poetic while wandering through the strawberry fields of Garsons Pick-Your-Own Farm. You could have stepped into a Thomas Hardy novel, or a Shakespeare sonnet…
But enough of all that.
Garsons is a business, after all, and despite its appeal being firmly rooted in the rural past, it’s an enterprise that taps neatly into current sensibilities. Fresh, local, traceable, seasonal, healthy – all the foodie buzzwords of the moment are here among the ranks of juicy strawberries, raspberries and blackcurrants.
As a result, it’s not just the crops that are growing – Garsons has seen its customer base climb steadily year-on-year. In 2006, 100,000 customers filled punnets, baskets and freezers with bounty from the fields of this 200-acre farm in Esher, Surrey.
“We’re one of the oldest pick-your-own farms in the UK – and people have been attracted to the idea from the very beginning,” says Ben Thompson, whose family has worked this land for five generations.
“At first, the customers just enjoyed a day out in the countryside with their children, knowing they could go home with a punnet of soft fruit without any mouldy, squashed produce at the bottom.
But in recent years, our customers have grown increasingly well-educated about food. They don’t just come here for a day out any more. They come because they feel they’ve lost touch with nature and the seasons – and picking their own food from our fields somehow addresses that need.”
The pertinent issues of traceability and food miles have also boosted the pick-your-own market, along with the health benefits of eating freshly picked produce, which scientists have proved to be far more nutritious than fruit and vegetables that have been languishing in storage for days.
And to top it all, pick-your-own is cheaper than anything you can buy in the supermarkets. No wonder it’s such a raging success.
All of which, of course, would have been taken for granted when farmer’s son George Henry Thompson started the business now known as Garsons in 1871. The Seventies saw a downturn in the family’s fortunes with the rise of supermarkets, and Garsons was left behind in the rush for cheap food.
Then Ben’s father Bob and his uncle Peter were struck by a brainwave. “It simply wasn’t tenable for us to continue as we were – we just couldn’t compete with subsidised European growers,” says Bob. “Diversification was the only way.”
For inspiration, the Thompsons turned their gaze to the US, where pick-your-own was already an established part of the culture – especially during seasonal festivals like the pumpkin harvest. They decided to forget the supermarkets and go it alone.
When Garsons first opened its gates to the public in 1981, Ben was just a year old. “Pick-your-own has always been part of my life,” he says. “As a child, the farm was my playground. It was heaven.”
From May to October the farm produces 40 crops for pick-your-own harvesting, including asparagus, mangetout, kohlrabi, cherries, plums, squash and sugar naps. And if you’re looking for anything with the word ‘berry’ on the end of it, then you’ve probably come to the right place.
New varieties mean an extended season – nowadays, for instance, strawberries, raspberries and many vegetables can be picked from early summer, right through until the first frosts of autumn.
Garsons customers are by no means all serious foodies. They come in all shapes and sizes. “We have a huge range of customers, from Mums or grandparents with children, to retired people who treat the place as though it were their own kitchen garden,” says Ben. “There are customers who come back week-in, week-out; others who pick enough to freeze and last for months, and some who just turn up on sunny days.”
The business is not without its problems – it’s heavily dependent on the weather and, in some years, certain crops outperform others. But that’s nature for you. Other problems are of the human variety; overexcited children trampling on crops and customers pigging out on the produce before they reach the tills.
“People do tend to think that pick-your-own also means eat-as-much-you-want,” says Ben. “We don’t want to be killjoys, but we do need to make a profit, so we remind people that they wouldn’t eat produce without paying in the supermarket, so they shouldn’t expect to do that here. We don’t send in the strawberry police – but we do place polite signs here and there to remind everyone.”
“We believe in encouraging people to eat fresh, local produce – and if we can do our bit to make that happen, it makes us very happy. Yes, we want to buy into the whole traceability and food miles thing, but at the end of the day it’s not rocket science. It’s just about producing lovely, delicious, tasty food.”