Farm of the Week: Potential of growing fresh herbs is almost unlimited

Alison Dodd and her son Philip Dodd of Herbs Unlimited, Sandhutton near Thirsk, amongst their growing lines of rosemary.Alison Dodd and her son Philip Dodd of Herbs Unlimited, Sandhutton near Thirsk, amongst their growing lines of rosemary.
Alison Dodd and her son Philip Dodd of Herbs Unlimited, Sandhutton near Thirsk, amongst their growing lines of rosemary.
Fresh herbs have become stars in the culinary world since the advent of the television chef revolution but way before that one lady with both a farming and restaurant background from Wath near Ripon had realised the role they have to play in making flavoursome dishes.

Alison Dodd runs Herbs Unlimited from 90 acres at Sandhutton near Thirsk on land owned by farmers Robin and Trevor Bosomworth who are also partners in the overall business called Sandhutton Growers. The company supplies wholesalers, processors and farm shops, and employs a team of 63, but hadn’t begun life with a grand master plan as Alison explains.

“I’m from generations of farmers. My parents Dick and Evelyn English had a dairy farm in Wath and an estate farm nearby. I’d been fortunate enough to attend the Cordon Bleu school and worked in a fabulous restaurant called Chequers in Henley before coming back north to run The George & Dragon in Wath that had been in our family since my great grandfather’s time.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I met my husband David through running the restaurant and we started a family.

“I was looking for something else to do one cold February afternoon in 1992 and something that struck me was that we couldn’t get hold of fresh herbs for the restaurant, so I took a garden fork, turned over a bit of land on what I thought would make a suitable place to grow them and asked my father whether I could have a corner of the field to get started.

“Someone recommended a book by a lady called Rosemary Titterington about growing herbs and I was on my way. The best advice I had was to spend a year doing it, which was right because that way you understand the life cycle of the plant. The first herb I grew was coriander.”

Sage, rosemary, thyme and mint followed and Alison’s mind switched to marketing.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Initially I decided to sell my herbs to top restaurants by going direct. In those days it was only the Michelin-star chefs who understood the difference fresh herbs made to dishes and many restaurants were oblivious to how much it improved taste and flavour. I went to Hazlewood Castle, Rudding Park, the Blue Lion in East Witton and many more. We soon built up a following.”

One of Alison’s big breaks came when she found out through her brother-in-law and pig farmer John Wilkinson that food processors Cranswick were looking to market a premium sausage with fresh herbs.

“It was mind-blowing at the time because of the enormous supply required in comparison to what we had produced before, but it also took us to the next level.”

Alison left behind her Wath base when she took on a seven-acre prison garden site in Northallerton but when it was sold for housing development in 2002 she was left with a dilemma.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“The move to Northallerton had really shifted the business upwards but suddenly I was faced with packing up or finding a way I could carry on. That’s when I went into partnership with Robin and Trevor here at Sandhutton. They’d lost their pig and dairy herds as a result of foot and mouth regulations and were looking to diversify. Originally we took on 10 acres and now we grow across 90 acres and have polytunnels.

“It’s an excellent system here because we can rotate our herb crops with the arable crops grown from the farm. We also have great access to water and it is very good sandy land that produces a really great herb crop every time.

“Of the 42 herbs and salads we now grow, our biggest sellers are basil, mint, curly parsley, flat parsley, thyme and chives.

“Fresh herbs offer the best of flavour to any meal whether it is in a restaurant, a ready meal, sausages, soups and food to go. In these days when talk is all about fat and salt reduction in food, herbs are the obvious place to go when providing that flavour that is missing and they are healthy too. Parsley is high in vitamin C.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“One of the companies we’re supplying presently is a big sandwich chain in London. I love supplying them as they change their menu every month and they’re always interested in our ideas.

“Speciality herbs have become another of our unique lines and of those garlic chives, lovage, lemon verbena and green fennel are incredibly popular at the moment.

“We’re now also growing such a wide range of salads including spinach, baby leaf lettuce, mizuna and a speciality range of edible flowers that are increasingly being used for weddings, events and cocktails.”

Alison’s son Philip will take over as MD within the next year, says Alison. Philip recalls with great affection the first taste of his future at around 11-years-old.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“My sisters and I couldn’t have tea until mum had all the herbs packed for customers in our kitchen. This has been mum’s world since 1992 and we’ve all been a part of it.”

Growing up, Philip wanted to farm. He studied at Harper Adams before managing a 500-acre lettuce growing business in Kent. He came back to his mum’s business in 2006 when her main grower retired.

“While I was away I realised that fresh produce was far bigger than the cottage industry I’d seen first hand in my youth. I came back from having been in charge of umpteen staff and 500 acres to just 20 but I’ve always had a vision of growing any business and ours is constantly evolving.”

The salad growing, herbs and vegetables world employs a great deal of foreign labour and Herbs Unlimited is no different.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“It has been one of the biggest changes in agriculture. One of my biggest beefs is that someone from Eastern Europe will jump on his or her bike in the rain whether they are well or not and cycle out here on time every day. British people don’t even knock on the door and ask for a job. I really feel very strongly about it.”

Related topics: