We signed our contract with Tim and Janet from Abbey Leys organic farm last Tuesday, which felt very exciting. So, I have been moving forward with the next stages of the site build and the associated admin.
I began the slow process of adding the Treasurer of our steering group to the bank account. It is a milestone on the road to transitioning from a private company into the type of social enterprise that wants to use their profits and assets for the public good.
We have been continuing to improve the house, so that we can be more professional with the market stall (and hopefully more profitable with it). We built a large shed and have fitted it with two large commercial fridges.
I am putting it out there that we are looking for people who are interested in volunteering at the new site to fill out a survey. The link is here or people can have a chat to us at Levenshulme Market on Saturdays or email us. Having lots of surveys filled in will show their is lots of interest in what we are doing, and help us receive the grant to cover volunteer travel expenses, lunches and equipment including waterproof coats and wellies.
We have begun to put together a greenhouse in the garden, so that we can propagate plants for sale at the market as these have been very popular. And I have began to liaise with the planning department about our plans for the site, including the large polytunnel. And I have the forms from the Soil Association to transfer the organic license for this land to Reddy Lane. More on all of this as it unfolds….
It’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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
Summer is here 🙂 And I am tentatively optimistic about the season so far. The first maincrop of the season, the garlic, has been harvested. And its a whopper, definately the best yield we’ve had from our 5kg plantings yet. We’ve sold 10kg ‘wet’ so far, and there must be at least another 50kgs drying in the polytunnel.
We’ve had some seriously hot weather and droughts though, which resulted in the 60m of brassica salads bolting 😦 But the hundreds of kale and broccoli’s have survived, and we have been selling them. They are slightly drowning in Phacelia flowers, but I am also selling the flowers too.
The 40m of carrots are coming along well. But sowing 8 rows in a 1m bed has not worked. This is Joy Larkcom’s ‘How to Grow Vegetables’ advice, as the dense planting is supposed to crowd out weeds. Well, days and days of finger weeding, say this doesn’t work on our soil. Weeds flourish and there’s no space for my hoe. If (and I mean if) I grow carrots again I will revert to four rows, with twine down them so you can see where you sowed, and space to hoe.
I started selling from the first 60m sowing of beetroots. The seeds used to fill in the gaps in germination have germinated too, so there should be a good succession too. They look and taste fantastic. Last week I sowed another 60m of purple beetroot and 60m of chioggia (pink/white) too.
The broad beans are almost ready, and we’ll be harvesting at the weekend. Not even had a taste yet myself.
The first shallots were harvested last weekend for the veg boxes. They are delicious, and should easily cover the high cost (£24) of the sets.
The 100 white onion plantlets and 100 Red Baron plantlets are doing ok. There has probably been a 30% loss, with the trauma of being posted (see early crops), then planted, but this is within acceptable parameters.
The French beans are germinating and all their netting is up ready. There are some Fat hen weeds coming close to them too, so if it is nice tomorrow, we will be hoeing them. The Mange touts did not germinate well, so I have ordered some Runner beans to sow instead.
The 40 tomato plants are doing ok. I tasted the first tomato a few days ago, so hopefully many more will follow. The yellow cherry ‘Mil de Fluer‘ variety is living up to its name, with more flowers on a vine than I have ever seen. I have had to use crates to keep the low ones off the floor, so should probably have nipped this first vine out.
The cucumbers are all planted out in the polytunnel, and the first gorgeous yellow flowers are appearing. I have tied up some of them, and pruned out their side shoots. But due to the heat this has been tricky. Rain is due tomorrow, so will get on with sorting supports for the remaining cucumbers.
The squash and courgettes have been planted out through the plastic. Some were lost to slugs, but most have survived. I have a few more still to go out. I may also sow more, which I may just about get away with, while its raining tomorrow.
I have ordered 144 leek and 144 lettuce transplants for planting out, as my sowings with these crops were not very successful. Well, you can’t win them all. Hopefully we find time and breaks in the rain to get these planted out when they arrive.
This is one of the easier weather starts to the season that we’ve seen in the last few years. We have 40m of rocket and 20m of red mizuna planted. It is ready for harvesting now, and will be on the stall at Levy Market and in the veg boxes this Sunday.
We have planted out 200 kale and 200 purple sprouting broccoli. They are protected from pigeons by mesh, fleece or netting. They seem to be doing well.
