Day 2 at the Oxford Real Food & Farming conference

Despite the red wine, I managed to get there on time for the 2nd day, and sat in the gallery to listen to Ben Hartman who wrote ‘Lean Farm.’ His book and farm focus on how to be more efficient and therefore more viable. One suggestion he had was take a photo of the toolshed when it’s tidy and laminate it and put it up, so anyone working or volunteering there knows where to put things back!

Then I went to ’10 years of agri-ecology’ which is a term for social justice as well as organic farming principles. It covered new research from Oxford University showing that methane does not persist in the atmosphere like carbon does. Therefore beef production may not be as much of a climate disaster as previously thought. Jyoti from Landworkers Alliance wasn’t speaking but made some interesting points about land use mapping, and how you need to layer it to get land use down. This could be by feeding food waste to animals or dairy production on arable leys.

Quote is from Chomsky

Then I went to one called ‘Using story to reshape the food system” about using social media to take people on ajourney and let them interact with farmers. I knew this was going to be good, as Guy Singh-Watson from Riverford and Josiah Meldrum from Hodmedod’s are really good speakers. Guy explained how he paid £500,000 to an advertising company to tell him that people react to an emotional story, not facts and figures. He advised that they use their newsletter to communicate why broad beans have chocolate spot or the potatoes have scab. It definately gave me food for thought about how I communicate with the box scheme customers. Josiah from Hodmedod’s said they used art, to convey the history and methodology of the unsexy British bean. And he noted the importance of the farmer receiving nice messages about what customers have done with their 500g bag of dried peas. As someone who stands on the market stalls, I already know who this is so fufilling to hear.

And the final session of the day, and the most dramatic was “Linking sustainable and healthy diets to farming outputs” with George Monbiot and Joanna Blythman. George kicked off by comparing delegates to typewriter manufacturers in the 1970s who were excited by carbon paper or Kodak in the 1980s. He said farmer’s were not noticing the jaugernaut, and that the change from food being produced on farms to food produced in factories was coming int he nick of time to feed people and the planet. He said the proteins in meat and milk would be manufactured in labs. He did say that local organic veg production would be least affected by this, and did make a difference to climate change, but I still can’t say I agreed with him. I feel this kind of confrontational attitude would have been better aimed at the National Union of Farmer’s conference down the road, rather than for an audience made up of experts in sustainable, organic and compassionate farming.

Thankfully, the wonderful food journalist Joanna Blythman, stepped up to speak next and wiped the floor with him in a calm and dignified way. As somone who was very influenced by her ‘Shopped, The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets’ published in 2004, it was great to find she’s was also a great speaker. She is a believer in basing your diet on whole, unprocessed foods that you cook yourself, and spoke about sustainable land use that uses animals for fertility. We use organic chicken muck from Abbey Leys Farm to fertilise the land that we grow our veg on. She spoke against the current neuroticism surrounding food, and pointed out to George that telling foreign countries not to eat meat was a colonial mindset. She noted that in the UK butter, milk and meat were the best produce, and that we didn’t have the growing conditions of Tuscany (don’t I know it!) She called George “intellectually dishonest” and said he seems to think he had intellectual property rights on climate change. Ouch! He totally deserved it.

Day 1 at the Oxford Real Food & Farming conference

Earlier this year I attended my first Real Food & Farming Conference in Oxford, thanks to a bursary ticket. As I was feeling broke and broken when I applied for the bursary ticket, I had hoped to get inspired, and I did!

The first workshop of the day was the climate justice one, and Gail from XR started by thanking farmers who were involved in agro-ecology for what they were doing. She said she knows we’re “under-valued, under-appreciated and under-paid.” As someone who became an organic grower after being a climate change campaigner I needed to hear that. Nowadays the growing is so all-encompassing there’s no time for campaigning, but I still question whether this is the most useful way to combat climate change and feel guilty about not doing enough.

Oli from Landworkers Alliance and Ecological Land Co-op gave a really good talk, and I actually want to nick some bits from it. He really conveyed how being a small local grower links into a much bigger picture of a sustainable food system, and this is something I think it’s difficult to convey to our market and veg box customers.

Then I went to a session aimed at grower’s called ‘Market Gardening at Lauriston Farm: reviving small raised beds within a mixed farm.’ The Dutch man who ran it Andre Kleinjans was totally charming, and I got a few technical tips to try at our market garden. Then I went to a session called ‘Making your Food Enterprise more efficient’ which maybe was a slightly disngenuous title as it was actually about the Open Food Network, and putting your crops on this platform to sell.

