As I sit here eating my lunch and reading my partner Guy’s newsletter from deepest Devon, it amazes me that for such a small country, the weather (the biggest influence on farming), can vary so much.
While up here in the North, conditions have been extremely challenging, we seem to have fared far better than our cousins in the South. Yield potential for the potatoes is a slight concern, but the sweetcorn and her various vegetable friends are looking tremendous. Even the pumpkins are looking good, which at one point I had completely written off in my mind.
Indeed, we’ll be celebrating this year’s harvest at Home Farm on Pumpkin Day, Sunday 28th October. Hundreds of pumpkins will be harvested for the event between 11am to 4pm and visitors will have the chance to take part in a pumpkin carving competition. There will also be tractor rides, games, cookery demonstrations and sampling and food stalls. Local folk band, Fiddlyn Man Doris, will also be on hand to provide the entertainment. Entry is free and we hope to see you there!
We were also delighted to hear that our local suppliers, Acorn Dairy and Pierce Bridge have recently won Soil Association awards for their quality food and commitment to organic.
Some of you may have found (or will be finding this week) the sprouting tips of broad beans in your boxes. We have been ‘pinching these out’ (the farming term for removing them from the plants) for several reasons:
- They offer something a little different to eat at this time of year and go well in a salad or stir fry
- It can spread a crop out so it doesn’t come all at once: if you wait until the first pods have started to form before pinching away, this won’t affect overall yield
- This can (not always) help prevent blackfly infestations. This pest tends to attack a plant from the tip downwards and by taking the tip out the whole plant becomes less inviting
- We need the work! Harvesting bean tips is a labour-intensive job and although we would like to do it, at this time of year we usually find ourselves swamped by more urgent tasks: Harvesting and weeding spinach and lettuce for instance. The unusually low temperatures in spring have slowed down several of our crops and the wet has written off others, so we find ourselves in the rare situation of having a labour surplus; so picking out a few bean tips suddenly becomes a viable proposition.
More optimistically we can see some of our summer crops finally rearing their heads: The lettuce is picking up, our spinach is nearly there and our strawberries are too: I found a few half-ripe ones in the field earlier this week and we may start picking as early as Monday.
The mild winter has been kind to our strawberries and as you look down the field early indications are that this could be a good year: but we never know with strawberries and a poor summer (weather-wise) can ruin 10 months of preparation. All of our fruit is grown in the open air and strawberries cannot be harvested in the rain; not only do the cardboard punnets turn to mush but the berries swell up and bruise easily, drastically reducing shelf life. The following day all this bad fruit has to be harvested anyway to prevent it rotting on the plant and spreading disease, so one day’s heavy rain can easily wipe out two days’ worth of productive picking: it is understandable why so many farmers opt for protected cropping. We might consider it ourselves but the relatively small amount of strawberries that we grow would make the required investment hard to justify.
Our Earliest varieties grown on the farm are Vibrant and Christine which will be closely followed by Fenella, Alice and Elegance. Our strawberry season is fairly short – about eight weeks all told – but we feel that many of the later varieties trade off flavour for longevity and so we prefer to keep things simple. Strawberry harvesting can be pretty back-breaking work and although they taste great I think that, come July, most of our pickers are glad to see the back of them!
Our parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes are harvested mechanically in the winter which is a problem with our heavy soil: the crop comes up encased in great clods of earth and even the toughest tractor can get bogged down. To ameliorate this, we rent some land near Exeter which has a much lighter, sandy soil, allowing more reliable access. It also helps reduce fanging in the parsnips (when the root forks into two) although most of this is caused by nematode damage to the root tip.
This week we brought in the last of the crop and early results are looking mixed at best. The parsnips were planted during a particularly dry spell (the soil playing against us on this occasion) and as a result were slow to establish and put on bulk, resulting in many undersized specimens. They subsequently suffered a carrot fly attack, and the damage caused allowed canker to get hold. All told, not so good. They are going through the grading process as I write and it will be a couple of weeks before we have an accurate picture of how we’ve done.
On the plus side, the Jerusalem artichokes look really good and are probably going to provide a heavier yield than expected, so the two crops should balance each other out – always assuming we can persuade you to accept a few more artichokes. It is a sorry fact that parsnips are generally preferred to the humble artichoke. Closer to home we are making steady progress through the purple sprouting broccoli: Rudolph, our earliest variety, is now finished and the Red Spear is nearly done too. Next on the horizon is Red Head which we will start on for the first time this week.
