Meet the farmer who works with nature

Stein Leender’s family home is built smack bang in the middle of his orchard. From the kitchen table you can see acres of apple trees rising up over the hill – with chickens pecking through the thriving weeds – and the lower garden where he grows his vegetables. Here lies 60 acres of land where he practices biodynamic farming.

Stein is a six, going on seven, foot Dutch man and farmer who owns Brambletye Fruit Farm in Sussex. His main crops are apples and pears but he’s also got a woodland – where Ellie, his partner, keeps several pigs, a couple of acres of red currants and blackberries and an other-worldly container farm of oyster mushrooms.

“In the first five years of growing apples, I was basically just supplying supermarkets” Leenders says. Every year, I was unable to sell some of the crop because my apples were often bigger than the weight limits that supermarkets set. I was fed up with the continual battle over specifications.”


In the distance, Stein’s house looks onto the apple orchards

We take a tour around the farm passing rows of bulbous lettuce, oak leaf, rainbow chard and purple kohlrabi. For him, selling direct to customers is easier – aesthetic specifications are non-existent and he’s free to sell whatever he wants for the price he sets.

“We are only able to grow such wonderful produce – that is mature, slow grown and nutritious – because we know we can sell it,” he explains, our customers are vital for the success of the farm, and my contact with them is really important.

“People are really interested in how their food is grown and what input has gone into growing it. People want to know their food is safe to eat. Our customers come back because they are eating quality and can taste it!” he says.

The reassurance of good demand for their produce means they can grow what they need and no more. And importantly they can grow it well – without the use of any chemical pesticides and little external input other than a large amount of hard work.

Stein’s produce at a local Food Assembly in East London

How Stein runs his farm is fascinating and he uses core biodynamic principles that work with nature. Biodynamics is a holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming created by Rudolf Steiner in 1924. It’s not surprising to hear that Stein attended a ‘Steiner’ school in his hometown, the Netherlands.

“Biodynamic farming is about using everything – learned through time – by humanity and applying it to the farm to create a sustainable and productive system,” Stein explains.

For example, he sprays a very thin spread of green manure mixed with chicken manure between each planting. This is all the nutrients the ground needs to keep the soil healthy and plants growing.

Biodynamic farming has a number of natural preparations – similar to fertilisers but much milder and only made from natural substance. Stein uses these preparations on his farm and is very clear about the practical importance of these preparations.

In biodynamics, if you have a problem, you have to think of solutions that come from the farm itself. Stein saw that the orchard was lacking biodiversity and needed the influence of animals. This led Stein to invite nearby neighbours Karen and Daniel, a couple who also studied biodynamics in the Netherlands, to start up their own flock of egg-laying hens on the farm.

The chickens that live in the orchards provide natural fertiliser and a more balanced eco-system that means Stein only has to spray the apples with his natural biodynamic preparations once a year.

“Since the chickens entered the orchard six years ago I haven’t had any problems with aphids [a small black fly that lives off the sap in plants]. I used to have to spray the orchard with neem oil, a natural antiseptic, to rid them from the leaves and buds”.

Stein’s collaborative approach to farming has attracted others to join him on the farm. Jochem is Brambletye’s vegetable farmer, he grows fresh vegetables that help Stein provide a variety of delicious ingredients for his market stalls. Stein said that being able to sell direct to customers cuts out the middleman and distributor.

This enables their prices to be kept more reasonable than if they were sold in a supermarket and allows for them to make enough money from their production to grow exceptional produce – slowly and in harmony with nature.

This is the opposite approach to conventional agriculture used mainly in Europe and the US today. Conventional agriculture looks at the short-term efficiency of the farm and sees nature as something to be contended with – depleting biodiversity and the quality of the soil. It’s very unlike biodynamics which is an ecological approach to agriculture.

Where the lack of diversity can make crops prone to disease on conventional farms, Stein uses plant diversity as a method of keeping soil healthy by allowing a variety of plants to grow. His compost pile is vital to the farm –  when spread on fields, it stabilises nitrogen in the soil, vital to crop productivity.

There won’t ever be pesticides or genetically modified crops on Stein’s farm. While conventional farming has provided incredible solutions to famine and food access in the past, it does not provide a sustainable system for feeding the world. Especially when we are feeling the effects of climate change globally, much of which are here because of our industrial food system.

Stein has also felt the effects of climate change – this year he lost 90% of his main crop due to a warm winter that meant the trees flowered early.

“Then after the warm winter, we had a late frost which wiped everything out. I haven’t seen anything like this in 15 years. The apples and pears that will survive will grow russeted (with brownish rough areas of damage) from the frost,” explains Stein, “we’ve really felt the changes here.”

Stein is obviously devastated by the losses but still holds a positive, resilient and optimistic mindset. He will focus on diversity within the farm and his business will see him through. His aims to keep interventions on the farm to a minimum are admirable. Allowing nature to do its good work makes this one farmer naturally special.


Tom Hunt

Tom Hunt

Tom Hunt is an eco-chef, director of Poco restaurant in Bristol and author of The Natural Cook.