Chocolate Mud Pies

IMG_20140721_115226 copyThose flash floods have made my parched soil nice and silty and fertile-looking again, hurrah! The field once again resembles a moist chocolate brownie, rather than dry and scratchy Shredded Wheat; almost good enough to eat! The weight of the rain droplets and volume of water dropped has meant that the soil is pretty capped where it was bare though, so it will be tricky for delicate seedlings to push through the solid crust when it dries out more. I’m still waiting for the weeds to realise that it’s rained, and go forth and multiply wildly. That rain should keep me and my plants going for a few more days anyway (the squash and pumpkins look amazing, with sizable fruits on them already); although in this heat I feel like my salad leaves – ready to wilt at any moment…

Average Day, Average Week

IMG_20140717_163727 copyYes, the last few days have been all in a week’s work for any grower: rubbing shoulders with researchers, food policy makers and big-hitting business managers; meeting HRH the Prince of Wales; trying to influence food policy. It certainly breaks up the monotony of weeding season anyway! Over the last couple of days I’ve been privileged to listen to great talks and been involved in intense discussions on food production sustainabiity challenges and solutions. Prof Tim Benton looked at food security and sustainable intensification – points I really took in include the following: the average environmental cost of conventional agriculture is £331.61 per person per ha (health, biodiversity, GHGs, water cleaning etc); Jevon’s Paradox suggests that simply producing more can increase the problems that extra production was meant to solve; so what is agriculture for anyway? Is it to improve the economy, or public health? There are vast costs associated with getting health wrong: the cost of obesity is an estimated £2,500 per household in this country. Not to mention environmental pressures and costs, when we’re on course for an average temperature increase of 4C by 2100 – which is almost unimaginable.

Duchy Home Farm's friendly Ayrshire cows

Duchy Home Farm’s friendly Ayrshire cows

Prof Tim Lang spoke on diet, food quality and public health – how 12 out of 19 of the causes of premature deaths are food-related; how the wealth-gap impinges on health, so that 25% of children in deprived areas are obese, compared with 12% of wealthy areas (didn’t it use to be the case that only rich people could afford to be fat? This suggests some serious economic and cultural issues, despite Boris Johnson suggesting that “it’s their own fat fault”). It’s also always shocking to hear how poorly paid ‘real’ food producers are (eg when I look at my own bank balance); but of the £169 billion spent on food in the UK last year, £9.2 billion went to farmers and growers, compared to £27.7 billion to retailers, £21.4 billion to manufacturers, £26.7 billion to caterers, and £9.6 billion to wholesalers. The point was made later than in this long food chain, who is it that carries most of the risk of producing the food? – Yes, the farmer and grower.

Further discussion took place over farm walks at Eastbrook Farm, and Duchy Home Farm too (with a reception with HRH sandwiched in between – the Prince was very charming and seemed genuinely interested in our farms and enterprises, and very knowledgable and involved too); and we carried on those discussions today at Elm Farm in Newbury. The session on new technology was especially interesting, looking at how robotics, lasers, and small ultra-lightweight ‘tractors’ can aid precision farming – how to remove the constraints that the machines impose themselves on systems, so the constraints only come from uncontrollable factors such as the weather.

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Fred’s immaculate veg beds at Duchy Home Farm

I expected that my talk on small or micro-scale businesses might be glossed over or indulged until the real issues affecting large scale farms came up, but was pleasantly surprised when everyone seemed to agree that we need a range of farm sizes, and should encourage more small farms and comunity enterprises. Woohoo! Quite right to of course, since small plots and market gardens like mine encourage biodiversity; crops are picked fresh to order to have a high nutrient value; harbour a range of skills and varieties; are likely to have labour-intensive systems so provide jobs and have a lower CO2 footprint; are flexible because of their size, so can respone to climatic or economic perturbations quickly; are very productive and efficient per m2; are a good entrance point for new growers and farmers; are an easily understandable model that local commuities and other memembers of the public can understand and engage with. And not a hobby, despite what the DEFRA re-classification for CAP suggests!

So anyway, hurrah for the Farm School, thanks for having me; and back to the thistles next week.

Prince Of Wales’ Food & Farming Summer School 16th-18th July

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 18.05.05This conference actually started today at the Organic Research Centre at Elm Farm in Newbury, but I had too much veg to pick, deliveries to make and beans to weed to attend the first day unfortunately. However I’m looking forward to going round Helen Browning’s Eastbrook Farm and Duchy Home Farm again tomorrow; and then further discussions on Friday back at Elm Farm, when I’ll be taking part in a panel on what the the future of UK farming will look like – I’ll be flying the flag for micro- and small-scale farms and smallholdings of course.

