The Future Growers‘ annual field trip in now an established summer favourite; a chance to bring together the year’s intake of Future Grower trainees and apprentices, and this year we also opened the weekend out to offer places for anyone interested in coming along and taking part. As well as our six trainees, we also welcomed 12 other new entrants and people thinking about embarking on their food and growing journey.
We met at West Town Farm in Ide on Friday evening, an organic beef and education farm run by Andy Bragg just outside Exeter; and enjoyed a hearty bean and squash stew after setting up camp. A meteor show above the camp fire was met with oohs and aahs, before turning in for a busy day ahead.
Saturday kicked off bright and early after breakfast by heading to Riverford’s Field Kitchen at Buckfastleigh, to meet head gardener Penny Hemming. Penny has been friends with Guy Watson for many years, and now runs the field kitchen garden next to the restaurant, partly as a PR and educational facility, and partly as a resource for the kitchen chefs to come out and pick the produce (chefs that have to pick their own produce – amazing!). As well as a large polytunnel, there are a number of flower and veg beds on around an acre, produce food, herbs and flowers for the kitchen. Penny also took us on a whistle-stop tour of some of the rest of Wash Farm (where Riverford was started 23 years ago by Guy and his family); including the new-ish three-acre (!!) polytunnels housing tomatoes (mostly Sakura), cucumbers and a few spring onions; the salad fields, where each very long bed is thickly sown with a 20-hole drill of each variety of salad leaf (red frills, baby pak choi, mizuna, chard and so on), then the bespoke salad cutter on tracks goes along and mows off the leaves, gently sending them backwards where pickers await with their crates.
After seeing the vast fields of veg, we then headed to the amazing Field Kitchen for an awesome lunch, and Guy also joined us for the meal. He was very interested in talking to new entrants, and sounded out their thoughts on working as part of a larger co-op, growing just a few types of crop, rather than necessarily starting a small veg box or market garden growing everything. Wash Farm itself is a part of a 12-member co-op, with each farm being responsible for different crops. Most of our group preferred the idea of growing a number of varieties rather than just one or two; not least because of rotation worries, spreading the risk of pest or disease attack, and keeping life interesting.
Just about able to move, we then headed 30 minutes away to School Farm CSA on the Dartington Estate, to meet co-grower Jenny Gellatly who took us on a short tour of the four-acre plot there. A group of four growers took over the running of the project in 2012, and started off with just over an acre of no-dig beds, plus some inherited glasshouses; now they have expanded and taken on more land, but have separated out roles in order to make the project work. After some frank discussions about wages and livelihoods (an emerging theme from the weekend), Jenny explained how she and the other core growers and members now have a box scheme on the site, as well as a floristry business, and regular education modules run here from nearby colleges, which all help with income streams.
After a quick tea break, we all joined in a quick ‘weed swap’ weeding party, and quickly denuded a couple of beds from the seeding sow thistle from brought-in manure. Then it was back in our cars and we headed to the gorgeous River Dart for a welcome icy swim in the sunshine (not before being halted in our tracks by an escaped bull), then back to West Farm for a barbecue, and talk from Andy Bragg about the farm and challenges he’s faced over the years.
We got up early so we could squeeze in a quick tour of West Town farm before heading out after breakfast for Chagfood in Chagford, a six-acre market garden on two sites in the Dartmoor hills. Head grower Ed Hamer explained that Chagfood started in 2009 after a community meeting showed that the area needed fresh local and affordable food; now the garden makes up around 80 boxes a week, and members collect either from the farm or from another members’ house. They don’t buy-in produce so only produce boxes from around July to March (winter boxes can be a challenge too when it comes to variety, but summer boxes are very full), and fees are paid yearly or monthly. They have an AGM each year which all members are invited to – and have to collect their boxes from the AGM that week, which encourages high attendance rates!
Much work has been done using horse-power here, but last year one horse passed away so the growers (Ed, Nicky, a seasonal intern and some regular volunteers) also use a small tractor to prepare the ground. Ed recommends clear-felling crops as they need to be harvested, rather than selecting larger eg beetroot then coming back for the smaller ones later, since this way a whole bed can be cleared quicker, allowing another crop to go in. Volunteer days are held every Thursday, and some volunteers will take home a box of food rather than paying to be a member, which helps keeps Chagfood affordable and accessible by all.
After a short drive to Shillingford we all enjoyed a tasty lunch out in the shade of some trees at Martyn Bragg’s farm (brother of Andy), and host to a Future Growers’ trainee. Martyn currently grows veg on around 35 acres, but is keen to explore ways of making veg growing more productive on a smaller scale too. We checked out his machinery first (all loved the old-school tractor with room for lots of implements in front of the cab as well as at the back; and also looked at the neat veg box packing station, and special salad packing area. Shillingford also do Exeter market, and some wholesale to health food shops.
Then it was out into the sun and the fields, to check out the polytunnels and field-scale veg; it was great to see another size of growing project, between Riverford and the smaller School Farm and Chagfood. Martyn also showed us the piles of manure (from some of Andy’s cattle that are kept at Shillingford), which when well rotted his uses to make a mature liquid feed for transplant before planting out.
We met back under the trees again for a quick cuppa, before breaking the group up and saying our goodbyes. This weekend certainly felt like one of the most successful that we’ve held, with interesting discussions going on in all quarters, and plans set in motion. Thanks to all the participants, and particularly all our hosts.