The Future of Growing

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Nathan shows us his pumpkin patch

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Troed Y Rhiw cows say hi

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The Farmacy farm shop

I’ve just spent a very enjoyable weekend at the Soil Association’s Future Growers‘ social event, based at Nathan Richard’s gorgeous organic farm in West Wales, Troed y Rhiw. As it’s right by the coast, I think we actually had slightly drier weather than those further inland; although, like most of the country, we stayed pretty wet all weekend, and my tent is still hanging up trying to dry out.

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Future Growers are introduced to Kate from Real Seeds

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Real Seeds Ben shows us how to pollinate squash

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Carrot seed heads drying in Real Seeds’ new barn

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Real Seeds’ amazing hoover-powered winnowing machine

After a interesting tour round Nathan’s place on Saturday (he sells direct from the farm from The Farmacy, has set up markets in local villages and towns, and runs a small box scheme – plus check out his holiday rentals on the farm, really beautiful); we headed to the Real Seed Company, and had a good look around their plot. It was so interesting so see the difference in emphasis compared to a veg business; seed heads are of course encouraged, with just a few select plants of each species and variety crammed in to the polytunnel and beds; it’s easy to forget that of course just a few plants yield a huge amount of seed.

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Anne & Peter explain their philosophy

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Compost turning in action

On the Sunday we headed to legendary Blaencamel, 30 minutes up the road in the Aeron valley; and were lucky enough to catch the famous composting system in action – watching the tractor turn the windrows of fresh material. Anne Evans & Peter Segger have grown veg here for decades; and have got their growing systems down to a fine art. Still they build more polytunnels, and explore new avenues, such as cut flowers (their sweet peas and carnations were just gorgeous).

 

Beautiful flowers in the new tunnels at Blaencamel

Beautiful flowers in the new tunnels at Blaencamel

Most of all, it was great to see so many new entrants into this essential ‘industry’ of growing food sustainably. Ideas and inspiration filled the conversation and the air; and everyone left Blaencamel to go home rather damp, but buzzing and warm with plans for the future.

 

Organic Growers’ Alliance

OGASignatureAt a great social weekend last weekend with the Soil Association’s Future Growers held at the lovely Troed y Rhiw organic farm in West Wales (more anon), I found myself once again singing the praises of the Organic Growers’ Alliance, especially the networking, online forum and indispensable Organic Grower magazine – written and managed on a voluntary basis, by growers for growers. It’s been essential to me while starting my business and learning more, and I’ve been encouraging anyone who’ll listen to join (only £35/year, and even less if you’re a student, trainee or apprentice!). So get involved, learn more, meet experts and get represented!

Under The Broadfork

IMG_20150202_121509 IMG_20150202_121648Well despite the flipping freezing conditions today, it’s sort of felt like the beginning of the season, hurrah – because I cleared out the celery and salad from Fivepenny tunnel, ready for drilling some early rocket, spinach and beetroot in one half, and carrots in the other. I bought a De Wit broadfork a week ago, to loosen up the paths in the tunnels and relieve some of the compaction there; and I might try it in the compacted parts of the field too. It’s so difficult trying to find tools for small scale farms and market gardens thought – everything is either for gardens, or for beefy tractors – there’s not much on offer in between. It’s such a massive gap in the market too…

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Sandy clay below the darker compost-rich topsoil

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Broadforked pathways

I did find another broadfork with longer tines on offer, but it was more expensive and I wasn’t sure that the extra length would make enough difference to justify the expense. I’ve also seen a few useful videos and diagrams of designs, and more broadforks for sale in the USA which, if I was a welder or woodworker, would be bobbins to make. Hmm, maybe one day… It’s difficult enough trying to keep on top of easy maintenance for my Howard 300 rotovator – I took off the starter handle section today since the pull cord has been getting slower and slower, and now pulls out and stops altogether after the winter break. So I thought I’d take the whole piece off and give it a good clean, as it feels like there’s just a lot of greasy sandy soil in there stopping the cord retracting; but a load of springy metal popped out as I was taking it apart (seems obvious now that that’s how the retraction worked!), and I now have to work out how to out it together again, doh…

IMG_20150202_134534 IMG_20150202_140027Today I also managed to bodge up a long tear in the polytunnel plastic in Vole tunnel, caused by the wind last week beating the skin to hard against one of the ribs, pulling the plastic apart over it. The tension on the skin is too tight to pull the sides back together again to meet though; so I had to make do with cutting up some spare plastic and patching it over the top, sticking it all together with polytunnel repair tape. Hopefully it’ll help the skin last for another year or two anyway – I don’t want to have to reskin tunnels any sooner than I have to! Mending tunnels over the hoops is such a pain – I have no way of reaching over the bending ribs to get to the top, so have to do it from the inside. It’s also extra hard work when you’re on your own, and have no pressure on the other side to push the tape against. Hopefully however I will soon have an assistant grower/trainee for a day a week, starting in April. I’m going to be advertising the position soon, probably in conjunction with my friends at Purton House Organics, who also want a trainee for 4 days a week, so it could work out well. Check out the latest trainee and apprenticeship positions here.

