The young Kent farmer taking his Plaxtol farm into the future
PUBLISHED: 11:14 04 November 2019 | UPDATED: 11:14 04 November 2019
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
Meet the young man determined to take his family's fruit and cobnut farm into the future
With 59 being the average age of farmers in the UK, will younger members be interested in carrying on the family business?
A cobnut and fruit farm in Plaxtol no longer has that concern, as a grandson of the owners has decided not only to get involved with marketing and sales of their products but, thanks to a Churchill Memorial Trust grant, is heading off around the world to learn from others doing similar and hopefully bring back vital information for onward growth.
Tom Cannon was born in Maidstone Hospital 29 years ago and has lived in the area ever since. His grandparents, John and Rosemary Cannon, own Roughway Farm in Plaxtol, growing Kent cobnuts and raspberries, cherries, greengages and plums. Although John is still at the helm, the farm is run on a daily basis by Tom's uncle and godfather, Giles Cannon, who oversees the trade business that makes up most of the farm's activity and is keen to see what Tom brings back from his travels.
Growing up, Tom's family lived on an arable section of the farm at Goose Green, Hadlow and this rural playground was part of his childhood. "My cousins, little sister Maddie and I would spend hours there visiting my grandparents, playing on the haybales, riding on the tractors and picnicking among the trees."
From his early teens, during the school holidays fruit and cobnut picking became the norm. Tom would often help his grandmother on her stall at the weekly Shipbourne Farmers' Market to sell what they'd collected.
He studied history and politics at the University of East Anglia, followed by an MA in British History. His choice of subjects, combined with his family's agricultural background, meant that he was naturally drawn to the politics of farming. He became a borough councillor, serving for four years, but gave that position up this year to concentrate on the cobnut project.
It was his grandfather's passion for this Kentish nut that really inspired Tom. In the early 90s John founded the Kent Cobnut Association and today remains its Life President.
Tom is now the treasurer and every November the serious business of this crop is discussed at the less seriously named Nutters' Supper.
"My grandad wanted to educate others and started getting involved at a European level, even helping to overturn a proposal regarding the consumption of 'wet' nuts, reminding the powers that be that the Kent cobnut is often eaten green and fresh."
So, what is it about the cobnut that drives this family? Tom explains that cobnuts have always been part of an English 'traditional orchard' made up of nuts, plums and apples but, due to development, market demand and sometimes neglect, many of these nut orchards, known as plats, have disappeared over time.
The nut itself is a cultivated variety of the hazelnut but bears no resemblance to the tiny, round specimen that you'd find in a well-known chocolate bar. Once husked, the nuts can be eaten green, straight from the tree with just with a sprinkle of salt and then dried for longer-term consumption or roasting.
They are also sold as feed for the ever-decreasing population of red squirrels. According to Natural England, the cobnut plats are part of the unique maze of England and this grandfather, uncle and grandson trio are determined to see this continue.
After graduating, Tom moved into marketing and was keen to transfer what he was learning at work to the farm.
"The nut industry and sales in this country have seen a huge increase, what with people turning to dairy alternatives in nut milks and emphasis on nuts being such a great source of protein. I could see a massive surge, but sales of cobnuts were staying stagnant - perhaps just due to education."
Tom started working on the website and social media platforms for Roughway Farm and spent time adding recipes, videos and introducing online sales. In 2014 he saw the farm sales of cobnuts increase by 200 per cent - a great start but, as Tom says: "Growth needs to be much wider than just via the farm. We need to raise awareness of the nut, educate people and look at processing methods and potentially export."
In July this year he contributed to the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission's Field Guide for the Future, calling for more collaboration to grow the whole cobnut sector.
Tom heard about the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, a research fund set up to send people of all ages around the world to bring back knowledge to the UK for innovative solutions for an eclectic mix of pressing problems.
He sent off his application under the Rural Living category aimed at strengthening countryside communities and was called for an interview. The interviewer turned out to be the Hon Jeremy Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill, and early this year
Tom heard that his application had been successful and his trip was to go ahead.
Divided into southern and northern hemisphere sectors, Tom will travel twice over the coming months, firstly visiting Turkey, China and the USA and then New Zealand and Australia, where he hopes to visit the Tasmanian farm that his grandfather worked on in his youth. All these countries are hazelnut producers and Tom plans to glean as many tips as he can and build up relationships with growers worldwide.
"There is so much I can learn from farming practices, through to diversification and the ongoing effect on local communities."
Above all, Tom says: "I really just want to learn and to make a difference. I want this humble nut close to my heart to become well marketed and popular with the buying public. I have faith that I am going to return overflowing with ideas."
You are left with no doubt that, driven by the huge affection and admiration for his grandfather and the pride he holds in his roots and county, that this young man will make his mark.
The name Tom Cannon is one I suspect we will hear much more of in the future of both farming and local business.
Find out more
You can follow Tom's journey on www.cobnutproject.co.uk and we will also report back on his progress in a future edition of Kent Life.