James Smith bought the Owlet Fruit Juice business as the perfect complement to his fifth-generation, family-run fruit farm at Loddington, where he has implemented a regenerative agriculture strategy. Now managing director of Owlet, which produces a range of single-variety English apple juices together with original blends of fruits, berries and flowers, James explains the synergy between his sustainable farming practices and the 30-year-old juice brand.
Your family has been growing fruit at Loddington since 1882. Why did you recently move into juice production and did that influence your decision to move to regenerative farming methods?
When Owlet came up for sale it was a good fit for our fruit growing business as it enables us to add value to part of our apple and pear crop that is not within specification for fresh fruit sales. I have thought about it for a number of years but until there was an opportunity to get into the market via an existing brand, I did not think it was worth trying to break in to. Owlet came along at the right time. It has also given me a brand to help push my message out to consumers. As a fruit grower supplying UK supermarkets, I never had any visibility to consumers as my fruit is sold as own brand, not as Loddington fruit. I have a big story to tell, and now I have a brand via the juice to tell it with.
Can you explain what regenerative farming involves and what are the key benefits? How does regenerative agriculture differ from organic farming and did you consider the organic option?
Regenerative farming involves using the power of nature to farm in a way that enhances the natural environment whilst producing more nutritious food. It enables us to reduce or remove chemicals from our farming system and reverse carbon emissions from farming activity. It differs from organic as it uses much less cultivation and soil disturbance which is responsible for significant CO2 emissions. It is an holistic approach to food production, whereas organic is simply prescriptive in terms of what inputs can be used. I expect to be able to convert to organic as part of this process but it is not my main objective.
Why did you decide to go down the regenerative farming route and how have you managed the process of switching?
I have always been unhappy with the amount of chemistry that has to be used in conventional farming. Two years ago, I was ready to quit farming and find another job until I started to look at soil health and ask myself some pretty tough questions about a better way of farming. Since then, I have removed herbicides and fertilizer from my farming systems for most crops and in some cases have gone synthetic-chemical-free on a number of orchards. I am self-educating through extensive reading and collaboration with like-minded individuals and applying a scientific approach to farming without chemistry. It is not easy and one has to take small steps but I want to build a roadmap to regenerative farming that other growers can start to adopt.
What specific farming methods previously deployed at Loddington were identified as needing to change? What were their disadvantages that persuaded you to re-educate yourself and how did you go about doing this?
The use of herbicides and fertilizers contribute to environmental pollution, CO2 emissions, human health issues and cost a lot of money. They work to break down natural systems which, when harnessed, help us to grow healthy food. The world depends on fungi and bacteria as the foundation of life so spraying huge amounts of chemicals that kill them cannot be a sustainable way to farm. I was not confident that the crops I was growing could be sold as a good choice to the consumer on every level. My produce should be good for the planet, good for people and taste amazing, that is my goal. We have to feed people without it costing the earth.
You’re introducing sheep and chickens to Loddington’s orchards. What is the role of the livestock and are you planning to introduce any more species?
Livestock are a fundamental part of building healthy soils and cycling nutrients which drives plant health. Healthy soil = healthy people and a better planet. In natural systems large herbivores eat plants and then recycle them back in to the soil in a natural way. The livestock are not in the orchards yet but will be this autumn after harvest to help feed the trees. It also means that I have more products to sell in the form of meat and eggs, all coming from a diverse farming system that can support itself without chemical inputs. The plan is to have pigs, sheep, chicken and cows over the next five years but I have to go at a certain pace so that I can manage everything. Planning is key to delivering all of these objectives and they all need significant management input.
What difference does regenerative farming make to the fruit and, as a result, to Owlet’s juices? How important is the sustainability ethos to the Owlet brand?
The Owlet brand is underpinned with a sustainability ethos, the farm is underpinned by a regenerative ethos and the two go hand-in-hand. With Owlet, juice production has moved to Loddington so all juices are pressed and bottled on site and we are working to reduce plastics and get our carbon footprint down which is at the heart of what we do. There’s no point in selling a story if it doesn’t resonate through everything we do. Regenerative farming means more nutrient-dense fruit, better flavour, better shelf life, better storability, positive climate impact and better human health. Yield isn’t everything, for me profit per hectare is the driver. I am happy to produce less per hectare with lower costs and therefore higher profit. The environmental services that are delivered by this way of farming are also very significant. The aim is for all Owlet juices to be from regenerative orchards within five years. Right now, we are working with the existing product lines and the previous owner to make sure the majority of the fruit used is grown under our ethos, which is reflected in the clean nature of the brand’s juices, and we don’t add any sugar, artificial sweeteners, colours or preservatives. We have only had Owlet for six months so it is work in progress.
Does regenerative farming affect the choice of fruits you grow and therefore influence the development of new flavours in the Owlet Juice range?
Regenerative farming is so exciting that it makes you want to grow everything. Besides recently launching a new cherry juice pressed from our own fruit, we have also developed two new blends - Apple & Aronia Berry and Pear & Aronia Berry - so we have planted aronia berries and plan to plant blueberries, rhubarb and strawberries to use in our own blends. Until that is in place we try to source anything we don’t grow from UK suppliers. The more diverse crops I grow, the nearer I am to the complexity of nature and the better the flavour and quality of our juices will be.
What has been the cost implication of switching to a more regenerative method, both in terms of your investment and the longer-term cost savings the business will make?
We have had to invest in some kit such as a mechanical weeder to help manage plants under our tree rows and we spend more money on plant tissue analysis to understand the nutrition of our plants better. On the flip side I haven’t spent a penny on synthetic fertiliser or glyphosate and, in the orchards where I went chemical-free last year, I increased yield by 61% and cut costs by 50%. Long term I think it will be more profitable and a lot more fun. I have lost money by supplying apples and pears to UK supermarkets for as long as I can remember so I have to change. I plan to take more control of my business and make Loddington the place to buy produce.
What other steps are you taking to ensure the business is run in a sustainable way, for instance, packaging?
We have solar and wind energy generated on the farm which contributes around 20% of our annual usage. All new buildings are insulated and we are looking at ways of removing plastic. We have moved to reinforced paper tape for carton sealing for final packaging of juice bottles and are looking into biodegradable capsules for covering the bottle caps. Our cold stores are all run on modern refrigeration equipment with 0 global warming potential unlike traditional refrigerants and we use a fully electric van for some of our local deliveries. We are planting hundreds of woodland trees and creating more and more wildlife corridors around the farm and with our farming methods are contributing to the effort against global warming. I would like to be a zero-waste business within five years and will be publishing a plan to that effect later this year.
What value do you perceive foodservice operators and their customers place on the ‘story’ behind produce?
The story behind food has been lost and people have become disconnected from the very thing that sustains them. At Owlet, our story revolves around producing more nutritious, environmentally friendly fruit for our juices by working in harmony with nature. There is a really exciting message behind food and farming, especially produce, as it is well placed to give answers to some serious questions that mankind faces. If people know that they can affect change through their food choices then that is a very strong message. Most of us are at a loss as to what we should do about massive issues such as climate change, the environment, food waste, animal welfare and the reality is that farming can deliver. Foodservice operators are vital in delivering that message and playing their part in putting fun back in to food. People should feel good about what they eat and what they eat should keep them healthy. This message will set businesses apart from the mainstream as people increasingly seek to make better decisions.