Highbank seeds the future of food

Highbank Orchards in Kilkenny is the thrilling example of a fifth-generation family farm that has taken an organic route to producing internationally acclaimed ciders, gins, vodka, vinegars, treacles and syrups.

For most people, Monday mornings involving trudging wearily into the office, nodding grimly to co-workers and blinking the remaining sleep from our eyes as monitors flicker robotically into life.

Instead, I got the best Monday morning of my life recently when I met Julie and Rod Calder-Potts at Highbank Farm in Kilkenny, one of the suppliers to tonight’s (5 December) Bank of Ireland National Enterprise Town Awards 2019. Highbank along with Cakeface, Ballykeefe Distillery and Costellos Brewing Company will be among the suppliers at the awards, which have received entries from more than 80 communities across Ireland.

Within minutes of arriving at Highbank, I was on the back of a tractor, moving inexorably through neat ranks of abundant cider apple orchards as a wintery orange sun attempted to add warmth to an otherwise bitterly cold morning. The fresh, bracing air, the beautiful scenery and the genial, informed conversation, sets one up magnificently for the week ahead.

“The link between the community and the food producer is being restored”

To listen to Rod Calder-Potts talk passionately about his farm and region is to embark on a kaleidoscope of history, geography and biology. His conversation sweeps the chaotic history of these islands taking everything in from the Kings of Ossery, the Norman invasions, Black Knights, Green Knights, Knights Templar, the Kilkenny Witch, the Princess of Leinster and even speculation about the real whereabouts of the Holy Grail.

He then guides the conversation expertly to the future of organic farming in Ireland and how with time, care and attention he nursed the soil where his cider apples grow back to their natural state of being, allowing the billions of complex microbes gifted by Mother Nature to do their work.

“You want the weeds to go right down and pull up the minerals from the deep,” he enthused. “These orchards have thrived; and I grow 20pc of the organic fruit in Ireland. The big problem has been getting the land to recover. Did you know that there are 10bn microbes in a single teaspoon of soil? These microbes have relationships with each other that make for infinite possibilities. If you are using a chemical, you are breaking these key relationships.”

Stewards of an organic renaissance

Manand woman in farm yard.

Rod and Julie Calder-Potts at Highbank. Image: John Kennedy

Adhering to the strictest of organic standards has led to multiple awards for the farm’s array of products that include syrups, apple juices as well as its acclaimed non-alcoholic Drivers Cider, Highbank Proper Cider and Highbank Medieval Cider.

Dodonus, the smallest distillery in Ireland, sits within the farm’s old dairy buildings and now produces Highbank Organic Spirits, the first Irish and Kilkenny organic apple gin known as Highbank Crystal Gin as well as Highbank Orchard Liquor Brandy and Organic Apple Vodka.

“Our history and our farms and our heritage are such saleable items. Open the doors”

This attention to the soil came about through a series of incidents, most notably the recession of more than a decade ago when the Calder-Potts’ original business was hit hard. The family reacted creatively, turning the land they lived on into a thriving and productive business that captures the essence of what diversification of farming is really all about.

The first apples at Highbank were planted in 1969. The family home, a 17th century farmyard adjacent to a 19th century house, was built when Rod’s great grandfather became steward on the Farmley Estate. The family acquired the land and signed the last Land Commission cheque in the 1980s.

A fortunate accident

Cabinet of goods produced by Highbank Orchards including gins, ciders and syrups.

It is amazing what a batch of apples could produce. Some of the awards as well as gins, ciders, brandies, syrups and vinegars that come from Highbank Orchards. Image: John Kennedy

It is amazing what a batch of apples could produce. Some of the awards as well as gins, ciders, brandies, syrups and vinegars that come from Highbank Orchards. Image: John Kennedy

Julie Calder-Potts recalled how when the recession occurred, the family had to dig deep and realised that supplying apples to big name cider brands wasn’t going to cut it.

The breakthrough came almost by accident. “I was stewing apples and had to take a phone call. When I eventually came back to the hob, in the pot was my Highbank Orchard Syrup. I tasted it and said ‘gosh, that tastes nice, I wonder if other people would like it?’”

