Welcome to our early Spring newsletter! In this update we provide an insight into the very beginning of the growing season, along with some more information about our brand new website and how it helps you build your ideal veg box.
The weather this Winter has been a real mixed bag, from the grey, wet, dreary days of Christmas, to a period of dry, bright days in January and of course the recent storms. Thankfully we seem to have come through them fairly unscathed, although this was not without a few days of storm-proofing leading up to the onslaught, regular checking throughout the high winds and even some emergency repairs! We have been incredibly lucky, as many other farms have lost structures and the crops within them. Our thoughts go out to them.
After the frenzy of planting up all our glasshouses and polytunnels with salads and greens in the Autumn, the Winter months give us a chance to reflect and plan for the coming year. We review our crop plan, make any alterations and then put our seed and plant orders in. It’s an exciting time filled with anticipation, imagining the first pickings, and it’s also an opportunity to try new crops and varieties. This year we’re excited to grow sweet potatoes again, using the results of trials done previously on the farm. Generally we have to import these from Spain, as they are not commonly grown in the UK. However, cultivars have been bred specifically for our climate and as they are such a popular and delicious vegetable it would be great to offer them without the food miles!
In deep Winter, from mid November through to January, the crops need little attention as both they and the weeds stop growing. There are still plenty of jobs that need doing though, for example Phoebe, our Assistant Grower, has been busy weeding and mulching our rhubarb and asparagus. Both of these perennials will be valuable in the upcoming Hungry Gap, the period from April until June when overwintered and stored crops come to an end and we wait for the new plantings to start producing. Phoebe has also mulched our peach trees, as well as giving them a prune, and we’re crossing our fingers no late frost damages the buds, as happened last year.
Now that it’s the end of February, there are signs of Spring’s approach and it feels we are beginning to emerge from the period of dormancy. Snowdrops line the country lanes, daffodils are starting to bloom and catkins hang from the hazel branches in the hedgerows. The crops too are looking more perky, enjoying the longer daylight hours.
The broad beans in our tunnels that were flat on their backs a few weeks ago are now standing tall and upright, finally able to photosynthesise and make themselves some food! The eagerly awaited re-growth of our chard and perpetual spinach, that we have cut back hard to supply our weekly boxes, is now beginning and it won't be long until we suddenly have more than we can use as the plants race to flower and ultimately set seed. We won’t let this happen of course, as these will be mown in and the ground prepared for what’s next on our all-important rotation plan.
In preparation for the Hungry Gap our propagation glasshouse is quickly filling up with seedlings such as spring greens, spring onions and beetroot, which will be ready through the coming sparse months and on into Summer. We are also regularly drilling crops (drilling is when seeds are sown directly into soil with a seed drill) such as rocket, salad turnips and radishes. We are lucky to have such a lot of covered space here at Barcombe, which is ideal for these early crops.
Out in the fields, we are racing through our leeks. 40,000 sounds like a lot, but with the number of boxes we are delivering now, we soon get through them! We are also starting to cut whole heads from our curly kale, as opposed to individual leaves, so this will be the final harvest before it bolts. Although the leeks and curly kale will soon be gone, our purple sprouting broccoli is looking strong and healthy and we are managing to keep the pigeons at bay with scarecrows and bangers. The variety we're growing is called Claret and will begin to produce at the end of March, early April: we can’t wait!
Winter on the farm also offers a valuable moment to tackle vital maintenance, both of buildings and machinery. First and foremost this year, was the renovation of our long neglected tea hut. It’s sad that it seems on many farms staff spaces are not deemed a priority and we all felt that it was high time to change this at Barcombe, so that our amazing, hard working team feel appreciated. It’s perhaps just as well we didn’t take any ‘before’ photos, but we’re happy to say that after a group effort we now have a lovely new kitchen with a little library of useful books and even artwork (from Adele, an artist as well as employee) on the walls! It really has made a marked improvement to morale and even receives an (unheard of before) weekly mop of the floor, which as you can imagine, is incredibly muddy by Friday! The next job on the list before the growing season begins in earnest, is to prepare our events space so that we can open up the farm to you, our valued customers. You will all be the first to know when we have dates in place but we’re planning a weekend in May and look forward to meeting you then!
As you may remember, last summer we were asked by a team from the University of Edinburgh to take part in a survey of bat activity. By monitoring simultaneously in both a conventionally farmed field and an adjacent organically farmed field, the team hoped to compare population numbers, as bats feed upon insects, and the different species have differing prey; they are a great indicator as to the diversity found in a particular location.
The results from the digital recordings we made are now in, and as expected they show that organically farmed land is far more biodiverse. Over five nights seven types of bats were recorded on our farm, as opposed to four on the conventional farm. These included the Brown Long-eared Bat, the Common Pipistrelle and the Barbastelle Bat (one of the rarest species of mammal in the UK). The total number of bats in our fields was two hundred and twenty seven, compared to twenty six.
Obviously, these figures affirm our belief in what we’re doing here at Barcombe (and we’d love to take part in other surveys in the future), but we also want to take this opportunity to say we don’t feel demonising non-organic farmers is at all helpful. We recognise that the huge problems with agriculture are systemic, rather than individual, and that they can only be tackled by working together. We think rather than blame, collaboration is what’s needed to find solutions and to improve everything from soil health and habitats for wildlife, to the livelihoods of those that work so hard to produce food. After all, we are all part of our precious environment and all have a part to play in protecting it, whether as consumers or as custodians.
Our new website – giving you the power to choose
This month saw the launch of our new website! We are really happy it is finally ready, as ensuring it has the functionality we want and can be used across all devices, has been a long and complicated process. Our website and back-end management system are developed by the fantastic Michael, who runs Boxmaster Systems. He and his developers have worked tirelessly to create a better ordering system that minimises our admin, meaning we can get on with harvesting and packing! All the work we have done together also helps other organic farms and businesses such as Cambridge Organic and Locavore (based in Scotland) who also use his system. We see ourselves as a network of traders who are battling against the large national companies!
One of the most important updates to the website is the increased transparency regarding our produce sourcing.
At Barcombe we always prioritise produce from our farm, or from local suppliers, but at certain points in the year, like the approaching Hungry Gap, it becomes more difficult and we source more from further afield, as do most veg box suppliers. Crops such as cherry tomatoes we have available all year round for our customers, but we can only supply them during certain points of the year from our farm, usually July to October, due to the constraints of the seasons in the UK.
In our the results of our recent customer survey, there was a 50% split between those of you who wanted more local produce, with the reduced variety that entails, and those who prioritised having more choice. This made us keen to give you as much information as possible, so you can make informed choices about your food. As a result, every product on the website, whether in your veg box, added as an extra or ordered through our swap system, now has an origin assigned to it.
Through this swaps system, which the majority of you already use every week, you have the power to make changes based on an item’s origin, making your boxes more local, if that is what you want, whilst allowing flexibility from box to box. As requested, our extended deadlines now mean you have longer to do this too!
Please look out for more information regarding our produce and sourcing, which we’ll be sending soon. We’ll be be outlining how growing at Barcombe changes throughout the seasons, the challenges we face and strengths we have, as well as who some of our wonderful local suppliers are and what our plans are long term (spoiler alert: we’re aiming to take on more land!). We’re sure you agree this is important stuff!
In the meantime, we hope you all have been enjoying the new website and if you have any feedback, we would love to hear it. This is by no means the end of the improvements, so any comments or requests you have will help us tailor what we do based on what our customers want.
Thank you for reading!