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Sustainability types. The Grower: Bruce Bennett

11:36 am, November 12, 2013

Pillars of Hercules, Falkland, Fife.

Blink and you miss it. Pillars of Hercules is that typical hidden gem. Turn just off the A912 and it unfolds like a horticultural tardis. Shop, café, box scheme, vegetable farm, hens for eggs, and the best salads in Scotland. Its owner, Bruce Bennett likes it that way. Local food for local people, and he means it. No brown tourist signs, no fanfare, only a vision realised over 30 years of shovelling compost and having the confidence to get the practical jobs done.

Bruce has just been recognised by the Soil Association for his 30 year commitment to growing organic food so it’s timely that I talk to him.

Bruce (right) and Judy Bennett with Monty Don, president of the Soil AssociationPillars is an inherently charming place and very much reflects the style and ethos of its owners, Bruce and Judy Bennett. We’ve been supplying them with organic meat for their shop shelves for at least 7 years. Before that I don’t remember when Pillars first came onto my radar. Some places engage your senses so that time passes, and there you are, a happy hour spent browsing through the vegetables and the 20 different types of bread flour.

It came into being in 1983, after a winding journey, and what Bruce describes as a succession of chance encounters. These invariably evolved from Bruce’s skills as a musician and his Scottish Soil Science lecturer’s need for a band for a Burn’s supper. Thrust socially into the mix of academics and pioneering organic farmers in Cardiff and West Wales in the late 70s, who were leading a new way of thinking about Soil Science in the UK, Bruce decided to become an organic farmer.
Six months of volunteer work on an organic farm, and a stint at the Cyrenians in Edinburgh, led to a chance meeting with Ninian, chairman of the trustees of Falkland Estate, and fellow ecologist. Bruce rented a few acres and started farming; growing and selling vegetables directly.

Bruce’s story is littered with opportunities taken after seemingly chance encounters. Like the one about the four New Englanders looking for a project to do in Scotland for a month in exchange for food and board. They contacted Bruce and together they raised a barn at Pillars for a shop. Here’s a person who says “yes” rather than “no”, and perhaps explains his often vocal criticism of form filling and beaurocracy, “spoiling everybody’s fun” he says.

What was once a “blasted bit of sheep grazing” is now a bustling 25 acre organic farm employing 20 people, complete with orchard, laying hens, organic and fair trade food shop, vegetarian cafe, self-catering accommodation, campsite and soon to be weekend restaurant (launching 15th November).

I asked Bruce about Pillars’ success.

He says it’s the desire to see a job done right and to put his environmental motivation and beliefs in soil health into practice. He did marry Judy, his vegetable growing competition in Fife, and someone he credits as helping to develop the retail side of Pillars.

His worries for the future?

The lack of opportunity for today’s generation of children to explore the natural world around them. No spending a long summers day trying to dam a stream or build a tree house, well or badly, and developing those practical skills which mean you know how to hammer two bits of wood together to build something out of nothing.

How to deal with a day going badly?

Go and weed the salads, at least there’s a productive bit of work at the end of an hour.

The future?

He wants to carry on selling good food to local people. He also wants to create more seats for his café because he is very busy. He does wish people would pay more for a cabbage than a cappucino, but he’s sanguine about it saying, “You have to give people what they want”.

Any advice?

“If you’re going to do something do it with conviction, give it your heart and soul, and don’t worry about being in the minority”.

I’m off for a wander round the herbs, it’s a good day here in Fife.