Filled With Beans

IMG-20140418-00862 copyI managed to get the climbing beans in the polytunnel on Friday, huzzah! A row of a mix of purple (Blauhilde), yellow (Neckargold) and green (Cobra), plus a few Borlotti beans which I might pick young for the bean mix, or leave to dry. I also put in a row of sweet peas behind them: a mix of Old Spice (purples and pinks) bought and saved seed, plus some white Mrs Collier. They are in half of the New Tunnel: I think I’m going to have to change this tunnel’s name, it went up in 2012 after all, and I might manage to get another small tunnel up this year so I’ll end up confusing myself. I think I might call it the Vole Tunnel, since I can always hear the little monkeys squeaking away to each other in there, more so than the other tunnels since it’s just a bit further away from the car park, farmshop and carpenters’ barns so a bit quieter.


IMG-20140418-00859 copy IMG-20140418-00860 copyWhile clearing away the bolted salad brassicas that were there, and lifting up the salad Mypex prior to rotovating and laying the bean Mypex, I disturbed a nest of 4 young field voles (vole-lings? Vole-lets?) who were too young and dopey in the warmth to run away from me. Damn it, why are they so cute? I find it hard to ‘dispense’ with things unless I actually catch them red-handed (slugs are always red-handed, they were born looking guilty); so mouse traps around seeds and young plants that catch their prey are fine. I nudged the volelings to the side of the tunnel, so they wouldn’t get munched by the rotovator. A couple disregarded my warning though, and kept running back into the middle of the tunnel. It was tempting to let natural selection take it’s course; but it’s hard to harden your heart on a sunny day, so I kept nudging them back again to safety. If they nibble and destroy my beans mind you, that will be a different story.

Size Matters?

IMG-20140417-00857 copyWell, that was interesting. The Landworkers Alliance (LWA) demo on Thursday 17th April (International Peasants’ Day) went pretty well, where we set up a market stall outside DEFRA headquarters in London, to show how productive smaller scale farms can be – and to ask very nicely that small scale farms be considered when making policy. The demo attendees were a small but select bunch of around 40-50 (I’m terrible at guestimating), and a few of us spoke about why the status quo needs to change, and it what direction.

The ‘demand’ (or polite request) we made was to ask DEFRA to implement the voluntary cap on Pillar 1 CAP EU payments, at an extremely generous £150,000 per farm; and to divert the resulting £200 million (or at least some of it) to smaller scale productive farms under Pillar 2 of CAP. I still can’t believe that DEFRA has recently chosen to redefine the size of farms receiving Pillar 1 payments (replacing the old direct single farm payment) to those over 5ha – that’s a huge minimum size of farm, over 12 acres; my market garden business is on just over 2 acres of land and producing a huge amount of food. EU Member states can apply limits or not at their own discretion. So the threshold for minimum claim areas has been increased by DEFRA in this country to the highest possible level of 5ha because, in the words of Owen Patterson, “the vast majority of those claimants with less than 5ha are not economic units. They are, in lay parlance, hobby farms.”

IMG-20140417-00856 copy IMG-20140417-00858 copyCue seething indignation and rage from those thousands of small- and micro-scale farmers and growers, who are told that their endless toil and graft in the face of an ever-industial agricultural landcape is a ‘hobby’. Apparently it’s a ‘hobby’ if you earn your living from your business, as I do, which is an interesting definitition of ‘hobby’. Many of the 16,650 holdings who are now excluded from the Pillar 1 payments also earn their living from the land; there may be some lucky individuals who do run their smallholdings as a hobby, and don’t have to make a profitable enterprise in order to survive; but going by land size only is in no way a accurate way of measuring this. The LWA estimate that this change of threshold for claimants will save DEFRA £16 million each year – which is still much less than it’s proposed solution of adding a cap to Pillar 1 payments for those landowners with vast estates, who can claim well over £150,000 per year in subsides.

