Now that the light levels are slowing down and therefore the plants are too, it’s time to take stock a little, and the perfect chance to take a nose around other growers’ holdings. Several of us from Bath & Bristol Organic Growers (BABOG) met at Close Farm just outside Tetbury on Monday afternoon, run by experienced grower Fred Bonestroo for Duchy Home Farm. The site has seen a lot of change over the last 15 years; with a (short) veg shed trial which closed last year, agroforestry system put in using heritage apple trees given a home by HRH the Prince of Wales, a veg box business, animals/veg enterprises taking place… This year Fred, who has been growing at Duchy for years as their expert large-scale veg farmer and relief milker, has taken on the running of Close Farm on his own (not at all small-scale by my standards, at least 10 acres with 8+ polytunnels!) – with the help of several volunteers and students too (and we were also pleased to see his son turned up to help pick tomatoes).
The shift in scale has left Fred with a mouth-watering legacy of machinery however; from a great bed-former that he relies on for the cropping strips in between the apple tree rows (he doesn’t use any other machinery here for cultivating), to a tractor-mounted flame-weeder, brush weeder, potato harvester – and large-scale machinery in the shed to grade and pack roots into sacks too. His favourite machine, what he calls his life-saver, is a ‘tool-carrier’ made by Bean in the ’70s: basically a platform and seat on high skinny wheels with a diesel engine, and bar on the front to turn the front small wheels. He fixes discs to the front, and/or brass feet (he loves copper, he says, as it’s better for the soil and doesn’t rust), whatever you like; the perfect steerage hoe and multi-purpose engine-driven machine.
Despite the machinery, it’s still an immense amount of work, and Fred is currently specialising in typically larger-scale crops, rather than time-consuming salads: such as roots (especially potatoes with a large number of different varieties), brassicas, squash and pumpkins – lots of pumpkins! They made an attractive sign off the main road and pointed the way to get into the farm too; Fred has installed a rustic wooden stand to display veg, with an honesty box for people to pay when he’s not around. He says that overall this works well, and is a useful income addition – although he says he thinks he could do with more signage, and marketing as people are unaware it’s there, or when it’s open. He also sells to local pubs, restaurants and the odd market; plus wholesale to local growers and box schemes. It’s surprising to hear though that although Tetbury is a wealthy area, the appetite for local and organic veg isn’t as high as you might expect; especially compared to nearby ‘green’ towns such as Stroud.
His field rotation is 6-12 years, as he is moving the beds along to a new field over the hedge; his tunnel rotation is still being worked out as it’s his first year, and most are filled with squash, with some tomatoes too. Here he has been using spent organic mushroom compost from a local supplier for the beds, plus lots of rotted woodchip from the farm for the paths and as a mulch; and the soil looks happy with it. The field strips have a grass/clover ley as the fertility-building phase (although the soil is incredibly fertile already, well sheltered as it is surrounded by mature hedges, very jealous), plus a little animal manure from the farm and local horses too. He has tried under-sowing sweetcorn this year too with a clover mixture, which is just starting to take off and should cover the ground well once the sweetcorn has finished.
I do love the system of growing in beds between trees, and would love to implement something similar myself if I take on enough land. Fred’s soil looks in awesome conditions, and he’s a real weed-hater so most beds are pretty spotless. There has been veg growing (and therefore weeding etc) on the site for 7 years, so I have 3 more years to reach his standard. Eek!