Last Monday evening I went for a crop walk with our farming co-op members. On this occasion it was hosted by Antony and Mary Coker and their neighbours Alison and Ian Samuel, who produce a variety of veg as well as lamb and beef. Both farm about 100 acres of land that is a little too high, with soil a little too thin and a little too close to Dartmoor. Not ideal for growing veg, but we saw that with skill and experience, their crops had come through a very hot and dry July better than some on more favoured lower land.
Neither family could eke a living without the co-op to support them and the box scheme as a secure market. Such ‘mixed’ family farms have the most sustainable crop and livestock rotations, high biodiversity and form the backbone of many rural communities. They know every animal and inch of their farm and can be the best custodians of our countryside. They were the norm 30 years ago but have almost disappeared as farms get ever larger.
So does it matter? Is this just the inevitable progress of market economics as in any industry? Perhaps it is sentimentality, but I would argue that farming is different because of its impact on our countryside, the environment and our health, and because food is every bit as much a part of culture as art.
Farming in the UK is scaling up and moving towards the American style of factory farming at an alarming pace. 40 years of neo liberal governments surrendering control to the market is one reason; testosterone-fuelled egotism and the assumption that ‘bigger is better’ has played its part. Scale is not always bad, but it tends to be in farming. On the flip side, co-operatives offer a good way of preserving the viability of smaller farms through shared access to machinery, knowledge and marketing, as well as a common sense of purpose that can provide emotional support in difficult years. We have a very poor record of co-operation in this country which makes me all the more proud, 16 years after we first met in a pub to discuss the idea, to have been standing in a field with a bunch of (mostly) happy co-op members, talking about cabbages.
It feels good to see some crops in the ground. A spell of dry, cold weather at the beginning of the month allowed us to create perfect seed beds for planting cabbage, lettuce, spinach, beetroot, kohl rabi, carrots and potatoes. The soil was perfect, but the air frigid, so the plants were covered with fleece to keep off the east wind (it will still have been a cruel shock after being mollycoddled in a 20°C greenhouse). Most plants are looking OK and, after a little shivering, are starting to grow well. It is a bog out there at the moment, but looking at the weather charts, I think we might be planting again by the time you read this.
The new season normally starts in mid-May, with lettuce closely followed by spinach, chard, summer greens and broad beans. Crops are a week to a fortnight behind our plans, but with old season crops also running late and with the help of produce from our farm in the French Vendée, we will scrape through with the greens. Roots will be more problematic; it was always going to be tight because last year’s harvest was so poor. The situation has now been compounded by snow in Jersey and Cornwall; their mild maritime climate normally allows first lifting in early May. The snow killed the tops and new growth is only just breaking through, meaning there will be no UK new potatoes until mid-June. The Valor potatoes in the boxes this week will clear our barns out.
Supermarkets typically move to Nicola potatoes from Egypt to plug this gap, but they are invariably nasty so we are trying very hard to find something better. We are still haggling so it could be an old crop from a very nice man in Fife, or new potatoes from Italy.
We are weeding the first carrots in France which should be ready in early June. In the UK, the first sowings are breaking through and will follow on two weeks later. Early planting is always a gamble. This has not been a year to favour the bold or impetuous; early sowing into cold seed beds, which subsequently became waterlogged, left the seeds vulnerable to ‘damping off’ (attack by various weakly pathogenic fungi and bacteria which are endemic in the soil), but you have to make use of the dry windows when they come.
There have been suggestions in the media that the very wet, dull weather in 2012 has reduced the nutritional value, flavour and yields of vegetables. Some have postulated that organic crops, un-bolstered by agrochemicals, might be more severely affected.
When rainfall exceeds the sum of moisture lost through evaporation (from the surface), transpiration (from plants) and the sponge-like ability of the top soil to absorb water, the excess will percolate through the soil, taking anything soluble with it. Highly soluble nitrogen is lost to the subsoil (out of the rooting zone of most vegetable crops) and eventually pollutes watercourses. Conventional farmers can replace it by adding relatively cheap (hugely carbon intensive), synthetic ammonium nitrate. Organic farmers have to wait for the soil fungi and bacteria to break down complex organic matter to the smaller, soluble nutrients available to plants. Part of the skill of organic farming is balancing the natural release of nutrients with the needs of the crop; we base our plans on an average year, not 2012. Hence it’s fair to say that organic farmers have suffered more in terms of yield this year. Pouring on nitrogen may mitigate yield loss but does not compensate for lack of sunshine and other nutrients and tends to dilute nutrition and flavour.
