Starting something new is always hard. The rewards that come are directly linked to the struggle. On the farm it is no different. The early days are all about trying to work out what is working and trying to see the good in the disasters.
We are about halfway into our second season. The project often feels like it was built on sandy foundations (quietly literally with our very sandy soil). The plot was old pasture, there was no infrastructure (other than a hosepipe with water from a nearby farm), we have practically zero growing experience and, as mention, we have very sandy compacted soil.
I see myself as a nescient farmer and I think it is the ignorance of the size of the challenge that has got me this far. I do, however, have a deep belief that my main job is to get out of the way as much as possible and allow nature to find balance. This affords me the luxury of believing that even if the harvests are poor this year, as long as the nature on the farm is left to thrive, that the yields will be better the next season.
For me, the organic certification, especially the advocacy of the Soil Association (that we are proudly a member of), is only a basic starting point and it is essential to aim far beyond this. On the farm we work to a no-dig system with obviously no chemicals at all but with as little inputs or interventions as possible.
The biggest of our inputs is compost but we also use some covers and netting. All of which we are working towards not needing as we aim for a permanent ecosystem approach. The future is a balance between trees, wildlife and food growing. This is not a futuristic hard to imagine world. These systems flourish all around the world and were often not imagined at all but simply evolved over time. The challenge is not in imagining but in working our how to create this in a modern world. One that champions short-termism, resource depletion, subsidises damaging the planet and wildlife and has a land ownership model that makes it almost impossible to plant trees.
Could the answer to all of this be in finding balance?
Our story on the farm is, like all good stories, dependent on good villains. There are two in particular that have featured prominently in the narrative – Wire Worm and Flea Beetle.
Wire Worms are the larvae of the click Beetle. They live an elongated life cycle, or at least for it seems they do for my limited knowledge of the world of bugs. They are laid in grasses and will happily munch for years in a pasture to fatten themselves up before turning in their adult beetle form. As we are converting pasture this long life as larva means years of wireworms nibbling on our tender stems and destroying hundreds of our plants, mainly our lettuce.
It seems there is two answers. One, do not grow on on pasture or, two, wait. Waiting means three years of these devastating creatures destroying rows of young plants. Of, so much time, effort and money being given over to nature. This is a hard-earned lesson that we are finding it difficult to take on the farm.
The second villain is more palatable but equally damaging to our crops. The Flea Beetle is, as the name suggests, a very small little beetle. It is the reason that so many of our leaves have little holes in them.
At the beginning of the season, I think a few little holes are actually quite cute. It is a little reminder to our customers that we are organic and that nature is a vital part of our system. As the season continues and the days lengthen and get warmer, the few little holes grow to a plague of devastation all over the leaves. The message of nature becomes a frenetic shedding of leaves in the hope that a few survivors can be found amongst the foliage. The leaves on the vegetables, even if discarded in most kitchens, are a sign of freshness that market garden vegetables wear as a badge of honour. They are the greatest tool in showing off our freshness. The Flea Beetle can so easily scorch them into scarred shadows of their potential.
We do employ netting to cover some of our crops. The fine mesh offers a physical barrier to keep them out. These are very effective, although you do have to watch out for the Flea Beetle’s ‘playing dead’ tactic. In which, they fall to the ground at the slightest touch and can trick you as you search for them. Only to then trap them inside the netting, in their own protective cocoon away from any predators.
We aim to use the netting sparingly for a few reasons, one, it is very expensive and ultimately a finite plastic-based resource and, two, by eliminating pests completely you are also removing natures attempt at creating balance and allowing the predators to come into the system. Luckily, these damaging pests have a lot of beneficial predators and we hope to encourage them as much as possible.
As mentioned the ultimate approach is to allow nature to find balance and find a minimal disturbing way to grow food within her system. The answer again is simple, it is time, it is giving the system space and time it needs to develop and flourish.
On one of the beds we have, for this year, lost all hope of saving the tender green leaves from the invading Flea Beetle. In particular, there are two rows of Asian salad mix that are beyond saving, they are simply food that we have been kind enough to prepare for the Flea Beetles banquet.
Our initial thought was to pull this up and give it over to green manure in preparation for next season. Looking closer at the sad-looking crop we noticed that although for us the battle was over, for nature it was in full swing. We could see the pendulum swinging over to natures balance. The leaves might be looking dog-eared but the swirl of activity mesmerising. The beetles were one of many buzzing creatures calling the leaves home. The pests were joined by what will become our friends.
This new flurry of activity means we are going to simply leave it. To let our once favoured crop as a sacrificial bed. A pest with plenty to eat will not need to go looking for food. This lack of mobility should add safety to our other crops and give the predators time to establish their populations and keep on top of any future outbreaks.
Finding balance is often a matter of allowing things to happen and not getting in the way.