Our organic salad pack is made up of a mixture of seasonal leaves, freshly picked from our farm. In the summer the leaves grow quickly, usually being picked around 24 days after being drilled.
To drill them, we make a raised bed, with a level surface and go over it with the cheesewire to get the bed clear of weeds. To find out more about the cheesewire, go here. The earlier crop is fleeced to keep it warm and later we use a net to protect it from flea beetle damage and to create shade. We weed it by hand, which can take a lot of effort, but we use an ortomec (belt harvester) to pick it, making harvesting quicker and easier.
Our salad pack is made up of 5 or 6 different leaves, these could be pak choi; ruby streaks mustard; baby leaf lettuce; mixed chard; golden streaks mustard; rocket or tat soi.
As the days turn colder, thoughts turn to warming stews and casseroles full of comforting root veg. One root you’re bound to find in your box over the coming weeks and months is parsnip. Parsnips are only grown as a significant commercial crop in the UK. The French are particularly dismissive of them and use ‘le panais’ (parsnip) as an insult. But we think they are missing out. Our first crop is often ready by September but we wait until the temperature drops to start harvesting; the cold weather causes some of the starch in the root to convert to sugar, giving fantastic flavour.
storage and preparation
Parsnips can lose moisture fairly soon after harvesting so we try not to wash them. If you keep some mud on (if you can cope with it) and avoid washing them before storing, you should find that they will keep for a couple of weeks in a cool vegetable rack or the bottom of your fridge. Don’t worry if they go a bit rubbery; it won’t affect the flavour. When you’re ready to eat them, soak the parsnips in water for a few minutes to soften the mud before peeling or scrubbing.
Parsnip’s sweet earthy flavour is great in all sorts of dishes. It’s a very good choice for thrifty cooking; add to soups or use to bulk out stews and curries. For a tasty new take on roasted parsnips for your Sunday lunch, parboil them then roll in flour and parmesan before roasting to add extra flavour and crunch. You could also add parsnips to any mixture of other root veg for roasting. Just cut into chunks and put in a roasting tray with hot olive oil, unpeeled garlic cloves and chopped herbs. Season and roast at 180°C for about an hour, turning a couple of times, until tender and slightly caramelised. Another idea is to toss cooked roast parsnips with a little harissa paste and drizzle over some seasoned yoghurt and chopped parsley. If you’re struggling to get children to eat parsnips and other root vegetables, have a go at homemade crisps. Just peel the roots and cut into very thin slices along the lengths. Deep fry in sunflower oil until crisp, drain on kitchen paper and sprinkle with a little salt. If you need more inspiration, there are lots more recipes on the website or you can call us for ideas.
Could it be the best job I have ever had?
Don’t let my boss know that. But when the sun is shining and the workers are out in the fields, I get out of the office and start shooting (I usually work in the office dealing with all things technical and creative on the computer). I must admit I am a bit of a fair weather photographer, mainly because that’s the time when I will get the best pictures. Early morning and before home time is when the light is at its best.
I arrive at the entrance to a field I have never been to before, where I was told I would find a small army picking spring onions or bunched onions (I haven’t quite worked out the difference yet) for the vegboxes. It’s actually a minute’s walk from Guy’s house… maybe he likes to look out of the window and see people working hard in the fields. I discover that just as I have arrived, everyone’s on a 20 minute break. Typical timing by me. I feel slightly bad, as this is really the first thing I am about to do for the day, and all these people have been working so hard and started so early that they need a break already.
It does however give me a bit of time to decide where to shoot from and to get some shots of people on their break – it is part of the working day after all. I try to work out what the stacks of boxes are at different points around the field, and why there are green leaves piled randomly along the rows. Crates are huddled together with more scattered alongside. It all clicks into place when the field workers return to their jobs. Some are pulling the onions, dead leafing while they go and putting them into crates. Some are sitting on crates bunching and elastic banding, and then chopping the tops off nice and neat with a flick of the wrist and a very sharp knife. Then back into the crates, piled at intervals, to be loaded onto the tractor and vanned
back to the farm and into the cold store to go into the boxes for the next day.
I ask how much they have to do, as the field is pretty big and progress looks painfully slow. “80 crates – we’ll be here all day.” comes the response. I am not wearing one, but I take my hat off to these guys and girls. They even have to carry on working when it rains. I am afraid I am yet to capture that shot.