The final session of the day I went to was ‘What will post-Brexit trade deals mean for our farmers, environment. welfare and food standards,’and this was really interesting. There was a woman called Jean Blayock who was a trade negotiator with Global Justice Now, and was incredibly passionate and engaging. She explained what was going in laypersons terms, like that Teresa May’s government had been working to ‘close regulatory alignment’ with the EU, but Boris Johnson had changed this to ‘substantially equivalence’ which was woolly terminology. She also said that the decisions were being made behind closed doors. If it sounds all too depressing, she did end by saying TTIP was stopped on the streets.

With my head exploding and my body protesting I’d been sat down all day, I walked through Oxford and back to where I was staying where I had a lovely dinner and drank too much red wine.

Lindsay's musings on starting the market garden

I feel that people are so focused on food, with fad diets and putting your dinner on Instagram, but so disconnected with how it’s produced. The food system is broken when we can eat cucumbers, tomatoes, and French beans 360 days of the year. Current expectations to have whatever food you want, whenever you want and the corporate food culture of supermarkets has left us with bland tasteless vegetables.

They have erased our seasons, so the selection is extremely monotonous, as it’s the same in August as it is in December. Most people can’t trace their food back to the place and people that grew it. They don’t know what they could grow in their own back garden.

So, I started Reddy Lane Market Garden, and began growing and sourcing organic veg and selling it locally. Being a market gardener is hard, it can be isolating and lonely due to the long and unsociable hours. Running the community sessions was a wonderful way to counter this and connect to people through food. Reddy Lane is here for the long term and I will be working the land for years to come, so I hope we can continue to run the community sessions and continue to connect through food.

Our social value

Last year we piloted a community volunteering program at our market garden, and now we have our Social Value Report 2020 showing what we did. You can read the report by clicking on the download button.

We exist to create opportunities for food sovereignty, climate friendly farming and wellbeing. Last year, we demonstated this with:
-684 volunteer hours were undertaken across 9 months involving 28 diverse people.
-40 sessions were run on food growing.
-This equates to a combined value of £15,960.00 through volunteering
-114 interactions between the organic growing community and local people took place.

Volunteer sessions increased the confidence and independence of community members, as people developed new social circles, increased activity outdoors and enabled connections with nature.
Volunteer benefits included:
100% of people involved reported health and wellbeing benefits
100% of those interviewed built skills, knowledge and experience in food growing
45% were total beginners to growing upon starting the programme

We also traded at 77 local markets, and delivered over 1100 veg boxes to local people.

We want to build on this for 2020, and we want you to get involved. In January, we changed our company structure to a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, which reflects our values and means we are more accountable. If you would be interested in joining the volunteer sessions, please send me your email address. If you’d be interested in a veg box, also send your email. And if you’d like to hear what we are doing next year, send your email to be added to our main mailing list. Click here to email us.

What a season!

We continued into Winter building the tunnel. We built the door frames, we hung the ventilation netting, we covered it with plastic and got it drum tight. This is achieved by dropping the mid rail by 7cm on each side, and George achieved this in his usual style. By hitting it really hard with a hammer!


burst
Trimming off the excess plastic after skinning the tunnel.

We also laid the foundations and built the shed. Pretty hard to make the shed look inspiring, but it was a really important job to get ticked off before Winter.

sdr
Then we planted the 15kg of organic garlic, which is the final job of the season, and we always do garlic as there is alot of leeway as to when you can get it down. As long as it’s in before Xmas, then we have still had good yields. The image on the left shows George using a flame weeder to burn the holes into the ground fabric, and the one on the right is 15kg laid down.


Then just in time for Xmas we had some great news, that we have been awarded £10k grant to deliver our community growing sessions. This covers volunteer travel, lunch, tools and waterproof clothing. If you are interested in getting involved in 2019, please drop us a line on contact [at] reddylane.com

giphy

Defra consultations

LWA-Policy-Phase-3_PRINT-01-216x300It’s an exciting and challenging time for farming at the moment, with Brexit shaking up what was previously unshakable. Large landowners have for many years been collecting huge subsidies simply for owning land, rather than actively farming, but Brexit is changing this. Our reliance on imports, 30% of our food is imported, is looking shaky. And the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) produced a report called ‘Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit’ in February. Then it went around the country consulting with farmers and food producers round the country and invited them to submit their comments online. I went to one of the consultation events organised by Friends of the Earth on 16th April in Manchester.

