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June 5 it ain’t easy

2016
06.06

 

Any de-stressing that 24hrs away from the farm accomplished (www.kingthorpemanorfarm.com) was soon undone this week.  Losing half a day to Bank Holiday, we just did the morning on orders, followed by two wet days set us way back, which didn’t help.  I was interviewed for the BBC World Service on migrant workers in Boston in view of the forthcoming referendum – we wouldn’t have a business without them – but like anyone else, they come with their problems.  Monika is a joy to be around, smiling and laughing all day long, come what may.  Another was attempting to quit smoking, another story.

We sheet the lettuce to keep off the marauding pigeons, which has the knock-on effect of creating a micro-climate in which the aphids thrive.  If we aren’t careful, the temperature beneath will cause rots and bolting.  We remove the sheet to assess the crop, the waiting pigeons move in and then the wind blows a gale for several days, burning the leaves, their leaf tips scorched black.  No Dick Strawbridge, it certainly isn’t easy being green.  In desperation we have invested in a new netting that allows the insects to come and go and through which the crop is more visible than previously, it also protects from hail damage, we have had ready chopped lettuce in the past.  It was horrendously expensive, but what’s the alternative?

Planting wise we have done no more than plant lettuce, always our no. 1 priority, the first batch of curly kale and the elite team (Clyde, Dicken and myself) have continued planting squash on the twilight shift.  Then the plant raiser turns up uninvited with two carriers more of squash, when we still had lettuce, fennel and sweet corn laid out as far as the eye could see saying plant me, unwelcome indeed on a Friday.  On a positive he did say our farm always looks tidy and “it is organic as well”.  I needed the morale boost, I felt I was drowning in plants and weeds.

Sunday morning and I had the farm almost to myself as I crop walked, along with three hares in the lettuce, pheasant and partridge hens with their broods down the track, a moor hen and chick flew off the wild life pond, while an agitated lapwing tried to lead me off scent.  The broad beans are ready for a tentative pick, while this week we took a few boxes bunched baby beet and celery from a tunnel.

My garden centre visited was aborted after a call from the security firm that the intruder alarm to the farm buildings had been set off.  Our darling swallows in the mower shed again!

Pam, Dicken and Clyde and the Strawberry Fields’ team of 2016

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May 22 form filling for the sake of form filling & rural broad band behaving like rural broad band

2016
05.23

I love the growing side. In our self-sufficiency days, which is how it all started, it was just a game we were playing at. But real life isn’t like that, there is all the bull that goes with farming today. Take this morning when I would have preferred to be doing something else, I was form filling for the sake of form filling, while rural broad band was behaving just like rural broad band. There was a water survey form I was obliged (who says so?) to complete for AHDB that would only swallow half an hour of my Sunday apparently. Then more nonsense from the Rural Payments Agency, I had got my 2016 application off in record time (for me) only to be faced with a discrepancy of 0.0001 (ha) because that particular land use column, which is usually pre-populated at their end, was empty. I am serious! I have not a clue which 0.0001 (ha) of Allewells’ field we are talking about to respond. Surely the return for 0.0001 (ha) must be so miniscule as to not be worth the stress caused on this sunny day. Then the Environment Agency need to know we have a change of abstraction meter with the electric pump now in operation and coupled with that the keypad for the alarm system is showing a fault.
Lawrence from the Council Holding, it is quiet time for him, has been giving us some hours of tractor work, bed forming, power harrowing, rotavating, topping. Mantas is back with us making up a gang of five, surely we must be catching up a bit now.
Onions are the order of the day, now the spring greens are done and the leek field already planted to celeriac, both salad onions (spring) red and white and bunched bulb onions, 5 or 6 to a bunch, that were autumn drilled.
I take a turn or two round the tunnels of an evening with my knife, at a time when all good people are slumped in front of their tellies. Slugs are in epic proportions after a mild, wet winter. John keeps an eye on the rabbits, but fails on the pigeon front.
We cover the lettuce to keep off pigeons, but this interferes with the predator/prey balance and the aphids are first to make an appearance with the ladybird slow off the mark.
Pam, Clyde, Dicken and the Strawberry Fields’ gang of five

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May 15 it was an accident waiting to happen

2016
05.16

 