It’s the (lack of) logic of the argument that I find particularly galling. DEFRA say, on the one-hand, that holdings under 5ha are uneconomic, and therefore should not be supported (although this is of course completely untrue, as thousands of small businesses will testify and would be happy to should Owen Patterson their accounts to prove it – plus many would be glad of the extra subsidy money to expand and develop their business, and employ more local people, produce even more local food, teach youngsters about farming…). However, at the same time, the implication of diverting the bulk of the EU subsides to asset-rich landowners of vast estates is that these landowners need these hundreds of thousands of subsides in order to remain viable and survive. Surely if any one business needs yearly no-strings grants of over £150,000, they are “not economic units.” They are the ‘hobby farms’, only in a massive and unsustainable (in every way) scale.

Mind you, I shouldn’t get too worked up because none of this really affects me, since I’ve never had CAP payments in the first place. Although of course, it does affect me in a number of ways, and not least because those macro business with EU subsides are able to sell their subsidised produce at a price lower than my cost of production if they want to. Fortunately my customers base is very loyal, and people appreciate having local, fresh and sustainable produce from just down the road (and I grow many things that larger producers don’t grow); plus my margins are so slim that my prices are pretty much the same anyway (I’m really not going to be rich growing veg). So therefore my tax money is paying larger producers to subsidise their produce, and keep my income right down. It does seem a little unfair to be taxed twice though?

DEFRA Demonstration: International Peasants Day 17th April

april 17th flierI’m looking forward to the demonstration outside DEFRA tomorrow in London from noon, organised by the Land Workers’ Alliance (LWA). I’m giving a brief talk about the issues facing new entrants to farming and land work generally – and of course the main one is access to land. The demo should be a really good day (especially if the nice weather holds); and there will be a mini farmers’ market stall there too, to highlight how productive small- and medium-scale farms and market gardens can be, even in the middle of the Hungry Gap (rather unfortunate timing for veg growers!). We are hoping to remind DEFRA and other policymakers that smaller scale agriculture and land workers really does need more attention when it comes to formulating policy and implementing EU legislation. Grand sweeping schemes to ‘help farmers’ often equate to sops to wealthy landowners and corporate agribusiness, which do nothing to help us – in fact they often have the opposite effect if large-scale farming practices get subsidies and grants from central governments, therefore undercutting artisanal producers trying to earn a basic living wage, often on rented land; who often produce more food per acre in a more sustainable way, and using more labour rather than fossil fuels and chemicals (therefore creating more jobs).

The demo is to mark International Peasants Day, as the LWA is a member of international peasant organisation La Via Campesina. It’s all very exciting; I just hope that there are some DEFRA people around to notice. Someone told me that they tend not to be around much on a Thursday afternoon. Maybe if they have the afternoon off they can come along and join the demo? Everyone is welcome; banners, beards and bailing twine aren’t mandatory.

Frog’s Chorus

IMG-20140414-00854 copy IMG-20140410-00850 copyWell I’ve been very much enjoying this sunny spring for the last week or so! I’ve been able to munch my lunch by the pond in the company of a frog or three; and made up all kinds of stories about what the three that I can see get up to in the pond (I assume some of the frogspawn at least is theirs). They like to poke their heads above the weeds around lunch time too, and catch some warm sun rays; so we don’t disturb each other too much.



IMG-20140409-00843 copyThe herbs are coming along well; although usually I have a bit more time to enjoy the French sorrel before the dock beetle moves in. Not this year – they are busy having orgies all over it at the moment, leaving my lovely lemony-tasting leaves full of holes and yellow larvae underneath the leaves. The sorrel does usually recover one they’ve moved on and the larvae hatched, and I’ll be able to pick nice hole-free leaves next month hopefully; perhaps the mild winter has brought the pests out earlier than usual.