 

How Best To Change The System?

Chioggia beetroot

Two halves of the whole

The resignation of four of the Soil Association’s Trustees last month has got me thinking about an age-old question: how best to change the staus quo? The reasons for the resignation of the council members (Joanna Blythman, Lynda Brown, Pat Thomas and Andrew Whitley) seems to be a disagreement in policy over how best to spread the message of organics (one particular bone of contention was differing views of homeopathy in organic animal husbandry – personally I’m not keen on or convinced by the idea of homeopathy, but I do know a number of farmers who swear by it as a tool for animal care, and as a veg grower, who am I to tell them they’re mistaken?). As a relative outsider (I’m not certified organic, and don’t know any of the parties involved well), it seems that there are some specific committee issues going on; but these echo a wider concern about how best to change the system, ie conventional agriculture and our food system as a whole. I’d hope that everyone involved in the council would agree that organic methods and approaches are ‘best’ overall, in terms of the environment, health, equality, ethics and sustainability. So the two opposing views are how to spread the word.

Should we: a) change it from within, accepting small changes in the wider system towards our position as successes, adopting conventional tools along the way such as selling in supermarkets in the hope that we’ll reach more people and change their thinking (and hoping meanwhile that the system we are trying to change doesn’t change us and our values in the process); or b) stick stoutly to our principles, hoping to effect change in a Ghandi-style, of being the change, and placing faith in humanity that people will come to realise that our way is the correct way, and admire the fact that we haven’t compromised our values, and follow us in the end. I suppose the main problem is, when is the end? When do we know which of these routes is the winner or loser; if we’re following one route, how can we know it definitely won’t work, and switch tack? Does route a) imply a lack of faith in humans, that we’ll never achieve perfection, so best get some pragmatic results that might help a bit? Is route b) too optimistic in humankind’s ability to recognise the ‘right’ way and stop destroying itself?

If you disect the word ‘organic’ or try and convey what it means to people, you always start with the soil, and of practices involved in being organic (rotations, natural fertilisers such as manures and ground cover, no artificial inputs, ethical treatment of workers and animals etc). So unpacking these elements and spreading these ideas does seem to be a good plan; but surely they only really make sense and have much of an inpact on the food chain, animals and the environment if all the elements are used together, rather than cherry-picked individually. I would like to think that once a conventional farmer or food system type starts thinking about or implementing one of these issues however, that all the other facets will seem obvious, and become a natural journey to complete organic-hood. Therefore perhaps route a) is actually the most optimistic of the two routes after all: a belief in the common sense of humans, that once they hear about and look at one issue, everything else will naturally just fall into place, and of course all the details of organic farming become the norm and inevitable consequence. Either way, both sides have legitimate points, and it’s a shame that a path couldn’t be forged, using the best of both. I hope this doesn’t lead to a over-pragmatising of the Soil Association’s policy now, so that some elements of the organic message are lost in the desire to make some headway in the conventional world. Mind you, something has to be done, and that right speedily; so maybe a slight change across the board is better than no change at all. Oh look, I’m back to where I started…

Save Our Soils

2012-03-26_15-17-05_353Just a quickie about the Soil Association’s Soil Symposium, which took place in the lovely @Bristol Science Centre yesterday and day. I love these events, mostly because it’s a great reminder about why we do what we do: when you see horrific consequences of soil degradation and loss (and we’re not talking Amazonian rainforest or American dustbowl here, we’re talking pre dessertification of prime UK agricultural land which is being washed away by bad management, a lack of organic matter being returned to the soil, and poor understanding of the most basic soil science by some farmers), then it helps keep your moral up when spreading compost (pictured) or manure on your own holding. You can feel like you’re doing your bit to lock up carbon, provide nutrients and moisture-retentive mulches for your plants, not to mention breeding grounds for beneficial soil fauna and flora, and generally make the world that bit better. Everything starts with the soil, and as Rob Richmond pointed out today, farmers’ main role is to turn sunlight into food for us all. This can only happen with healthy soil – and that is what the real meaning of Organic is.