I sit with a sting resembling a goitre on my neck that wobbles like a cockerel’s wattles, after capturing Clyde on camera doing the rounds of his bee hives this sunny morning. “lol” texted Clyde and John did just that. It has been one of those weeks and Clyde certainly didn’t pass any of his luck onto me when he found five four-leaved clovers. Mechanically it lived up to the maxim everything goes in threes. Firstly a badly cracked windscreen on the “new” to us anyway pickup caused by an English partridge that I think lived to tell the tale. £50 excess. A couple of days later, it was Tuesday, rain from dawn til dusk and some more. It was an accident waiting to happen. There is a breed of white van man who will drive into the yard bat-out-of-hell-style, not caring to use a parking space, then abandon his vehicle anywhere, blocking you in, what the hell as long as it saves him a nano second. The yard was chocker with a-to and froing forklift unloading the rig, tractors and farm vehicles. I was just reversing a pickup truck with tail gate down out the way, when I met some resistance. He tried his horn, but it wasn’t functional, I couldn’t quite distinguish my tail-gate damage from a previous incident the week before. He went away chuntering. Thursday, I think my Friday the thirteenth came a day early, I wasn’t alright on so many levels. I was heading back after harvesting herbs and the pickup I was driving started acting very strangely, it had been wet, 12.5 mm. wet, but not enough to account for this, I thought maybe it was the differential, that 4 wheel drive wasn’t engaging. When I got out to investigate the two front wheels were pointing in different directions in a pigeon-toed manner, a steering arm had apparently gone. My turn to abandon in the gate way. “John!”
The cutting pace in the lettuce field heats up, seven pallets yesterday, if the temperature doesn’t. Planting is non-stop, leeks that needed a haircut, kohl rabi, spring onions, two batches of fennel that were too leggy to go through the Ferrari planter and created a lot of gapping up, an unpopular job if ever there was one. All I am left to look out the kitchen window at this weekend are 15K celeriac plants, so we did a good job, guys. It took my enquiry – “Where is the basil” – to learn that the plant raiser hadn’t even sown it. Empty tunnels are expensive, we couldn’t wait four weeks, and it now accommodates fennel. It is yet to be figured where the basil will go when it does finally arrive.
Clyde asked our irrigation specialist if they could just demonstrate starting up the new electric pump and was a bit put out with the reply “I should write an idiot’s guide to starting an electric pump”. As it so happened, the two of them were here two afternoons and a part morning doing just that! A case perhaps of the kettle calling the pot black or something like that.
Pam, Clyde, Dicken – Andriej, Schumacher, Monika & Alma, her mother, who joined the Strawberry Fields team this week. She says it is just like being home, I only hope that is a good thing.

 

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May 8 if I were a doctor, I’d be on strike

2016
05.09

From thermals to shorts in the space of less than a week. But this weather throws up problems of its own, with so much to do, which job takes priority? Do you remember pre-Country File, its predecessor on BBC1 on a Sunday morning aimed at farmers, with the farming weather for the week just before noon, when you could plan your week ahead? Now we have to wait until nearly 8 pm to know if it going to be more of the same.
We have been crawling under the lettuce fleeces, as you do, it’s not going to be an all guns blazing start to the season, but there’ll certainly be some outdoor lettuce ready this week.
We have the makings of a good team this year, Andriej who defected for the winter is back with us, there is young Monika who is used to hoeing in the villages of Lithuania, but more to the point actually enjoys it and Andzejs Jankovskis, 2008 Latvian rally champion, ace on the back of the brush weeder.
Clyde was called out to the pump house alarm at 2 a.m. one morning after power harrowing until 9 the night before and needing to be up again at 5.30 to meet Lawrence from the council holding, who was giving us a day tractoring. I was in deepest trouble for having my phone switched off. Lesson learned, I am now effectively on call 24/7. If I was a doctor, I’d be on strike! Yesterday two swallows set off the mower shed alarm, it was a rude early awakening for a Saturday, but still – there were lettuces to be cut!
I had a serious case of deja vue this week when it was finally brought to my attention that the plant raiser had sown no celery seed for the whole of April and no one at the plant raisers end nor the seed company that had been unable to supply the seed, had thought it necessary to mention it. But for a catalogue of failings, the problem could have been flagged up much earlier. Elsoms Seeds came up trumps and quickly sourced 30K from Holland, which arrived yesterday, but for the second time we have a massive, costly gap in our continuity sowings through no fault of our own.
Pam, Clyde and Dicken and Strawberry Fields team 2016

 

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April 17 the living wage versus robots