IMG-20140411-00852 copyThankfully I have been able to borrow the rotovator and tractor again; which has meant that I’ve drilled the parnsips (Halblange White and Tender & True); carrots (St Valery again as part-trial, Yaya F1, plus a mixed row of Purple Haze and Yellowstone – the mice in the shed had bitten through these plastic packets to get at the seed so I had less than I’d have liked). Plus I’ve sown a row of mixed mustards, mizuna and rocket, four rows of French dwarf beans, a row of turnips, lots of beetroot (Boliver, Boro, Chioggia and Golden Detroit), and a row of spinach; plus a row of rainbow chard. Oh, and planted a row of lettuce and endive; and today I managed to plant out the first lot of brassicas too (curly, red Russian and nero kale, plus a few Savoy and PIxie cabbages). And planted some Jerusalem artichokes in the damp patch next to the strawberries. Phew. The trouble is, now I would quite like a shower or two overnight soon – the ground is so dry on top, despite being wet underneath. Never happy, eh? Meanwhile I will enjoy the sun and get more jobs done…

New Life

IMG-20140404-00841 copyForget gambolling lambs, newborn chicks and cute calves: spring in the market garden means an explosion of life all round, from insects (hurrah for ladybird larvae!) and arachnids to bees and amphibians. Every year I see hundred of baby spiders (spiderlings?) appear in the module tunnel, huddling together and looking like a pile of spilt brown seeds; then they grow up (most of them), make webs of their own (some of them), and catch naughty aphids and other intruders in the tunnel (a few of them). They also catch me sometimes, covering my hair and face in claustrophobic webs, blurgh; but (usually) I tolerate it because they catch pests too.


IMG-20140404-00839 copyMost excitingly this year, frogspawn has appeared in my pond – of its own accord! I’ve also seen one of the large common toads in the pond that hang round the poytunnels (either Norman or Todd, it swam away too quickly to tell); and small froglets (probably from last year’s spawn that I placed in the pond) hopping around the pond stones too. So beware slugs, your days are numbered…


IMG-20140331-00837 copyI pulled up all the brassica stems last week, just before rotovating the field, and I’ve piled them up in a corner of the field to rot down gradually. I’m hoping that a toad or hedgehog or two may find this mansion appealing (and not too whiffy) and move in; although I suspect that at first the local field mice will colonise the pile. I can always hear the mice sqeaking away to each other round the edges of the field; although they keep quiet when a sparrowhawk is on the wing.


IMG-20140328-00827 copyI’ve left quite a few of the overwintered brassica salad plants to carry on flowering too; since the bumble bees and others are out and about on sunnier days, scoffing the nectar hungrily. I’ve also seen some honey bees around too, which will be the new batch that have come through the winter as grubs and now hatched, ready to start a season’s gathering for the colony. It only takes one sunny afternoon to hear and see all the life springing into action, ready for the sunny (ooh please please!) summer to come.

Turning The Soil

IMG-20140403-00838 copyLast Thursday I simply couldn’t wait any longer – the forecast was for more showers to come over the weekend, so I went for it and rotovated over half the field with the tractor & rotovator, as shallowly as possible. The ground was ok to start with, but still cloggy and damp at the top end; although I managed to do enough to at least let me get going with spring crops. The green manure of red clover and lucerne (and some weeds) which has been growing for about 18 months was turned in too, along with the manure which had been spread on top (also keeping more moisture in); and I’ll need to go over that again with the rotovator before planting the first brassicas in that plot in a couple of weeks.

IMG-20140404-00840 copyMost importantly however, I’ve managed to out in three rows of broad beans, hurrah! One row of Aquadulce, one of Supersimonia, and half a row each of Hangdown Green and Ratio.  I’m also hoping to put some early dwarf French beans in if the ground dries up a bit this week, along with carrots and parsnips, and a few rows of spinach, chard and beetroot. Fingers crossed anyway…

Monoculture vs Polyculture

IMG-20140328-00834 copyForgetting all the hard scientific evidence that diversity of crops is good for soil health, bio-diversity, productivity, combatting pests and disease problems, offering pollinators a food source throughout the year, spreading crop/economic failure risk… I think this picture says it all. In the sun this small wobbly herb beds between two polytunnels shows French sorrel, lovage, oregano, garlic chives, thyme, winter savoury and lavender; plus some cultivated patches where nasturtiums will go in. Aside from all the good reasons above to grow a wide range of crops – I just like looking at it.