Chair:Kate Collyns (Grown Green/OGA)
This workshop looks at the elements of keeping your customers happy. How to plan your cropping schedules to produce quality and continuity/variety? Getting the basics of soil fertility and agronomy right and storing, packing and presenting for optimal freshness and appearance, while minimising waste.
‘Growers working together’ was the theme of Alan Schofield’s presentation which focused on ensuring the consistency of supply. Growing with Nature has been supplying local organically grown vegetables direct to customers in Lancashire for over 20 years, and has successfully done so by working through a grower group. In terms of continuity of supply careful crop planning is the key to his success; playing to the strengths of each grower in terms of soil, infrastructure and facilities and personal preference on the one hand and building in sufficient flexibility to cope with unexpected weather events (e.g. the recent flooding) on the other. Protected cropping is a vital element for ensuring resilience in the face of an ever-changing climate, and versatile crops (from a marketing point of view) such as spring onions are vital to a varied box throughout the year. Early on Alan saw that a situation where growers were competing on price for the business of local wholesalers was never going to be in grower’s long term interests, and by working closely with other growers has enabled the group to flourish on the basis of fair, transparent agreements.
Adam York, from Glebelands Market Garden focused on quality and presentation at the retail end, whether that be farmers market stalls, independent shops or box schemes. For many crops, particularly the leafy vegetables and salads it all about keeping produce cool and moist from the moment the crop is harvested. You don’t necessarily need expensive kit either. Submersing crops in cold water is a cheap and effective way to achieve this; even placing wet towels over crops in the field during harvest can make all the difference. In terms of presentation ‘attention to detail’ are the watchwords. Ensuring that the produce on display is kept fresh by removing produce that is starting to wilt, and liberal application of water using misters for example. Simple things such as making sure your display containers, be they boxes or baskets are clean and attractive make all the difference. Clear and eye catching labelling is all important. Variety in terms of colour and shape is key to an attractive display, and try and steer clear of the ‘Wall of green’ effect.
Roger Hitchings of RMH Consulting looked at the issue of quality starting from a different place: the soil. While soil fertility is often the focus of attention, soil structure is every bit as important. A good place to start is ensuring an open surface and good infiltration of both water and air into the soil. Avoiding compaction and capping is crucial. If rolling, do it lightly and don’t drive on wet soil. Very light harrowing or inter-row weeding with fine tines will reduce capping, and try and ensure green cover at all times. Perhaps not surprisingly, top soil receives most of grower’s attention, but you subsoil vital as a reservoir of nutrients and is very important for drainage. A good platy structure is what we are aiming for, and that is achieved through deep roots, avoiding panning, maintaining drains and, if necessary, subsoiling followed by deep roots. Attention to detail and good observation were the key themes running through the workshop, whether on the market stall or in the in relation to the soil. Robust and resilient systems was another, whether that is achieved through working with other growers to spread risk, or making sure your soils are in the best condition possible to cope with weather shocks.
Individual speaker presentations and abstracts
Alan Schofield (Growing with Nature/OGA): Variety is the spice of life! (No powerpoint presentation)
Since 1992 we have been supplying local organically grown vegetables direct to peoples homes within a 25 mile radius of our holding in Pilling Lancashire. We have during this time worked closely with 4 other local organic growers planning crop timings and sharing out the growing of crops for the box scheme which we run from our own holding. This talk will examine the crop planning and continuity issues we have encountered as well as highlighting our use of protected cropping space and the way that we have split the production up between the growers in a fair and amicable way. It is impossible to programme crops exactly and I will talk about how we get around any shortfalls that seasonal variations in the weather throws at us.
This year’s conference has an excellent focus on practical issues that are linked to the soil. One of the reasons for this is the fact that without a soil that can deliver the required level of fertility and manageability year in and year out a business is unlikely to survive for the long term. Horticultural production places the greatest demands on soil integrity. Many experienced growers have shown and continue to show that it is possible to run successful horticultural businesses on soils that were not considered as entirely suitable when they started. The fundamental organic techniques of rotation, fertility crops, on-farm composting, careful cultivation, etc. are key to getting the best from soils considered to be marginal for horticulture. In these times of more unpredictable weather patterns however the borderline soil may not be able to support the continuation or establishment of a horticultural business. This session will attempt to set out some basic soil requirements for a business seeking to reliably supply crops of consistent quality. These will include the usual elements of texture and structure but other elements such as effective drainage and favourable topography will be proposed as being of increasing importance going forward.
Organic growers entered the 21st century with a reputation for patchy quality and presentation. Amidst the most sympathetic market of our lifetime we can employ reasonable standards of post-harvest care and functional packaging to meet a public raised on supermarkets and sell a lot more veg.