2016
04.18

It is significant that this April when the “Living Wage” was introduced, is the month of the year when we start recruiting workers for the coming season. Our agency staff cost us more than we pay ourselves in weekly drawings. It gets ever harder to recruit the same calibre of worker than in those heady days when we first had access to the Eastern European labour market. Fewer are “willing to do a hard work on fields” preferring the cushier number that a pack house or the laundry can offer and no longer will they clock up as many hours as employment law allows. Then to compound the situation we have the uncertainty of the Brexit vote hanging over us with no knowing what this would mean.
When they first came on the market, we dismissed robotic camera-guided weeders as being way out of our league, but now the sums add up a bit more. It isn’t the planting and harvesting, it is the hours spent on the end of a hoe that are unpopular, so the more a machine could do of it the better.
Andriej who defected for the winter is back at Strawberry Fields, others have come and already gone.
We have had but two days without rain so far this month, and April showers turned to a deluge yesterday, 20mm. We plant as and when, but if we had thought our early crops were tucked up safely under covers, we were sorely illusioned– pigeons have pecked a colander effect through the fleece to get at their favourite little gem lettuce, they are too clever for us.
You can tell it is the hungry gap when you sell sorrel in these sort of quantities. The first new season’s lettuce were ready in the tunnels this week, late season leeks continue to sell well. Last season’s spinach, chard and parsley are there for the gleaning until new season’s begin and perennial herbs provide an early bonus.
Please check out latest photos posted on twitter: organic_pam
Pam, Clyde and Dicken, Strawberry Fields

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March 28 hunkering on down

2016
03.29

After a brief sojourn in Berlin (Pam), the arrival of British summer time heralds in the time to hunker down on the farm, should conditions allow that is. Rain, rain please go away. We now have another pair of hands, a bit of a weight off our shoulders, having been joined by Mantas, a welder by trade back in Lithuanian, who has taken readily to his position on the back of the brush weeder, knocking the autumn sown onion sets and broad beans and salad onions into ship-shape and laying beds of mypex for planting through. The first spring sown broad beans and red onions sets are drilled and Clyde has given a tentative airing to the muck spreader.
Leeks are now obviously in short supply from the size of our orders and we move onto the final furlong with the late sowing. To think once we were left wondering what to do with them when sales to an outlet programmed in did not materialise, now we could sell them twice over.
We found a ringed starling, sadly deceased, flown in from Lithuanian. Having reported it, I hope to find out more details.
Talk about one thing leading to another. Having installed the cctv and alarm system, I enquired as to whether having lowered the risk, the premium would be less. Instead we need to insure it for malicious damage! With key fobs and cameras and agency staff that come and go, our farmhouse/facilities could no longer be the open door it used to be and we have had to install a hired porta loo on site. And believe it or not, they are highly desirable to thieves and we have had to insure that as well!
Pam, Clyde and Dicken,
Strawberry Fields

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March 6 a stop/start sort of month

2016
03.07

March is always a stop/start sort of month, so why should this one be any different?
Monday, we pressed on through the pain barrier to get the first outdoor lettuce of the season planted before the forecast rain, and I mean pain. Working until it was really too dark to see, three of us in rotation broke the Strawberry Fields’ record. I was asleep on the settee by 7.45pm and Clyde said he wasn’t far behind. Tuesday it was hard to believe we had planted forty thousand in a day, but my aching body said yes! With snow on the lunchtime forecast, it was all systems go to tuck them up in fleece.
Smile thieves, you are now on cctv. There is Clyde in the workshop carrying out maintenance to the brush weeder. There is the steam cleaner and pallet of module trays abandoned in the yard. But where is Dicken?!
After an interlude in Myanmar (Burma for the uninitiated) I am raring to go, but until soil/weather conditions permit, we work our way down the to-do list and cross off one by one the umpteen started but not yet finished jobs.
Pam, Clyde and Dicken
Strawberry Fields

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26 January a merry dance and the computer didn’t say sow

2016
01.26

Some days this week it was half way through the morning before the frost thawed enough to start harvesting and in the leeks’ case, it never really did. It shocked our systems good and proper, but perhaps has come a bit too late for the skeleton of a crop of Russian kale that turns redder when the temperatures drop. Such were the size of leek orders we needed to work Sunday and then Friday, the boys pulled all day in the rain, though I did experience a momentary twinge of guilt that beetroot netting confined me to the dry of the barn.
They were rewarded with a day at Lamma Agricultural Machinery Show, tasked with sourcing a means of lifting beetroot mechanically.
January is the month when cropping programmes are finalised and seed orders placed. Now please don’t begin to imagine this is like a child compiling a wish list for Santa. You flick through the catalogues, selecting a pretty picture of a variety chosen for disease resistance or whatever and then you find it is not available to YOU i.e. not available in organic seed. So you click onto www.organicxseeds.co.uk to check if any other seed company is offering it organically. They might only be available in small quantities or when you make the call, the information isn’t up-to-date, and they have sold out, and so you have to apply to the Soil Association for a derogation. A few more spokes in the smooth turning of your cartwheel may be the plant raiser demanding only pelleted seed or the seed house saying they only sell in multiples of ten thousand, when you want fifteen. And when the seed does arrive, your problems may not be over yet, like this season’s marrows which will be three years old by the time it comes to sow. We used to grow a mixed variety of kale called Winter Wonderland (the name alone sold it at Christmas time), but then because of an EEC ruling the seed could no longer be sold mixed and we had to buy the varieties separately. I have led the seed companies a merry dance to source different speciality kales, but there seems to be none this side of “the pond”. Our lettuce programme got off to a flying start when the plant raiser realised after Christmas that the plants we had ordered for the tunnels back in October had not been in fact sown due to a computer error. Their computer gave the sowing and delivery date as the same.
We showed a delegation of buyers around in the cold and mud, discussed opportunities and trends for the coming season and they took our soil away with them in the taxi. Plus the usual January visit to the accountant.
The insurance claim is being settled in daft dribs and dottyS drabs. The insurance company say they cannot take our bank account details to pay by bacs for data protection reasons (????!!!!) and then the bank will not accept the cheques because they are written out in our trading name of Pam Bowers & co and the account is in the name of Strawberry Fields.
Pam, Clyde and Dicken
Strawberry Fields