The proof in the tasting has been multiple awards and lots of acclaim not to mention a business that counts several product lines from ciders to gins, brandies, syrups and treacles.

“Yes, it was a great invention,” she laughed. “The biggest use of this is the cocktail industry.”

The array of products, sold both online and directly to local restaurants as well as supermarket chains, has garnered multiple awards and has turned Highbank’s apple yield from something that would barely support a family into a viable concern with multiple brands and employees. As well as a productive farm and distillery, the grounds also have multiple uses, including functioning as both a conference centre and a charming Airbnb.

Highbank Orchard & Distillery has also attracted international attention. For example, there is a Buddhist monastery in Japan that will only source its cider from the farm because of its strict adherence to organic methods.

“We distil our apples into neat alcohol and it ages in steel barrels,” explained Rod. Julie added that the aged ethanol can then be put to multiple uses to produce various ciders, brandies, gins, schnapps and even port, which was known in Shakespearean times as ‘sack’.

“I’m always amazed at what apples can do,” said Julie. “Our gin is single estate and we make the ethanol that produces the gin. We re-distil this over botanicals to make our Kilkenny Crystal Gin, which includes 18 botanicals developed in collaboration with chefs, including rosemary, thyme, mint, blackcurrant, leaf rose and coriander.”

Customers for the gin include Mount Juliet and Brooklodge, to name a few.

For the Calder-Potts, a key development has been not only diversification by farms but a whole renaissance in traditional methods and a kind of closer supply chain that has developed between food producers and restaurants.

“The link between the community and the food producer is being restored,” Julie explained as a whole generation of people passionate about food produce artisan cheeses, breads, chocolates while farmers in greater numbers sell their meat directly to restaurants rather than endure slim margins for quality produce.

One example of a movement that has emerged includes Real Bread Ireland which has held conferences at the farm and which has the ambition of reviving the traditional bakery business and having fresh bread in every village in Ireland.

Highbank is also part of the #tastekilkenny movement to showcase local artisans from Kilkenny that have emerged including Breagagh Valley Artisan Meats, Butlers Family Farm, Costellos Brewing Company, D-Vine Tomato Sauces, Goatsbridge Fish Farm, Joan & Bob’s Juicy Jams, Kilkenny Free Range, The Little Mill Company, Mooncoin Beetroot and Riversfield Farm Organic Vegetables.

Both Julie and Rod agree that the future of organic farming in Ireland requires courage, but also a flexibility that few farmers have. “If farmers could only hit the reset button and go back to basic organic farming,” said Rod. “But the reality is many are having a hard time just making ends meet. What we did back in 1986 would have been considered totally irresponsible at the time. But at that time, we weren’t depending on the farm and it was just a nice place to live. It turned out to be a spectacularly successful decision.

“But if somebody wanted to do what we did and stop using chemicals in order to go completely organic, they would have no crop for several years. So there is cold-turkey to go through. There are ways to shorten that and I have tried to interest PhD students to focus on this.”

Deirdre Shine, Bank of Ireland branch manager for Kilkenny City and County said that Highbank Orchards is playing a vital role in shaping the fabric of the business community of the region.

“Bank of Ireland Kilkenny is very proud to be working with the Calder-Potts Family and Highbank Orchard, which is an award winning and innovate business constantly curious and visionary, working towards both the betterment of the ecosystem, the next generation and making Kilkenny and County a better place to live.”

Man with hat with arm around shoulders of woman with blonde hair.

Rod and Julie Calder-Potts, Highbank Orchards. Image: John Kennedy

Returning to the emergence of artisan food producers and a thriving local scene, Julie said that the aim is to turn what is a local movement in Kilkenny into a national movement whereby chefs are encouraged to use local produce on their menus.

This food movement allied with a vibrancy in Kilkenny that is typified by the success of local companies like Cartoon Saloon that are creating lots of new digital jobs, along the emergence of new restaurants like Arán and Cakeface, means that the future is bright for Kilkenny food.

Her message to other farms and food producers across Ireland: “Our history and our farms and our heritage are such saleable items. Open the doors.”

Written by John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 5 December, 2019