When In Rome

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Luigi shows us the range of common land available for local cattle and horse grazing

…visit organic farms and become a revolutionary! Well, I’m pretty sure that’s how the old saying goes anyway. That’s certainly what I got up to last week: there was a meeting/conference/general get-together of European growers, farmers, researchers and campaigners looking at access to land issues, which meant somehow I managed to get myself invited to spend four days in lovely sunny Rome when the UK was enjoying its usual drizzly weather. It’s a hard life eh?

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These organic water buffalo get milked just once a day, to Mozart

The meeting was the next step in a Grundtvig project: previous meetings have already taken place in Germany, England (Bristol) and Lithuania, so now it was the turn of Italian partners AIAB to host a meeting. The Soil Association is a partner in the project, and it was through them that I heard about the scheme – as they were unable to attend the Rome meeting themselves, they asked whther I could go as their representative (and an ex-apprentice from their Future Growers scheme), plus my new book Gardening For Profit (clang!) also looks as how to gain access to land, so I knew I would find the trip very interesting and relevant.

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“Camorra not welcome” banner at the co-operative – eek!

Along with members of other European organisations, such as the famous Terre de Liens from France, our group visited 7,000 hectares of common land in the Tolfa mountains north of Rome on Monday (gorgeous); a buffalo mozarella- and ricotta-making co-operative based on land confiscated from the Camorra Mafia a few hours south of Rome towards Naples on Tuesday (scary); and on Wednesday we went to the pioneering co-operative farm Agricolutra Nova just outside Rome, with veg, animals for cheese and meat and other enterprises, which started life in the 1970s as a collective of protestors and farmers who occupied land designated for development (revolutionary).

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Revolutionary restaurant for workers and visitors at Agricoltura Nova

All the farms were amazing in different ways; most of all though it struck me that much of Europe still has a lot of common land, or land that is held by local, regional or national governments – and finding access to farm this land which already exists is the issue for many people in the area. However, in the UK, we face quite different problems: the idea of people taking up possession of the few small commons and village greens we have left is almost unthinkable. Occupation of land does happen, and the Reclaim The Fields movement is keen to make it happen more: but on the whole we expect to find land from private sources. I think we’ll need to change our psychology, as well as regulation, to gain better access to land in the country.

Foam Trial

IMG-20130911-00556 In conjuction with BABOG (Bristol & Bath Organic Growers, a regional group of the OGA), the Soil Association’s Duchy Originals Field Labs programme, and via the Organic Research Centre, there was a foam weeding demonstation today at the Somerset Flower Farm in Wrington, south of Bristol. This was part two of the trial; the first demonstration day was back on 19th July, and we took a look at the plots of land that were treated then.

IMG-20130911-00555The hot foam weeding system, Foamstream, is currently available to buy direct from the manufacturer (rather out of my price range at circa £24,000); or there are trained operatives who can come and treat your weeds for you, and will charge a day rate according to the size of plot to be covered, weed type, water access, operator and number of days booked – but probably the best starting rate would be £650/day. Our operator was William Iliffe, from Ecological Weeding Techniques; and after checking out the results from the previous application, we also saw a demo of the system in practice.

IMG-20130911-00557The ‘foam’ mix is organically approved, and made from plant extracts; however the foam is simply a wetting agent and 0.5% of the total solution, designed to make it easier for the heat from the near-boiling water permeate the cell walls of the weeds and seeds. So it’s the extreme temperature (over 90C) that actually kills the weeds, not the chemicals in the foam. The foam bubbles also helps keep the heat around the plant for longer, acting like a mini blanket.

There was a definite difference between treated and untreated patches, especially where docks were less prevalent; and even aggressive perennials such as docks had been knocked back a couple of weeks after application, compared to untreated areas. However when we saw the patches, 7 weeks after initial application, many weeds that had survived had caught up size-wise to those in the non-treated areas (although on mst holdings any new weeds would have been hoed off very quickly compared to untreated areas, rather than left for trial purposes). It will be interesting to hear whether the stubborn perennial weeds on the treated patch are weaker long-term, such as spring next year; and how long the surface sterilising effect lasts on those patches that showed such a successful marked difference between treatment and control. For the full report on these demos, check out the next issue of the Organic Grower magazine, free to Organic Grower Alliance members.