 

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16 January 2016 the OAP and the walking wounded

2016
01.18

As we moved into 2016, orders went bonkers with healthy eating resolutions and because others had their crops under water. Kale, kale and more kale, a good job it seemed to be growing behind us in the unprecedentedly mild weather. J-Lo was quoted in The Telegraph as saying her secret for staying young was eating lots of kale. Please, as if we needed any increase in kale orders. The way New Year’s Day fell, Saturday meant a full-day’s harvesting, unheard of even in the height of summer. Between Christmas and New Year, the show still had to go on, folk apparently had run out of food and we were quite busy, but I suspect this was partly to do with other growers who just said no.
Now the name of the game is leeks. For this I tend to see the boys off with the tractor, trailer and flask, A16 bound and head to the herbs or if I really play my cards right, the warmth of the squash drier. Things have hardly returned to normal, staffing has been in crisis, at one stage there was just this OAP and the walking wounded – Dicken with a bad back.
We had blue bells pushing through in the garden, violets, primroses and cowslips on Rudy, the lurcher’s, grave, honeysuckle coming into flower and nasturtium seedlings everywhere. A field of daffodils has been pulled locally. Grazing rye broadcast on December 9 after the celeriac crop was lifted sports a fine stand, showing no signs of the usual soil mauling we would expect that late. Our final rainfall tally for the year was just under 23” and we consider ourselves very fortunate indeed.
Work began this week on installing our security alarm system and CCTV and what a disruption! Oh that it should come to this. My wish list for 2016? Besides the usual of world peace and thought for those whose homes were flooded in the north – that our insurance claim for the workshop break-in be settled.
Pam, Clyde and Dicken
Strawberry Fields

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20 December who’d have thought it?

2015
12.21

Harvesting kale. Clyde sat on the ground weighing off/packing with his tee shirt sleeves rolled up. Who’d have thought it two days away from the winter equinox? Graham’s sheep get fat on a hundred and twenty acres of blown Brussel sprouts that just couldn’t wait for the festivities *. Start time in the field has been put back until 8 0’Clock, you can’t see what quality is going in the bag before then and at 4, we are clearing up, shutting down in the gloom while one day this week it never seemed to get light at all.
Our two bestselling lines this Christmas are cavolo nero – and thyme, which has gone off the scale.
Police versus hare coursers continues to provide entertainment as we work, though when we see flashing lights going one way up Scarborough Bank and wreck travelling 70 mph in the other direction on road parallel, we do wonder if the police car is a beacon or a clever decoy.
Our broadband speed was 0.14 and you can’t do a lot with that. India acknowledged there was a problem, they were having a lot of trouble because of the weather. Too wet? Too windy? Too mild?! Kings, our local garage, stepped in and let us use their connection. When our speed increased to 4.23, it felt like superfast broadband had arrived, but BT said the case was now closed as 1.5 was the most they guarantee, obviously setting their targets high.
Andreij has moved to pastures new. Without discussion nor notice, he texted he was now self-employed having burnt his bridges by resigning from the staffing agency we use. No way did he meet the criteria as set down by HMRC for self-employment and as such we could not employ him at Strawberry Fields. He reckons he had sought advice. (How to milk the system in the UK?) We had paid the agency extra for Andreij, more than we pay ourselves in order to keep him overwinter when he clocks up less hours and we planted extra leeks to compensate. All the best laid plans and that.
That leaves us just to wish all our customers and followers of this blog, joy at Christmas time and peace in the New Year
Pam, Clyde and Dicken
*brussels cost the farmer £1000 -1200 acre to get to the picking stage