We have two 1x20m beds of carrots, and they have just germinated. We have had to spend many hours finger weeding the weeds, as they are very susceptible to weed competition at this early stage. We have sown 8 rows in each bed, so are hoping once they are bigger, they will crowd out the weeds. More established market gardens would use a flame weeder.
The 60m of early beetroots have germinated, and are looking healthy now. I went down the rows, and sowed extra seeds in the gaps yesterday, as it is quite patchy germination.
The broad beans have germinated, and we have taken down the bird netting and old CDs that were protecting them. We use this because birds pull them out thinking the little shoot is a worm. Myself and George have spent a good amount of time digging out couch between the plants, so this isn’t exactly a crop success, they would have been better in a section with better control of couch. But weirdly we have found this digging quite satisfying.
I have done a trial of shallots, and bought 2.5kg in sets, at a staggering £24 (they have to be organically certified). It felt quite futile, and a waste of money, but they seem to be doing ok now. They have about 10 shoots coming off each one, so should produce 10 small shallots. I did check Joy Larkcom’s bible ‘Grow Your Own Vegetables,’ and apparently if you want larger shallots you should thin to 6 shoots. But I think I have left it too late for this, so small ones we will have.
We have also planted out 100 white onion plantlets and 100 Red Baron plantlets. I ordered these bare rooted from Tamar in the Winter, and they arrive beginning of May. When they arrive there is a million other things to do in the garden, and they arrive live, wrapped in wet newspaper and will promptly die if you don’t get them planted asap. I did trench them in some pots of compost to buy myself a few days, and then got them planted out in there permanent beds as thankfully a very large group of volunteers had been scheduled in that week. They are still alive weeks later, and hopefully will start growing vigorously soon.
The 40 tomatoes are planted out in the tunnel. They were not growing so much in April and early May. But in the last couple of weeks, as the temperature has increased and the days have lengthened, they have shot on.
Most of the cucumbers have germinated, and some that have their first true leaves, were planted out yesterday in the tunnel. The rest will be planted out, when we get round to rotavating in the muck in the rest of the tunnel (which will be soon!) We have traditionally lost alot of these sowing to mice who eat the seeds before they germinate. But we have trialed placing crates with there handle holes taped over, on top of the seeds. When the seed germinates it is then moved from under the crate where it is darker than in the rest of the tunnel. It has had a 100% success rate, and is nicer than using mouse traps, which we have tried in past years.
The courgettes and squashes have all been sowed, and in the same way placed under the crates. The ones that have germinated are being kept outside now, as its very hot in the tunnel, and nighttime temperatures aren’t going to be below freezing now. Next big jobs are getting the beds ready for french bean sowing, and sowing more carrots and beetroots.
The Winter is definitely slower, as there is no work on the land, veg boxes or markets. But there are so many important indoor jobs that need doing.
Tax return One of them is making sense of the financial spreadsheets, which need reconciling with the bank account. Whilst wrestling with it over Xmas, I pondered streamlining it. I decided to go onto the cash basis for the upcoming year. Also to scrap recording financial data on how much veg was ours and how much was bought in, as our it’s already recorded in yields for our organic license. And to investigate buying some accounting software….
Soil Association records
For our organic license, I have to record every seed sown or plug plant transplanted. I also have to record what inputs (manures, composts etc) I have used. I also have to record the yield from each crop (eg. leeks 203kg). I also have to do a plan for the year ahead, showing that I am rotating crops. I keep my own breakdown of where these yields were sold (market, veg boxes or wholesale) and how much income they generated. We are then audited annually by the Soil Association.
Analysing the figures I add this info to graphs showing how much of our veg we’ve sold, and how much bought in veg, and how much overall. This means I can compare it easily with data from previous years. I have a separate graph for Levy market, and another one for the veg boxes. I also make a table showing at a glance the yield and income from each crop, which enables me to see which are the most and least profitable. Top three are: rocket, salad and tomatoes. Bottom three are: parsnips, chillies and courgettes. Parsnips and chillies have been relegated.
The season ahead
One of my favourite jobs is planning for the upcoming growing season. I plan the rotation, and the different crops within it. So, for the allium rotation, previously we have concentrated on garlic and leeks. But this year we are branching out into doing some shallots and onions too. For brassicas, we are continuing to do rocket, mizunas and kale, but also trying some purple sprouting broccoli too.
