When your business is hot stuff

By Julie Blackburn   |   Reporter   |
Saturday 18th June 2022 4:00 pm
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Have you ever yearned to give up the 9-5 daily grind and live the good life on a smallholding in the countryside? Ruth and Stuart Meade tell Working Week exactly what it takes to make a success of it.

The minimum size for a profitable farm is widely reckoned to be 500 acres. Anyone who’s watched Jeremy Clarkson’s farming show will know that even his 1,000 acres doesn’t necessarily cut it.

So, when you are running a smallholding of just 10 acres as your business, you need to be more than a little canny to make it pay.

‘You’ve got to get really creative,’ says Ruth Meade from Red Mie Farm in Ballaugh.

‘You’ve got to think outside the box a little bit and differentiate yourself from what others are doing,’ adds her husband, Stuart.

In addition to their large flock of poultry and loaghtan sheep (the couple rent a further 18 acres of land for the sheep) they have invested in a large polytunnel which is mainly used for growing chillis. This, as Stuart explains, is partly down to his enthusiasm for them and partly through spotting a gap in the local market.

He says: ‘Where I used to work and live in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, chilli farms were a big thing. I love cooking with chillies and, when I came here, I wanted to make a goat curry with some meat from the Isle of Man Goat Farm. So I went to try and get some scotch bonnet chillies and I couldn’t get any, anywhere at all, which I found a bit odd so it all sprang out of that.’

Lots of people are nervous of cooking with chillies and Stuart says they shouldn’t be. ‘People think chillies are just heat but that would be like me giving you a bunch of parsley and saying: “You’ve tried every single herb now, you don’t need to try any more.”

‘Chillies have a whole array of flavours, from smoked to sweet, and citrus as well. The heat varies from just above a sweet bell pepper right the way through to a blow-your-head-off Carolina reaper. There’s plenty of variety there.’

Inside the polytunnel there are 265 chilli plants which went into the ground at the start of the year. Each plant will yield around one kilo of chillies each year.

At the far end of one of the rows lurk the chilli plants which produce the Caroline reaper. A good proportion of this year’s yield will be reserved for September’s Isle of Man Food and Drink Festival. Ruth and Stuart will once again be running the chilli eating contest which debuted at last year’s show, and supplying all the chillies for the contestants to eat.

Ruth says: ‘We’ve been asked and we are all set for doing it again this year. Last year was so much fun, we loved doling it.’

Even on a rainy morning during TT week, and without any artificial heat, the polytunnel is at a balmy 24 degrees and the chillies are all thriving. Consistency of temperature is one of the main things you need to get right to grow a healthy chilli plant. In January Ruth and Stuart have to use gas heaters to maintain the warmth needed to get the plants started, though they are looking to provide a more sustainable solar solution in the future.

As the summer progresses, even in the Isle of Man, the temperature inside the polytunnel can reach 46 degrees: ‘We’re soon getting to the time of year when it’s too hot to work in there between 10am and 3pm and we’ll have to move to split shifts, one of us doing 5am to 10am and the other 4pm to 10pm,’ says Stuart.

There is always work to do in the polytunnel: in addition to their chilli growing the couple also have a devoted following of veg box customers so successional planting, growing and harvesting of lettuces and radishes will carry on through the summer. There is a row of tomato plants to be tied up as they grow, two varieties of cucumber and some kale. There is also a row of marigolds planted between the rows of chillis for natural pest management: ‘The marigolds will attract anything that might fancy a nibble at the chillis,’ says Stuart.

Although not registered as organic, the couple use no chemicals. Just outside the polytunnel a nettle patch is left to flourish: they are used for making ‘nettle tea’ which provides the growing vegetables and chillies with a bit of extra nitrogen if needed. Ladybirds are ‘harvested’ from the nettles and brought into the polytunnel to eat the aphids.

Another big job is the weeding: ‘Every Monday is weeding day. It is a joint effort we have a little bit of a routine going.’

Ruth adds: ‘You miss a week of weeding in here and you really notice it whereas, if you do it without fail, you keep it down.’

Other jobs around their smallholding includes keeping their hens, ducks and geese healthy and well feed, cleaning out chicken coops and collecting eggs – they sell the duck eggs and the hens’ eggs, the geese are reared for meat. Then there is the range of sauces they make using their chillies, including Chilli Ketchup and Hot Honey, and sell from their online shop and various retail outlets around the island.

They also supply laying hens to other poultry keepers and run courses on poultry keeping for novices, chilli growing and there is an introduction to sheep course coming up.

Stuart says: ‘We’re building a portfolio of ‘smallholder-y’ courses.’

I ask them if they have ever tried to quantify how many hours the business requires them to put in each week.

Ruth says: ‘I think it would probably frighten us if we did, but at this time of year we’re starting at 7.30-8 in the morning and not finishing till 10 a night, seven days a week, though we do take a few afternoons off here and there.’

And she adds a universal truth that even Jeremy Clarkson has been learning: ‘Land is time consuming, even as a hobby. You have to put the hours into it and maintain it: you turn your back and everything’s growing, weeds and all.’

l The chilli varieties that Ruth and Stuart are growing include:

Biqinhos, a small, teardrop -shaped pepper about the size of a cherry tomato. use in a salad and for pickling, or stuff them with cheese as a snack or a starter.

Padrons, the well-known Spanish green chillies. Blister them on a griddle with a bit of oil and sprinkle salt over.

The ‘Mexican Holy Trinity’ of chillies, ancho, pasilla and guajillo. Used dried they are a staple in Mexican kitchens and are used to make the traditional mole sauces.

Kashmiri chilli, a deep red, medium hot chilli, used in north Indian cuisine, in dishes including rogan josh, it imparts its rich red colour to the dish.

Carolina Reaper, officially the world’s hottest pepper, red with a gnarled, bumpy surface. It’s been described as having a ‘sweet and fruity flavour with unrelenting, face-melting heat’. Often used to make hot sauces.

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