The school programme looks really interesting, and will gather together food industry leaders, researchers, civil servants, farmers and growers, charities and health professionals, to explore the problems of our current food system, and look at the many ways we can produce more food more sustainably. I’m really excited about the programme, and hope to convey the benefits of small scale farming and growing too (I will argue that we need micro, small, medium and large farms in order to meet future challenges); hopefully I can relay some of the excellent points made by the Land Workers’ Alliance too, showing that small economics can add up to big things. The new Food Research Council just published its Square Meal report this week too, so I suspect that much of this will be discussed: how to reconcile sustainable farming, enhancing nature, improving health and better food (choose organic, I hear you cry?!). Meanwhile hopefully my own place will behave itself and the weeds won’t go too beserk…


Behind The Label

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Vivid colours from natural breeding techniques: Indigo Rose

You know I really think that GM proponents should welcome the idea of labelling food if it contains GM ingredients. The US is in the middle of an ongoing battle by individual states to bring in legislation to label GM food as such, as it is in the EU, and this controversy over labelling make me think about the discussion I’ve had in the past over the ‘organic’ label. Calling a fruit an ‘organic tomato’ instead of just ‘a tomato’ marks it out as different, and it’s usually up the organic producers to explain what that difference is. Some people think it’s just a value-added thing, an expensive or luxury variety, and don’t understand the complete difference in system, and its affect on the soil, biodiversity, the local environment, economy and our health. Many of us growers who grow to organic standards have quite a job explaining how most conventional farming isn’t at all the rosy picture they’ve grown up with, but is in fact heavily industrialised and not at all quaint; and it’s the organic growers who tend to use more traditional practices such as crop rotations, composts and manures, and mixed farming.It’s not at all any easy task, and the systems are so complex, so pretty tricky to fit into quick soundbites.

So why don’t most GM companies want their food labelled as such? Do they think that the general public are prejudiced (rightly or wrongly) about GM, perhaps through media scare stories? If so that surely it’s up to GM farmers and manufactures to explain what they believe the benefits of GM are to the public, just as organic has had to. (Of course personally I think that is the root of the problem: there aren’t actually any benefits when more chemical are needed to grow them; but the people who work for these companies must think otherwise.)  Surely this would lead to a much more open debate about GM, and provide greater transparency – which you’d think would lead to less mistrust all round?

Weed Mega Overdrive

Spot the kale

Spot the kale

So I’m week two into the serious weeding business of the season, and already worse for wear. Covered in thistle scratches (will these buggers ever die off? They must have roots a mile down), and my back’s knackered too (ongoing sports injury that weeding really doesn’t help). Knees not too bad though, thanks to some investment in some gel kneepads used by floorers. It’s a good rewarding sight however, seeing a long winrow of wilting weeds in between your newly liberated crops: I can’t believe the early brassicas have survived, covered as they have been by sow thistle, thistle, camomile, thistles, poppies and dandelions.  And thistles. The weeds have actually done a good job again of protecting the plants from drying out too much; but now there’s been a spot of rain, it’s time for them to become a mulch in between the rows, and give the nutrients and water back to the soil. Only another week or so to go! And then I’ll probably need to start over again…

Leap Frog

IMG_20140630_143356 copyRighto, I’ll keep this brief because the World Cup Quarterfinals are on, and none of us want to miss that. The last week has continued the manic theme from the week before: usual picking/weeding/sowing/planting/random craziness characteristic of this time of year. I am trying to pause at lunch though, and smell the proverbial roses (rather chat to the wildlife – good news: one of the frogs from the pond is back hopping around outside the tomato tunnel!).

I’ve finished weeding the parsnips though, hurrah; so I took a picture to remember what it looked like weed-free as it won’t last long. I’ve just put in the last of the late kales too, and planted more fennel, and sown some dill, coloured radishes, bronze fennel, and coriander. Hopefully the forecast rain will settle everything in well, and bring on the next lot of lettuces that went in last week.

IMG_20140630_170629 copySince nearly stepping on a rabbit in the parsnips last week (that sounds like a line from a Carry On film if ever I’ve heard one), I’ve netted them using the rest of the leek net, and the new fennel, just in case…




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