Pick-Your-Own Potato business takes off in lockdown - have you visited Bayhorne Farm yet?

The last 16 months has been tough on a lot of people and a lot of businesses.

But it’s also brought out the best in people and the community.

And for some people it has changed their lives for the good and opened up great opportunities.

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One of those people is Kirsty Allen, who runs Bayhorne Farm in Horley.

Kirsty and Matt Allen in the potato field

Kirsty, 44, runs the farm with her husband Matt, 45. Pre-pandemic, it was a livery yard with 49 horses housed there.

But during the lockdown Kirsty got ‘totally bored’, realised she had a lot of land and lot of manure.

She said: “This field was being rested, as we had run it as an equestrian centre for 15 years so it had to be rested.

Bayhorne Farm in Horley

“I decided to see if I could grow some food. I had manure and an empty field and everyone was going allotment mad. So I thought let’s see if I could grow some potatoes.”

And after planting the seeds, Kirsty and Matt went on holiday and they could not have expected what they came back to.

“My great grandfather used this bit as an allotment, so we grew them. Everyone said we couldn’t do it because it was clay soil. I spoke to a guy I know who runs the Leckford Estate for Waitrose and another guy who does it for Walkers and they said ‘there’s too much clay Kirsty’. So we decided that wasn’t going to stop us and we just went deeper with the ploughs.

“We mixed in a mountain of horse manure and hand-planted them.

Chef Stephen Toward, Kirsty and Matt Allen in the potato field

“It took us two days, went on holiday and when we came back I was delighted to see a little plant. And it literally went crazy, it was just incredible. Matt said, ‘what are you going to do?’ and I said I don’t know.”

Matt said: “We had all these potatoes but no way of getting rid of them.”

'It went mad'

So Kirsty put a sign up at the end of Bayhorne Lane - off Balcombe Road - and put a little advert on Snapchat and Facebook and before she knew it - ‘it went mad’.

Because of the pandemic they could only have limited numbers and allowed two groups of six and the first four weeks they were fully booked.

Kirsty said: “We had to open up on Saturdays, Sundays so I painted a little potato on the caravan and called it the Potato Shack and there we were as a fully-fledged business. There were people queuing to get in.”

And when Kirsty announced they would be welcoming back potato pickers this summer on the Bayhorne Farm Facebook page, people were delighted.

They received hundreds of comments from customers saying they could not wait to come back - and people travelled from Chessington and Brighton to get their hands on the potatoes.

And one of the more rewarding aspects for Kirsty is the different people from the community who are coming to visit and along with her daughter Elsa, she loves telling every visitor about the history of the farm and potatoes.

“We had children and adults with learning difficulties come. One company rang me about four weeks ago and wanted to book three classes a week for adults with learning difficulties.

“It was just the most heart-warming thing to stand there and be like ‘this is my lockdown project’.

“I like to tell them a bit about the farm, like my family has run it since 1922. I had taken it over from Jack Whitaker in 2002 and worked with my grandad Dennis Whitaker for four years.

“No community had ever been on here. It’s been amazing to have the community here to enjoy it.

“The kids were brilliant to watch, they were like ‘woah!’ because they were pulling them out and it was like a bunch of grapes. Even the adults were surprised that they are like this and that this is what a potato field looks like.

'It was educational for people'

“It was educational for people because we had used horse manure and we didn’t use any pesticides or chemicals. We used organic seeds.”

And when the had got home from picking their potatoes, the visitors let Kirsty know what they did with them.

“That was lovely - kids were going home and then sending a picture to ‘farmer Kirsty’ of what they had made for dinner,” she said.

“They were eating what they had picked.

“Educationally for children it was great. And some parents were saying their kids never ate vegetables but they did after visiting us.”

And Kirsty was proud of daughter Elsa, 11, who helped out. “She helped on the potato field last year. It was lovely because for her it was her great great great grandfather that started the farm so she would talk about the history of the farm.

“It was lovely to see her be part of the farm and move forward with it.

“We have had it as horses for years and it’s nice to bring the public here. I found it very rewarding to see the children have fun here.”

