Ten years ago, John Rowswell's family faced an uncertain future. For almost a century, they had kept cattle on a small farm near Ilminster, Somerset, but were struggling to make ends meet. "We had a dairy herd, and dairy farming was getting harder and harder," he says.
Eventually, his father bowed to the inevitable and sold the cows. John then saw the chance to realise a dream: he persuaded his dad to rent him some land and turned it over to a market garden. "I'd been on at him since I was five to grow more veg."
The Rowswells had always sold a small amount of fruit and veg. "I remember the wholesalers coming when I was little and buying a bushel of peas off us," says John, 46. "And I'd always enjoyed planting seeds - they called me John Seed. When I was a tiny lad, I used to go around the village with a little cart making deliveries."
But his new idea was to specialise in unusual varieties: 'Tigerella' tomatoes, so called because of their stripes, Romanesco, black and golden French beans, red Jerusalem artichokes ... Now, once a week, a van takes these unfamiliar goodies up to New Covent Garden market, London, from where they'll end up on the tables of the capital's eateries (Michel Roux of Le Gavroche has served Rowswell veg). Closer to home, Rowswell supplies top restaurants and gastro pubs, including Coombe House and Jack In The Green in Honiton, the Castle Hotel and Blagdon Inn in Taunton, Effings in Exeter and Digger's Rest in Woodbury Salterton. He also runs a local box scheme.
Between 50 and 60 varieties grow year-round on land near Rowswell's cottage, which he shares with his girlfriend, Pam Broom. Rowswells have lived in the village of Barrington for 500 years. John's ancestors were jobbing agricultural workers, then they owned the village pub before buying the farm at the turn of the 20th century.
His land is behind the houses on the main street. As you walk into the fields, two polytunnels house several types of tomato - he grows nine in all - and will keep producing fresh fruit well into November. Beyond is a dilapidated barn with a corrugated roof, where the potatoes will be stored in winter. In front of that an ancient cart stands loaded with pumpkins and squashes.
In another field, an innovation has been to plant columns of giant Jerusalem artichokes, which act as windbreaks for baby French beans, still cropping this late in the year. Several rows of celeriac are kept in the ground until needed, their leaves providing shelter for chervil. And, in any new space that is freed up, more Japanese leaf will be sown, outside or under polythene, depending on the weather: mizuna, mibuna and hot red mustard, ensuring salad well into winter.
The chaotic back garden is a vegetable larder, too. Dirt paths meander through clumps of edible flowers, including nasturtiums and cornflowers. "These go down well with the chefs," he says. "They look lovely on a bed of salad." There are also all sorts of herbs that will also be making their way to the restaurants; and comfrey, which, when rotted down in water, becomes a prized natural fertiliser.
At a side entrance, boxes of veg await dispatch and a small shed, in which Broom is getting the orders ready, looks like the nerve centre of the operation. Mum and Dad, who also live in the village, appear and disappear. It's a busy life: up at the crack of dawn, work all day, phone calls to chefs at 10pm, discussing the next day's deliveries - but Rowswell thrives on it. "We want to get married next year," he says, "when we can find some time."
Despite Rowswell's farming experience and a spell at agricultural college, raising the less familiar species of veg was an unknown quantity. The market garden was always going to be a gamble, and he has learned on the job, shrugging it off when he's not been successful. He's found, for example, that the Japanese leaves are best grown close together. This keeps them at a size restaurants prefer and makes it easier when it comes to harvesting bunches by hand. He is always trying new things. Next year, he plans to add two more potatoes to his repertoire: red Highland Burgundy and the bluish Shetland Black, both of which keep their colour even when cooked.
Rowswell's career change was well timed. He anticipated the growing demand for quality fresh produce that has come as a reaction to supermarkets' prepacked, chiller cabinet culture. He was also in tune with a growing scepticism about the value of pesticides. "We decided we didn't want to grow with chemicals and we wanted something more natural for us as well," he says. "I could see this was the way things were going." He is not certified organic, he adds, because he would not be able to source organic versions of some of the seeds he uses. Instead, he calls his produce "natural": pricier, yes (he has to pay for all that hand-weeding), but no pesticides.
What was really smart, however, was to tap into the burgeoning gastro culture by producing unusual varieties of veg. Rowswell had noticed that dishes could be built around a single, premium vegetable, such as Italian black kale, or cavolo nero. "I kept seeing things in restaurants and thinking, 'I could produce that,'" he says.
He is particularly proud of his "banana" shallots - so called because of their shape. Rowswell claims to be the first to grow them in England. "There's a chef down at Chagford, he's French, his grandfather got me some seed from back home about five years ago," he says. The irony is that this coveted variety is a very good cropper and raising them is idiot-proof. "Everyone should be growing them."
As Rowswell points out his healthy rows of maturing and infant produce so late in the year, it's hard not to be swept up by his enthusiasm. It must help him as a salesman, together with the fact that he seems unfazed by foodie grandeur: Michel Roux took his veg after a phone call from Rowswell; he's flogged pink fir apple, the connoisseur's potato, to Rick Stein; and he's persistent. When he was starting out, he talked his way into a meeting with the head chef at Taunton's Castle Hotel with a bribe of free mistletoe for the proprietor.
Even so, the big wholesalers with their cheap - some would say tasteless - imports, such as tomatoes from Holland, still have the most clout, he says. Recently, Rowswell found out that the restaurant at a National Trust property up the road bought its veg from just such a place. When he asked why it didn't support locally grown produce, they replied, "We thought you only sold weird stuff." He should take that as a compliment.
John Rowswell recommends:
'Black Russian' tomato A giant tomato with red/orange skin that becomes brownish as it ripens. Very soft, sweet flesh. Another giant, 'Pink Brandywine', also has a superb flavour. Both are best grown under cover.
Japanese red mustard Attractive, red-tinged leaf that's a good winter cropper. Has a peppery tang that develops more of a kick the larger the plant becomes. Best harvested small as a cut-and-come-again leaf
French 'Sonesta' bean Waxy bean that keeps its nice yellow colour on the plate. Will crop into October with some protection.
'Crown Prince' pumpkin Grey skin, very nutty and sweet with, says Rowswell, a superior flavour to the popular butternut squash. Cut it into quarters and grill or roast in olive oil. The skin is great, too.
'Black Acorn' pumpkin Creamy white flesh that is attractive on the plate. Try roasting with honey.
Rainbow chard 'Bright Lights' Can be used in salads when young or allowed to mature for a delicious leaf. Blanch, then pan-fry in butter with lots of salt and pepper. Will crop through until spring, when it will eventually bolt.
Pink fir apple potato Waxy, old-fashioned spud with strange-shaped, long tubers. Delicious simply boiled or dressed in a salad. Alternatively, try boiling first, then crushing slightly before deep frying. Keeps well in winter store.
For unusual veg seed, Rowswell recommends Tuckers Seeds (01364 652233; edwintucker.com) and the Heritage Seed Library (02476 303517, hdra.org.uk), although the latter requires a £16 membership fee before you can buy its seeds. Other sources include Organic Gardening Catalogue (0845 130 1304, organiccatalog.com), Thomas Etty (020-8466 6785, thomasetty.co.uk) and Seeds of Italy (020-8427 5020, seedsofitaly.sagenet.co.uk).
For banana shallot seed, or his vegetable box scheme, contact John Rowswell direct on 01460 53835 or 01460 55504