Three weeks of gloom and relentless rain have caused a few problems with weeding and harvesting, but have done little to dampen our spirits here on the farm; with most of the planting finished, 2015 still looks like being a very good year. A bright September would allow us to get on top of the weeds, harvest in good conditions and ripen the tomatoes and squash, but sunny or not it will be the Soil Association’s Organic September. With organic sales rising again, my wife Geetie and I have been asked to give a talk in London as ‘organic pioneers’. Musing on this, I realise that there were plenty who came before us.
When I converted three acres of my parent’s farm 30 years ago and planted my first organic vegetables, I was clueless; I spent every spare moment visiting the real organic pioneers, some of whom had been quietly growing, experimenting and philosophising, largely in isolation, since the sixties. One used only horsepower and had taken the engine out of his only tractor to pull it more easily with a team of horses; one produced organic grain and beef very successfully for 20 years without ever charging a premium or even saying it was organic, explaining to me that, “there are no pockets in a shroud, Guy”; another devoted much of his life to developing a revolutionary cultivator and seed drill called the sod seeder; “It will make herbicides and the plough redundant,” he confidently predicted, but sadly it never really worked; another kept very happy pigs in the woods and would have moved in with them if his wife had allowed it. I was always welcomed, taken in, shown around, advised, fed and given a bed; there was never fear of shared knowledge leading to competition as no-one was in it for the money anyway; they just wanted to change the world. Most were pretty nuts but amid the madness were gems of creativity, genius and profound sanity.
Those pioneers shared an uncompromising, obsessive, anarchic view of the world and a deep commitment to finding a better way of farming; they were the freaks on the fringe whose difficult questions start movements. Some have refined their skills to become successful commercial farmers, some are consultants, counsellors or tai-chi teachers, a few have inevitably made use of the shroud; I doubt they had much to put in the pockets, but without their questions and generosity of spirit, Riverford would not exist to celebrate Organic September.