I really don’t like the look of the nectarine Adam Wakeley is proffering. More specifically, I don’t like the feel of it, because it’s as hard as a bullet and, as any fool knows, that means it will taste disgusting. ‘It’s just right for eating, absolutely lovely,’ he insists, in a way that doesn’t invite dissent. So I have to take a bite. It is the nicest nectarine I’ve ever had in my life, juicy and sweet, which proves that, despite being a consumer of fruit for 30 years (although admittedly I’ve achieved the prescribed ‘five-a-day’ about twice), I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Adam Wakeley, on the other hand, knows everything about fruit. He is joint MD of Organic Farm Foods, the UK’s biggest organic-fruit wholesaler, a £26 million ($50 million) business, supplying the main UK supermarkets with imported organic produce which they sell as fast as he can supply it. Actually it’s in his blood – his father has a large apple farm in Kent (though unlike the fruit that Wakeley deals in, it’s not organic, but more on that later).
Adam is the first cousin of celebrated fashion designer Amanda Wakeley, and his early career also involved a foray into the fashion world – as a male model in the 1980s. In the Wakeleys’ 14th-century farmhouse in Ilmington, Gloucestershire – one of those ridiculously bucolic villages that make Richard Curtis films looks grittily realistic – there are only a couple of clues to this former life: photos of Adam in the downstairs bathroom. Taken by his wife, Melanie, a onetime professional photographer, they are of the slightly film noir, Athena man-holds-baby type, very popular in the 1980s, and actually now rather cool. ‘No, they are not cool,’ huffs Adam, ‘horrible, embarrassing.’ In fact, he claims the whole modelling thing was just useful to get Mel an audience with art directors who might then commission her.
It wasn’t long before he was drawn to the apple business, like his father before him. But while Mel was pregnant with Ned (now 11), something happened that was to change Adam’s whole outlook on farming and its future. Mel was on his father’s apple farm, walking through the yard, when she was inadvertently showered with pesticide; the type of pest inhibitor routinely sprayed on British fruit (the average apple is treated around 60 times before it reaches a supermarket shelf). Just weeks later the couple attended a wedding where the entire party was struck down by salmonella in a case that made the national press – the chef was later imprisoned. Heavily pregnant, Mel was rushed into hospital, and Ned was born by emergency Caesarean, underweight and with a seriously underdeveloped oesophagus. It was touch and go whether he’d survive.
In a house full of children, running between the small orchard and bouncing on a large trampoline, Ned holds his own. But his life has involved countless operations, complex rounds of visits to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, and a number of near-death experiences – he can only eat certain things, and only very, very slowly to avoid choking. There remains little conclusive evidence on the effects of pesticide. In Ned’s case, the salmonella incident didn’t help his chances, but there was little doubt in the minds of the Great Ormond Street specialists that the missing oesophagus was entirely consistent with the apple pesticides Mel had ingested.
In any case, there was absolutely no doubt in Adam Wakeley’s mind. It was a terribly cruel epiphany, but it made him adamant that the organic system, growing without recourse to a variety of agrichemicals, was the only way that farming should or could be carried out sustainably.
You will not find a more passionate advocate of the organic system than Wakeley, but you won’t find a more commercially motivated one either. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘I’m not a hemp-wearing, toe-wiggling hippy. I’m the managing director of a £26m ($50m) organic food company. My motivation is to make a profit for my shareholders. But I can do something idealistic, very green, commercially viable and actually, highly profitable.’
In fact, Adam Wakeley has a big apple plan. One he unfurls at the outside lunch table in the courtyard behind the house. Today the Wakeleys are relying on takeaway food. But this being millionaire-belt Gloucestershire, the pies, flans and unfeasibly large artichoke hearts just happen to be from nearby Daylesford Organic.
The outside table is useful, if only because it’s rather big and the Wakeleys are the sort of family who collect extra children at meal times, as their progeny appear with their friends from various corners of the gardens. Often Mel’s parents appear too – they live in a very fine house next door. Lily, dressed in Top Shop’s best, arrives with a couple of friends, Ned appears with a tall blonde (‘Ned has a huge amount of girlfriends,’ Mel informs me) and Jude appears clutching a cola ice pop (‘not sure if that is organic,’ says Adam dubiously).
‘Have some more apple, girl,’ Adam says, and I’m thinking, ‘Not more fruit’, because to be honest I’ve had a month’s quota already. Actually he’s talking to Rocky, one of the hens, who likes to sit on the table around meal times. ‘She’s a lovely, lovely girl,’ coos Adam. When Rocky has strutted off, Wakeley reveals his plan: supermarkets (and obviously consumers) are desperate for organic, UK fruit, without the chemicals and the food miles. ‘Tesco had just three days’ worth of English organic apples on their shelves last year, because that’s all they could get,’ he says. ‘Through our investors we are going to buy large chunks of the right land – normally this means Hereford and Kent and plant with the right varieties. It takes three years to grow the apples, which coincidentally is the time it takes for organic conversion. At the end you not only have home-grown apples but more land in organic conversion. And the beauty of the idea is that I know the size of my markets, because I’m already supplying them with imported fruit. In a nutshell, I will take my imported off and put English on.’
Wakeley’s scheme is now under way on acreage bought by his first investor, but he won’t be growing many of the apples generally regarded as ‘classic’ English varieties. There will be no Cox’s orange pippins for example. ‘It’s the junkie of apples,’ he says. ‘It wouldn’t last a day without chemicals. Take away its fertilisers and pesticides and it will wilt. So we need to go right back and find the varieties which are disease-resistant and have good taste. This is what we have done.’
These are, apparently, varieties from the 13th and 14th century – small trees no bigger than six feet that allow the sun to get round them. I worry that delving so far back into history might make this plan seem a little regressive, a charge often levelled at the organic community. No, insists Adam, they really knew how to grow and sustain strong varieties in those days, though they did not, it is true, have to conform to the supermarkets’ demands for an apple weighing 60-65ml, free of blemish, insect damage and scab marks. ‘Historically, you’d grow fruit and people would eat it,’ says Adam.
Meanwhile, there’s hardly a stampede of UK farmers trying to get into the buoyant organic market, although the Soil Association insists that 66 per cent of organic produce is now grown on these shores. According to Adam, English farmers just don’t get organic. ‘Granted they are up to their eyes in debt, mortgaged to the hilt and on their knees, but English farmers don’t understand why you’ve got to have ponds, hedgerows, compost. They see it as a fad, and as six per cent of the retail market, which means to them 94 per cent of the market isn’t interested.’
To Adam this means 94 per cent ripe for conversion to local, organic fruit, providing it’s done properly – ie by him and his team.
‘We’ve got a team of specialists who know more about organic apple farming than anybody in the world, including Bob Barr, the world’s foremost compost expert because it’s all about the soil. At the end of the day, my future is not challenging guidelines set up by the Soil Association or the supermarkets. That’s not my job.’ Which rather begs the question, what is his job? ‘Easy,’ he says. ‘My job is to reinvent English farming and bring local, organic food into the market place.’ Welcome to Adam’s apple revolution.
Article by Lucy Siegle for The Observer Food Monthly, UK, Sunday April 29th, 2007
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