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December news from the farm: our growing season

December news from the farm: our growing season

The question I get asked most often by visitors to the farm is “has it been a good year for growing?”.

This is met mostly with a harrumph from me about what’s wrong with the current weather conditions. Farmers are never satisfied. At best I’ll give a cautious “not too bad I suppose” because Murphy’s Law dictates that saying things are going well with the crops this week will ensure something bad will happen to them in the next. But now we’re approaching the end of the year and I’m sat in a warm office looking through the list of gains and losses from the harvest I can safely say that our 2016 growing season was pretty good actually.
Much of this of course is down to the weather. If you were to ask a meteorologist what our weather was like during the spring, summer and autumn of 2016 (it’s too early to say for winter yet), they would probably say “unremarkable”, here in the South West of England anyway. Temperatures, rainfall and sunshine levels (along with all the other things that growers worry about) were, aside from a few blips, broadly around the average.

After some of what the farm has experienced in the last five years (the annus horribilis wash-out of 2012 springs to mind) a year of 'unremarkable’ is a welcome blessing. It means stability. Four seasons that mostly do the right things in the right order and crops that produce the amounts we planned at the times we planned for them. Iain Tolhurst, an organic grower with 30 years of experience, reflected that it used to be the case that you would experience a year with an 'extreme’ weather event once every six or seven years. Extreme in this case meaning the sort of droughts, floods, winds or other adverse conditions that can have a serious impact on a farmer’s livelihood. However, in the last ten years the effect of climate change has meant that farmers are now having to cope with these extreme events more often – on average once every three or four years, or even two years in a row. Making ourselves more resilient against the risks of extreme weather is a challenge that all UK farmers are now having to deal with.

So how was our harvest this time? Overall, most of our crops yielded what we expected or more. It was an amazing year for squash with the best yields we’ve seen – over five tonnes which was well over expectations. They set fruit early, ripened early and the warm dry spell through September was absolutely perfect for the final ripening and curing ready for storage. Throughout the summer we grew some of the best and biggest outdoor lettuces we’ve ever produced. The tomatoes in the polytunnel had another good year and we managed to avoid blight problems despite hearing reports of a bad blight year for many growers. Our staple field crops of spinach, chard and kales also had a good year and the quality was high. Thanks to an investment by Better Food, through our new adopt-a-crop scheme, and a huge amount of hard work by our volunteers on Community Farmer Days our leek crop was also our best ever. This year we planted it through a biodegradable plastic mulch film to suppress the weeds.

The few gripes this year were the cucumbers in the polytunnel, which got off to a spectacular start in June but were then afflicted by Mosaic Virus in July which finished them off 10 weeks early. Mosaic isn’t a problem we’ve had before here (it could be just a one-off bad year) and in an organic system unfortunately there isn’t much you can do about it other than shrug your shoulders and try again next year.

The problem that growers talked and worried about most this year was the caterpillars, not just the usual Cabbage Whites on the brassicas but a host of others too. There were huge numbers of them and I heard of farms who lost entire plantings of broccoli and cauliflower, stripped back to a skeleton by hungry caterpillars. The chief culprit was the Diamondback moth, which migrates into Southern UK from the continent most years. This year, however, there were so many of them they even made national news as yet another 'migrant disaster’ soundbite – only this time involving moths and cabbages. Luckily we were spared from the worst of the caterpillar hordes, though in July they did manage to ruin most of my perfect crop of pointed cabbages in the space of a week.

John English
Head Grower 

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