I input all this data into a spreadsheet I am tinkering with, to try and show me how much yield and income I can expect from the crops. It is a work in progress as I am still figuring out the yield calculation. Then I put the seed and plant order in, they all need to be organically certified.
Marketing I put together a brief for a logo, banner for the market and flyers months ago. Over Winter I finally found the right designer, and after 10 amendments we got to a logo that I am really happy with. Thankfully for the designer, the banner and flyers were pretty much right first time. I ordered 2000 flyers, that were ready just in time for the first market.
Steering group I also put together a steering group of four people with relevant skills to Reddy Lane. I hope that this will enable planning ahead for risks, and better strategic thinking. And may even translate into actual help out on the field. We have had our first meeting, and a lovely tea of lentil and sweet potato mash.
And now, back to the garden, it is Spring afterall….
So, what do burnt out market gardener’s do in Winter? They go on holiday. I went abroad for the first time in years. And intended to totally forget about the stresses and strains of running the farm.
I wandered around Malta’s museums and cathedrals, ate ice-cream, and enjoyed the Spring like sunshine. The capital Valletta has fantastic alleyways and cafe culture, Medina is a tiny walled town, and Marsaxlokk has fresh fish to eat by the sea.
But I am a market gardener, and couldn’t quite separate myself enough not think about Malta’s farming. Especially as it appears to be a country of market gardeners. With fresh crops growing everywhere I looked, in small fertile pockets and terraces, and larger spaces with cloches and polytunnels. And it was really small-scale, nothing bigger than a few acres, and often much less. And higgledy piggledy in a way I love, everything on different levels, due to the inclines in the terrain.
I saw (and ate) lots of strawberries, garlic, courgettes, tomatoes and
broad beans. And also some pea and potato plants, onions, cabbages, and one stall had rocket. The markets, stores and supermarkets were full of freshly grown local produce. The small stores also drew attention to the freshness and localness of their Maltese veg.
Due to the small size, the cultivation was done by small rotovaters, which is what I largely use
at Reddy Lane. They are small tractors that you walk behind to guide. They are small to manoeuvre, and plough up the topsoil, giving you a weed free tilth to work on. But they do not disturb the subsoil or compact the soil in the way a tractor does. In Malta, growers were also using a very small one that weeds in between your rows of crops. This gives a quite distinct style to their market gardens, as everything looks very neat and tidy, and straight rows are an absolute must. I do not do this at Reddy Lane, which often does not look neat and tidy, so its something to think about. But its a lot of effort simply to make something look tidy, though not necessarily more productive.
I was unable to tell whether the crops were organic with a small O. They certainly weren’t certified as organic, but lots of small-scale providers don’t certify, due to prohibitive costs, they just don’t use pesticide. I saw a couple of gardeners walking down with backpack sprayers, and this could have been a pesticide application, or a traditional compost tea. The aesthetic quality of the cauliflowers, calabrese broccoli and strawberries did suggest pesticide use though.
I saw a couple of women out there with pushing the rotavaters too, and driving trucks to market, and working on the market stalls.
And if you get the chance Malta was lovely in lots of other ways too 🙂
Wow, where did Autumn (and Winter) go? I’ve been meaning to write a blog entry about how the maincrops did for months now. Well, I guess it’s probably to be expected in terms of the demands of a market garden. The torrential rain of early Spring finally subsided, it got very busy, and we finally began to harvest some decent qualities of crops.
The herb garden
This section was covered with plastic last Winter, as perennial herbs weren’t proving viable afterall, and had 30 kale plants put in. 20 were lost early in the season to slugs, and the final 10 succombed to Diamond Moth which is ravaging brassicas around the country. So, far this has been the most unsuccessful part of the garden over the four years, and nothing has changed this year.
Roots The 5kg of Therador garlic bulbs I bought has done excellently over Winter. And I managed to sell lots ‘wet’ and then dry the rest for the veg boxes. They have stored well, and have been very popular with customers.
The beetroots, parsnips and carrots were all direct sowed using the seeder on the 27th May were variable. The carrots were my clear favourite, as I’ve not grown them on this scale before and they were good, I definately want to scale this up next year. The beetroots were ok but approx one half of the crop was taken out between mice and slug bites. The mice damage was worse here than it has been in other parts of our site. I put some dog hair down to deter them, and this actually did seem to reduce damage.