A little hardship is generally no bad thing. Slower growth can help plants develop their full flavour and improve nutrient content. Some disease fighting chemicals are actually produced as a response to stress or threat. There is often a negative correlation between yield, flavour and nutrient content: the ‘dilution effect’ (the nutritional value of vegetables has fallen by about a third since the adoption of chemical farming in the 1960s). Sunshine is essential, as plants use it to produce sugars. We found flavour a bit dull in the sun-loving lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and some apples, all of which would prefer to be further south. Cabbage, sprouts, spinach and leeks are happier at our latitude and have been fine. Surprisingly our radicchio was the sweetest I have known.
We opened the large tunnels fully last week and just let the gale blow through. No flimsy polythene was going to stop that wind. The tunnels survived and the winter salads looked a little windswept but none the worse for the experience. A smaller tunnel was shredded but we are counting ourselves lucky.
Outside, we have given up harvesting roots until the deluge abates. Boxes are being filled from store using roots scheduled for later in the winter. Harvesting above ground, the green stuff is challenging enough – just getting the crop to the field gate is taking determination and ingenuity. The greatest merit of a tractor this year seems to be how high the air intake is and what depth of water it can tolerate before sucking it in and dying. To see an extreme example, visit the Riverford Facebook page where there is a photo of our neighbour and co-op member, David Savage making sure savoy cabbages make it to the vegboxes. I reckon I could surf on the bow wave from his tractor.
When the rain stops I am still heartened by how quickly our fields drain and become passable again provided we have not damaged them by travelling in the wet. Organically farmed land will normally have a better, more open structure which allows water to percolate down to the subsoil more quickly. The channels left by earthworms help tremendously.
The crops themselves are not looking so bad and our cauliflowers are finally getting going. Local wisdom says they hate having ‘wet feet’ but, although they are smaller and later than usual, they look like they will make a fair crop. Traditionally, winter cauliflowers are grown on the coastal fringe of the South West, where they are protected from winter frosts by the moderating influence of the surrounding sea and are fertilized with seaweed dragged off the beaches below. Different varieties are triggered by a mixture of day length and temperature to switch their efforts from leaf to curd. The result is that, though we plant all our cauliflower in July, we cut them over eight months from October to early May.
The leaves this autumn are spectacular. I don’t know about any of you, but I have a tendency to get a bit down towards the end of September. The nights drawing in, everything coming to an end in the garden and the thought of a long, cold, damp winter fills me with dread, gloom and doom.
But once the leaves have turned I force myself out of my sorry state of mind and there is nothing more cheery than a good walk in the local woods. I am lucky enough to live close to Hembury Woods, which skirt the River Dart and is full of many ancient trees. It is predominantly a western oak woodland with a wet alder wood in the valley. There are plenty of silver birch, beech, holly and hazel. The colours alone are so uplifting that the experience of walking amongst these trees really gets me into the spirit of autumn and winter, hot fires and chestnuts, big scarves, thick socks, woolly hats and all those sorts of things.
My point is there are lots of leaves falling off the trees at this time of year. Raking them up is a good idea and why not make some leaf mould which makes a great soil conditioner when left to rot over the winter and ready for the summer.
You don’t want to put leaves onto your compost heap as they are slow to rot down. If you have space, make a separate heap for leaves alone or otherwise a put them in a black plastic sack with holes punched in the bottom.
Some folk rake all the leaves onto the lawn first and then mow them up, which chops them up a bit. You can mix them with some lawn cuttings too to help speed up the rotting process a little. Either way is fine.
Put the leaves in heavy duty black bags. Once filled, pierce the bottom of the sacks and put them in a corner out of the way and by next summer you should have some good leaf mould. This is a great low nutrient soil conditioner and can be spread onto your flower or vegetable beds or added to pots and tubs. It will improve the structure of your soil.
Next gardening blog
I am going to give you tips on putting your gardens to bed for the winter and what you can do in your kitchen gardens to prepare for next year. I will also make suggestions on things to plant now for a spring display.