I went to the Environmental Management Systems discussion in the morning, and tried to make the case for schemes which would include small growers in a way that is accessible for them. I learnt in the discussion that these DEFRA schemes are incredibly complex, and haven’t been taken up well due to the application process. Using an approach used by grant bodies was suggested, in which the amount of information required is relative to the amount of funding actually being offered. The organic system of accreditation and auditing was discussed as already existing to show good practice in managing land and producing food.

In the afternoon I went to Farming Resillience & Profitability, and this was a more challenging discussion due to some of the people sat at the table. Most farming is unprofitable, and supported by subsidies, so it was difficult for the men at the table to accept I was on the cusp of profitablity on half an acre of organic land. I tried to make the case about more support for new entrants into farming, and the need for ‘starter unit’ of a couple of acre farms to be available for people like me to get into farming. This wasn’t contested, but it just isn’t available, and I know how hard (almost impossible) I found it to find half an acre to rent at a reasonable price. Accessibility to land is for new entrants to get into farming is essential if the UK is to have a farming future.

A good report with the issues at hand is ‘Making Food Sovereignty a Reality- Recommendations for Post-Brexit Agricultural Policy‘ by the Landworkers Alliance.

Last push for land

The land search is ending in mid-November, so if you have spotted some land you think might be suitable or you have a contact that may be worth pursuing, please get in touch. The link to our home video about the search is here, and the criteria for land is here. It is very location specific (within Stockport, East Cheshire & High Peak). So far, we are in contact with seven landowners with potential land that they are considering letting out, but I would like to be in touch with more.

During the last six weeks, I have written letters and spoken to countless farmers, cold called organisations and emailed them on the off-chance of land. I have pushed it out on social media, and been surprised that two of the seven landowners came forward that way. I still have more of this to do, but the end is in sight, and the to-do list has gotten shorter. I still have two events coming up to attend about farm tenancies organised by the farming community, so we will see what that brings up too.

Lots of people have inquired whether I had land yet, and its great that people are interested. But I would liken the next stage of the process to buying a house, you need to view it, and then a series of checks need to be made. It is a very slow but necessary process.

The sorts of things we will be checking are:
the lands size,
aspect,
exposure,
water availability and pressure,
possible electricity connections,
planning permission restraints for polytunnels,
negotiations on rent,
soil type, depth and drainage,
vehicle access,
lease types,
and plans for the land in the future.

I feel much more optimistic that we will find something than when we started, and thanks for all the support and interest, it has kept me plodding through my to do list. Please do send me any suggestions to follow up, it could be just exactly what we’re looking for.

land image
We are trying to find out who owns this land in Romiley.

Big issue article

The Big Issue in the North published an article by me about market gardening and the land search. The link to the article on their site is here. The text is reproduced below.

My journey to running my own market garden was meandering but ultimately motivated by my desire for a food system that nurtures the health of our bodies and the land. I was the food writer at Ethical Consumer magazine for four formative years, before setting off into the world to learn those practical useful skills that were so necessary to a more sustainable life.

It was a ten year journey taking in living and working in Morocco, Spain and Ireland, studying horticulture for two of these years and visiting around 20 organic growing projects before an opportunity in Cheshire came up. I’ve been farming a half-acre organically certified site at Reddy Lane near Altrincham for five years, along with George, my dad.

During the growing season, George and I farm three days a week. The other two days I sell the veg we produce at Levenshulme Market and in our veg boxes. People can pick up their veg boxes or arrange a delivery.

My days farming with George are my favourites. We love watching and listening to the birds. There are friendly robins and pied wagtails, who come to look for worms in the soil we have disturbed. Once a fledgling tree sparrow flew out of the hedge and got caught in my hair for a couple of seconds. We see buzzards circling up high daily, and occasionally have seen them perched on the water tanks.

You get a real sense of a person when you spend the entire day weeding with them. The repetitive work is calming and encourages the mind to drift. I used to spend my weeks desperate to get into the countryside to get some space from the city and time alone, but now I just go to work. I love the autonomy – to work when I want to work and to just make a decision and act on it.

I have been trading at Levenshulme Market for four years now, and I really love being a trader there. There have been times like three years in, when we lost our crops due to rabbits, everyone else growing at the site left and I had just been diagnosed with endometriosis, when it would have been easy to stop. But I had built up the stall and got to know my customers. Their delight in the veg we have grown really kept me going.

Many people are drawn to the stall or the box scheme due to ethics, but they stay for the taste. Crops which have grown at their own pace and been harvested when they are mature taste better. They are a protest against the homogenisation of our food.

