After two long winters, separated by the farming disaster that was last summer, followed by a late spring, it is hard to remember what abundance feels like. Many growers felt forsaken, with a mounting suspicion that they would never see a full and healthy crop again. To walk the farm this morning, bathed in sunshine, through one field after another of strong and healthy crops is blissful; I almost have to pinch myself to be sure it is not a dream. To once again be surrounded by a wealth of broad beans (first pickings are in the boxes this week), spinach, beetroot, potatoes, lettuce, onions and a multitude of baby leaf salad is truly joyous. In the polytunnels we have been picking cucumbers, basil, French beans, salad onions and are now starting the first tomatoes; all are looking fantastic. First pickings are often not the best but, to add to the joy, this year the flavour of most crops is wonderful.
My one sadness is walking the strawberry field; they taste great and it’s a good crop but this will be our last year of strawberries. After 25 years of experimentation and obstinate determination to grow them outside, we have conceded defeat. In our climate the only way to produce strawberries with any degree of reliability and economic viability is in polytunnels; others reached this conclusion years ago and 95% of the UK crop is now grown under cover.
Such stubbornness must run in the family. For 50 years my father made his money milking cows in a fairly conventional manner, and lost much of it keeping pigs unconventionally. His restless search for a system that respected their intelligence and natural instincts failed; we now buy our pigs from Helen Browning who, on better drained land with lower rainfall, has succeeded.
Perhaps we will put up our own strawberry polytunnels at some point but for now I cannot face the battle with planners, so our strawberries will be grown by Angus Davidson, a specialist organic producer in Hereford. I have not given up entirely, but after losing so much fruit to Botrytis in recent, damp years I’m happy to let someone else take on the strawberry struggle, for now at least.
For years we agonised over whether the benefits of tunnels (earliness, quality and cropping reliability) justified the eyesore. Last year we took the plunge and covered three acres of our best land with polytunnels, doubling our area of protected cropping. Despite the lack of sunshine, these three acres have been the most prosperous on the farm this year, providing good harvests of winter salads, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and peppers.
We are now harvesting the last of the sakura, sassari and cheramy cherry tomatoes and should be picking these for another week. Unfortunately we’ve had to abadon the larger dometica and mecano tomatoes which have now lost their sweetness and are showing ghost spotting due to low levels of botrytis.
There is always a lot of green fruit which will not ripen by the end of the season. This will be picked and made into chutney by my brother Ben (sold in our farm shop), or perhaps by you. From today, green tomato chutney kits are available to order, complete with a recipe and ingredients, www.riverford.co.uk/chutneykit. There is nothing like a well stocked preserve shelf; it makes me feel ready for winter and prepared for any forgotten presents.
As the cucumbers and tomatoes are cleared we are cultivating and replanting the tunnels with rocket, mizuna, claytonia, baby leaf lettuce and chard, for harvest through the winter. Outside, most of the autumn and winter crops have established well and in the dryer east are going into autumn as we would like. In the wetter west we continue to suffer from a combination of low light levels and leaching carrying soluble nutrients beyond the reach of our crops roots, but we stay optimistic.
pumpkin day – free family day out
Saturday 20th October Mole End Farm, Kent
Saturday 27th October Upper Norton Farm, Hampshire; Sacrewell Farm, Cambridgeshire; Wash Farm, Devon
Sunday 28th October Home Farm, Yorkshire
With a cold wet summer such as we’re experiencing this year it can be a bit of a relief to go down to the polytunnels where it’s nice and dry and we have much greater influence over the growing environment. These warmer conditions can bring problems of their own, however, as what is good for something like a cucumber can also be good for pests such as aphids and red spider mite, which can rip through a crop if nothing is done about it. Aphids have a life cycle of 3-4weeks (depending on climatic conditions) and during that time can give birth to 40-100 live young who emerge with the next generation already inside them!
Some predators will follow these pests through the doors: ladybirds, lacewings and hoverflies are all welcome visitors and we have some plants dotted around to encourage them (lacewings love fennel, for example) but this isn’t always enough and so we boost their numbers by distributing extra pest-specific, insects and bugs through the crop.
These fall into two main categories: predators and parasites. Predators (like phytoseiulus persimilis for red spider mite and aphidoletes aphidimyza for aphids) will attack and eat the pest, then lay eggs which hatch into a new generation to continue the process. Parasites are, if anything, more gruesome: aphidius colemani, for example, will lay an egg inside the aphid itself. This obviously kills the pest as the larva grows and when it hatches, carries on the process. Parasites tend to be much more host-specific than predators, which aren’t too fussy (within reason) what they go for. In both cases, the second generation tend to be more active and vigorous than the parents we introduced as they are more acclimatised to the conditions in the tunnels.