This summer they are now having four groups an hour and Kirsty can’t wait to tell people about her potatoes.

“It’s such fun. I never expected myself to enjoy potato picking as much as I did. I want to speak to the people and kids and tell them things like potatoes were the first vegetable grown in space. It makes it fun and engages them more.”

On the farm, you only pay for what you pick.

The book your potato picking slot - visit the farm on their Facebook page - https://www.facebook.com/BayhorneFarm

Michelin-trained chef Stephen Toward: 'The culinary side of things is my input'

One person who came on board with the Potato Picking business at Bayhorne Farm was Michelin-trained chef Stephen Toward.

The Horley-based chef runs Stove’s Dining, a fine-dining catering company he set up himself a few years ago after moving down.

Stephen said: “With lockdown everyone has had to adapt and change what they do.

“From my perspective I saw Kirsty’s post last year and thought it was a great opportunity to have potatoes that are supplied for my parties and functions to know where they have come from.

“It was good to have that due diligence to say I know what field that has come from. The customer and clients like that kind of conversation around the table.

“Leave Kirsty to decide what to put in the ground and what she plants I work my recipes around. Some potatoes are better for mashing, some for chipping and making pies with. Some are moister, some are drier. The culinary side of things is my input.”

And Stephen has loved seeing the community spirit come together at the farm and has enjoyed getting involved on the farm and showing the customers what they can do with the potatoes.

He said: “A few people that came were getting some for neighbours and other people as well and it was great to see that community spirit come together during lockdown and be part of it. We did a video where they picked the potato and then cooked it in the middle of the field and then with salmon, had farming music. It was great fun.”

And the freshness and healthiness of the potatoes is what excites Stephen.

“You look from a health point of view, the supermarkets, how long they store potatoes from when they are picked to when they go to shelf. So when you pick them here from us, you eat them that night you benefit from all the minerals and vitamins. Any fruit or vegetables, the longer you leave them the less vitamins and minerals they have.

“To see someone picking the potato, understanding where it’s coming from, then eating it that night is incredible from a chef’s point of view. The product was incredible.”

Last year Bayhorne Farm produced Gatsby potatoes, which is a larger type.

Stephen, who has cooked for Hollywood A-list stars, said: “The Gatsby is a bigger potato and during the period when we were picking them Kirsty was running a competition to find the biggest. There was one that was 1.25kg it was like a rugby ball.”

This year, over the two acre field, the farm will be producing more types of potato: Gatsby, Bambino, Colleen, Reds, Ambrose and Robinta.

And Stephen is pleased Kirsty and Matt have kept it simple this year.

He said: “A lot of people like us because we haven’t gone too commercial like a lot of pick-your-owns have. This is where people get back to basics and go to a proper farm.

“They will remember this when they are older, this is the kind of experience which makes memories.”

And Stephen will be heavily involved with PotatoFest - an event the farm is running towards the end of August.

Kirsty said: “We are going to have a country and western band and Steven is going to do some potato delights like potato pancakes and potato donuts. Potatoes are not just there to make chips. We will have a bucking bronco, a barn dance type vibe.”

You can visit Stoves Dining at stovesdining.co.uk

A brief history of Bayhorne Farm

Bayhorne Farm has been in Kirsty Allen’s family and been a working farm since 1922. Her family - the Whitakers - are well known in Horley and they even have a road named after them in The Acres estate.

Jack Whitaker - Kirsty’s great grandfather - ran the farm from 1922 until his son Dennis took over in 1963.

Kirsty’s uncle David joined Dennis until David died from a brain haemorrhage in 2002. That’s when Kirsty learnt the ropes from her grandfather over four years.

David Whitaker was known as the Eggman in Horley and he delivered eggs to people’s doors on Fridays and Saturdays while Dennis had chicken and beef on the farm.

The farm is own by Surrey County Council and Kirsty is on a 10 year lease but with a 12-month notice period at any time.

Over the years there have been many plans to build on the land but so far it has been resisted.

Kirsty wants to welcome more and more public onto the land and the council have told her to continue with her potato picking business.