For Reddy Lane, selling our crops direct at the market and via the veg boxes is the only way to make my livelihood as a small-scale organic grower possible. I feel that the direct relationship increases people’s understanding of the real cost of our food. We need small-scale independent growers, as most farmers in the UK are on the cusp of retirement, without succession plans for their farms.

It’s a critical time for Reddy Lane Market Garden – we need to find a new site for the next growing season

I would like to see more support for people producing food in a sustainable way, as opposed to the current system of subsidies that pays landowners for owning land rather than using it to produce food. The recently published People’s Food Policy manifesto challenges the current approach to food policy making, as it articulates the kind of food system we need and puts value on the people who produce our food.

It’s a critical time for Reddy Lane Market Garden as we have been given notice to quit our land and need to find a new site for the next growing season. I am spending the next few weeks trying to connect with as many landowners, farmers, organisations and local authorities as possible, to see if there is a suitable piece of land out there for us.

Our criteria is on our website reddylanemarketgarden.com where I blog about farming, I tweet at @reddylane about the farm and the land search as it happens. I can be contacted on 07875 242608 and contact@reddylane.com with leads for land. The more I farm, the more I want to farm, and I really believe I can create a viable farming business.

Land search update

We are spending a couple of months casting the net as widely as we can for suitable land, so this continues. The link for the video is here, so please share it if you haven’t. A couple of offers have come in through Facebook, so it is really worth spreading it about on social media.

In the real world I am in the process of sending out lots of letters to farms in the right areas. I am in touch with the local National Farmers’ Union and an organisation that matches farmer’s with entrepreneurs. I have a list of people to call that I am plodding through. I have spoken to some landowners, but would definately like to speak to some more. The list of areas we are interested in is at the bottom of this post.

planters_crop
Basil planters

Whilst doing that, I’m also running the farm, and the market stall and the veg box scheme. We spent all of last week weeding the chard and the brassica salads, and now the last job of the season is to take down the tomatoes in the polytunnel and plant out the Winter lettuces. I’m also potting up some lovely Basil planters to sell on the market as gifts in the run up to Xmas.

veg_crop
Heritage tomatoes, French beans and a Red Oak lettuce

But some off the cuff are: 1.2 tonnes of organic veg grown and sold already this year. This was last years total for the year. This is made up of 184 cucumbers, 200kg of beetroot, 103kg kale, 28kg of purple sprouting broccoli, 116 lettuces, 78kg of French beans, 65kg of tomatoes and 89kg of courgettes. Some of these are still cropping too!

So, please do what you can to ensure we find a farm. We are looking in: Heald Green, Timperley, Altrincham, Bramhall, Woodford, Adlington, Styal, Wilmslow and Handforth. And further out into the Lymm area of East Cheshire. Sale, Didsbury and Cheadle are possible too. Also, the Marple, Romiley, Middlewood, High Lane, Hazel Grove, Poynton areas of Stockport. And Strines and New Mills are of interest too.

Best season ever!

So, Reddy Lane Market Garden is having its best season ever. The dry Spring meant we could crack on with planting, and the coolish Summer with intermittent rain, has provided us with a field full of crops. It is the first year when we have used all of our 1/2 acre. And already this year we have grown and sold locally 650kgs of organic veg.

broad bean cropThe only crops that have finished for the year is the broad beans and the shallots. We harvested and sold 80kg of broad beans, up from 55kg last year. Shallots were a new crops for us, but I am happy with selling 138 bunches, from 2.5kg sets. We have lifted all the garlic, and have sold 21kgs so far, but there is lots left.

We are still harvesting beetroot, though we’ve sold 117kg already. Our total beetroot sales for last year were 106kg. We are still harvesting kale, though we’ve sold 77kg already. Our total kale sales were 37kg last year.  We are still harvesting purple sprouting broccoli, though we’ve sold 14kg already this year. We are still harvesting tomatoes, though we’ve sold 28kgs already. We have some catching up on last years yield though, which was 78kgs total. We are still harvesting cucumbers, though we’ve sold 62 already. We still have some way to go to catch last years yield of 138.

toms crop

If you were wondering how yields relate to income, kale is the winner so far, with twice as much income as the second best crop. In second place its broad beans, and third is garlic, though there’s plenty more to be sold.

cuc plants crop
Our cucumbers flowering just before fruiting.

The French beans, maincrop onions, runner beans and carrots are nearly ready for harvest. The leeks are some way off yet.

The only outside sowings left to do are the Rainbow Chard and the brassica salads, but it has been too wet for the last few weeks to get the rotavator on the soil. It’s not too late in the season though. The Winter salads go in the polytunnel when the tomatoes and cucumbers have finished.