The Spirit Of Highbank Farm
To be an entrepreneur, you have to have a generally positive and optimistic outlook on life, don’t you? Or else you would never innovate or believe you can succeed when others doubt it.
Rod and Julie Calder-Potts farm near Cuffesgrange in south Kilkenny. It is an ancient place where Rod’s family has lived since the 19th century. When they decided to “go organic”, about 20 years ago, they were told that it was impossible to grow apples organically in Ireland. With our humid weather and mild winters an outbreak of scab and mildew could not be prevented without use of chemicals, said the experts. For some reason, Rod believed otherwise and now 20% of whole country’s production of organic fruit happens at Highbank.
Being an organic farmer is not easy; especially an organic apple grower! The first few years were particularly difficult, says Rod, but gradually the soil recovers and the trees become more hardy and resistant. Growth is slower than conventional farming and the yields are smaller, but quality and taste are the rewards.
Rod is passionate about soil. Everything comes from the soil, he explains. In a small spoonful of soil there are 10 billion micro-organisms, most of them good. Spraying the trees (or any crop) may prevent disease in the short term, but it also causes considerable collateral damage in the soil, killing many helpful microbes. “The scab doctor is in the soil!” he claims. When given a chance, the “scab doctor” will prevail. Now his soil and the trees are healthier than ever. “You have to use your head”, he explains, “and work with Nature, not try to beat it into submission!”
I love it when someone “discovers” that we have a perfectly good homegrown alternative to an imported staple, right here in Ireland! Like when we learned that rapeseed oil is an excellent substitute for olive oil. Apparently it was Julie’s idea, to explore the possibility of making and selling apple syrup to rival maple syrup. It took quite a bit of research, trial and error but in 2010, Highbank’s Organic Orchard Syrup was launched. It was an instant success and sales have grown steadily since. It contains organic apples from Highbank Farm; and nothing else! Inspired!
When they introduced a range of ciders one might have thought that their portfolio was complete. That was a fine enterprise by any standards – by adding tremendous value to their excellent produce, they were already doing far more than most farmers. They were busy growing, making and marketing their own range of artisan products: apple juice, apple syrup and cider.
That’s when they bought a still!
The still is a new venture for Rod and Julie, and their biggest yet. They have located the still on their property, of course, in a converted dairy. There have been many hurdles to overcome but Rod, as is his way, has nothing but good to say about the organizations and agencies he has dealt with to bring this concept to fruition. Even Customs and Excise gets a dollop of praise: “they have bent over backwards for us”, he says. Obviously Rod and Julie bring out the best in people!
Now the range includes Highbank Orchard Spirit, Highbank Orchard Liqueur and, most recently, Highbank Crystal Gin! Like everything the do, these spirits are of fabulous quality. Although the junipers for the gin have to be imported, the botanicals used are mostly from the farm. The result is so unbelievably smooth, pure and fragrant; it can be enjoyed without any mixer, just poured over ice.
The Calder-Potts have no concept of “Can’t”! Their energies are focused on “What’s next?” and “Why not?” While their achievements are indeed significant, their ethos is also notable. They have built their considerable enterprise on a bedrock of Respect: respect for history, for the land, for people and for Nature.
The Calder-Potts of Highbank Farm are a beacon of positivity and enduring optimism. But, even more than that, they really do make the world a better place!