Some battles you win and some you lose: to date there are no signs of red spider mite, but our peppers have a few green aphid and one of our cucumber tunnels is fairly heavily infested with black aphid. We have ordered extra insects to help in the war and I have even been introducing the odd ladybird I have found in the fields! Hopefully this will be enough and we can get on top of the problem.
Back outside, meanwhile, we are beginning to harvest our globe artichokes. These highly architectural plants, a relative of the humble thistle, are one of the many crops to have taken a bit of a battering from the elements: they can suffer from browning leaves if conditions are too humid but are worth persevering with as they’re relatively low maintenance for a perennial crop and have a great and unique flavour. I tend to just steam them and eat as a starter with loads of melted butter, though I’m sure Rob in our Field Kitchen restaurant has far more imaginative uses for them…
Our early season crops are usually planted in fields across the valley from us, as they are broadly southfacing and warm up quicker with well-drained soil to allow early planting. As these can’t be irrigated we rely on the usual April showers to water them for us. Last year the long dry spell actually meant that some of the lettuce got stressed, bolted, and we lost a fair amount of the crop. Not this year! Below average temperatures mean that the crops are growing more slowly than hoped, but there is certainly no lack of water.
Continual rainfall such as we are experiencing at present brings its own set of problems, however. At this time of year we would be frantically planting, fleeceing, brushweeding and hoeing our lettuce, spinach, summer greens and so on; but not now. The fields are simply too wet to cultivate and a short break in the weather is little help as they need a minimum of 2-3 days (sometimes more depending on the soil) to dry out enough to work.
Fortunately for our staff there has been plenty to do in the polytunnels: Manuring, putting up supports for tomatoes, and plenty of hand planting. But as this begins to draw to a close we can forsee a few quiet weeks ahead whilst we wait for the crops we have to come on and pray for a break in the weather.
On the up side our wet garlic is looking good; this was planted as individual cloves that we broke up from whole bulbs in late October and early November. The two varieties we grow are Germidor and Messidrome as they produce large cloves: and usually the larger the clove you plant, the larger the wet garlic you produce.
So a mixed spring so far. To quote the philosopher from Morecombe, “bring me sunshine…”
I’m Ed Scott, and I work on the Riverford Organic’s founding farm in Devon. The plan is that I’ll be writing a regular farm blog, showing you what we’re growing and how we’re growing it.
It’s now the beginning of February, and we are busy picking leeks and the last of our curly kale from the fields. We have also just laid the last of our winter salad pack in the polytunnels. The majority of our salads are block-planted through a plastic mulch, and treated as ‘cut-and-come-again’ crops; these can be picked between three and five times, dependant on type and variety.
As well as the blocks, a proportion of our salad leaf plants come in seed matting; a large spool of seeds sandwiched between plastic and a blotting-paper like material. Much like cress grown on loo roll at home, upon germination the roots reach through the paper into the soil below, while the leaf pushes up through tiny slits pre-cut in the plastic. This system has the advantage of lower plant and planting costs whilst ensuring the crop is not swamped with weeds; and although we have mixed feelings about the volume of plastic used, it’s actually no more than that used in our traditional block planted system.
The disadvantage of this system is that the seed matting doesn’t work with all plants and can only be cropped once; our first planting went in during October and was harvested in the run-up to Christmas. The rolls laid this week should be ready for harvesting in late March. Keep an eye out for further pictures showing progress through the growing stages.
Assistant Harvest Manager
Thanks to the 50 or so of you who responded to my musings on whether it would be a good idea to grow at least some of our strawberries under tunnels to protect them from the weather and consequent losses (newsletter of 14th June.) The original post is here.
There was a (very) small majority who felt that the eyesore was justified by benefit but is was a close thing. My views have changed over the years from being very anti tunnels to thinking that they are justified for intensive crops like strawberries. We will do some costings to check that it makes economical sense and the final decision will lie with our suppliers; in Devon that, means John, the farm manager. If it works economically we will not discourage it as we have in the past.
Responding to a few specific points raised in the responses
- An acre (originally defined as the area that one man could plough with one horse in a day) is 4000 square metres; 15 time the paying area of a tennis court or just over half the area of a premier league football pitch. So to supply all our 60,000 customers with strawberries would require about 8 acres of tunnels or about 5 football pitches.
- Extending the season; there was an over whelming majority who felt that tunnels were not justified to extend the season. Most people were happy to have a relatively short “natural season”. Tunnels can extend the season but this would not be our motivation; we and you seem perfectly happy with it as it is.
- The plastic lasts 3 to five years and would be recycled after use
- The plastic is usually clear and would appear white but some people have successfully used green. I am not convinced this is an aesthetic benefit.
- On flavour: My views have changed from a prejudice against tunnels as promoting lush growth and reducing light levels and therefore flavour. In practice we find that the best flavour comes from the plants with the best growing conditions. We often get unpleasant off flavours when plants suffer stress. I suspect that on average the fruit would be better from under tunnels.
Hope that is interesting