I did a sowing of beetroot in June, direct sown from the seeder, and these did really well. Normally I use a setting smaller than the suggested setting when sowing with the multiway seeder. But these were sown on the actual beetroot setting, and far too many seeds do fall out, but this does work ok for beetroot. You can select your biggest ones to sell as baby beets, and the others grow into the spaces.
The module tray parsnips were unsellable. They were so forked and disfigured, that I don’t even think Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall could have sold them. The direct sowed parsnips were delicious, but germination was so poor and the price is so low for them, that I wouldn’t bother with them again.
I filled the gaps in with chard transplanted from another bed which had been sown too thickly. They looked like they weren’t going to make it, and had to be hand watered a few times, but did fine and cropped well. They looked very pretty mixed in with the carrot fronds, beetroot stems and parsnip tops. But it’s a market garden not an allotment, and having odd plants dotted about randomly, wasn’t a time or cost effective way of
Inevitably our fantastic rocket started to bolt, and we rotovated, and planted out Westmorland kale and Cavelo Nero (Black kale). The other half stayed as phacelia and self seeded itself. As the kales were taking off, it became late summer, and on I direct sowed 100s of metres of Rocket, Mizuna and Purple Frills (formerly called Red Mizuna). These did crop well, and were successful for us, but were planted a little too late.
After a disappointing start with the courgettes, over 100 lost to slugs, the remaining 22 did ok. They are always popular on the stall, so will try to get more through to fruition next year. The uchiki kuri squash planted out later did much better, and we had the right amount for the stall and the veg boxes.
Beets and chard I also planted two rows of chard and three of beetroot in late June. The chard did well, producing 70kg, and I’d like to increase this for next year. The beetroot did well too, and this was the best sowing date, of the three sowings. They also seemed to succomb to mouse and slug damage less despite being closest to the mice nests. On the whole though, we didn’t do as well with beetroot as last year, but that suited me as I had over-eaten them previously.
Legumes and lettuces The broad beans planted in March did well, but the second sowing on 25th May was disappointing, and I wouldn’t try and sow this late again. We only got one harvest of any mention from them. And when we were clearing them there were lots of nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots, which it was a shame to be pulling up.
We had 160m of French beans, and they did reasonable, but nowhere near as good as they might have done. The first sowing was sowed in very wet ground, and I think they developed a fungus disease due to this which meant many beans had a brown discolouration on. The second sowing was far too late and barely cropped at all.
The third sowing of mange tout finally came good, and we had a good sized cropping well into October. This crop was large enough to wholesale some too. It took a long time to harvest though, and whilst £5/kg wholesale price seems good, actually I’m not sure that this is a viable crop. Or not at our speed of harvesting anyway.
The spring lettuces over 60m were great, as the damp and cool weather gave them a good start. I was unable to maintain this as the temperatures and other demands of the garden increased though. Despite sowing successionally through the summer, nothing else notable came from these beds. From late summer I had also done module sowings, so had a good amount to go into the tunnel.
In the polytunnel The polytunnel had 30 cherry tomato plants in.
Despite a poor start in the cool spring, which was resulting in squishy skins and insipid flavour, they did perk up in summer. Yields and flavour were good eventually, and 30 plants gave us 78kg to sell. Just 30 plants in 1/4 of the tunnel still represents our second best crop income wise.
I grow my own cucumbers from seed, but these didn’t perform anywhere near as well as the tomatoes. Over half were sown far too late, in mid May to early June, and these barely yielded at all. Those sown earlier did far better, and cropped heavily, and were popular. But the value of them is much less than the tomatoes.
The whole tunnel was planted up with winter lettuces from modules when the tomatoes and cucumbers came out. These did really well as they were really well established plugs when they went in. Then brassica salads were also direct sown, and these were great for the last few weeks of the veg boxes when outside brassica salads and indoor lettuces had finished.
End of the season As ever I ended the season in December burnt out and exhausted. I was very much looking forward to resting, spending weekends relaxing catching up with friends and jobs around the house. Farmers must be the only people who look forward to the Winter. It is the only time they can actually take a real holiday, which is what I am doing later this week.