Tag Archives: picking

Sweetcorn stories from France

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Pascal, star picker, with sweetcorn from our French farm.

Down in the Vendée the maize is head-high and growing so fast you can almost hear it. We are picking sweetcorn (maize’s smaller, sweeter and less robust cousin) for your boxes a full six weeks ahead of the UK. Our season started well, with lettuce in March, but this was followed by a poor few months. Now, after some sun, the crops have perked up and things look more promising. The chillies, peppers, tomatillos and cape gooseberries are all doing well if a little late; they will available from late August. Even the heat-loving melons have recovered from the weather battering and look as if they might produce a decent crop for the first time in three years. The garlic is harvested and drying well; it will be on the extras list as soon as we find time to bunch it.

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The only way through the sweetcorn crop is with a wheel barrow. The cobbs are tipped at the end of the row for grading before cooling and sending back to Riverford to go in your boxes.

Most days we are picking sweetcorn. Water-logging and gales in April and May made it hard to keep the crop covers on, rotted some of the seed and made the crop mature unevenly; we will need to pass through the crop two or three times to get all the cobs at their sweetest. After much thought, we decided to employ a fleet of wheelbarrows. On a good day we can pick 1,500 cobs each, so we need a team of 20 to pick enough for all the boxes this week. Farmers tend to be poor linguists (I managed an F in O-level Spanish) and given the international nature of our team, maintaining an orderly progression of wheelbarrows amongst a head-high crop has been challenging.

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Evidence of a ragondon (giant vegetarian rat) attack on some sweetcorn (!)

In the UK we fight to keep the badgers out of our corn. Here it is coypu, known locally as ragondins: giant fearless vegetarian rodents from Brazil who flatten the plants in search of the sweet cobs. They are bigger than most cats and have no natural predators. If only they tasted better I suspect there would be fewer of them. Ragondin pâté is a local speciality but no one seems to like it much. If you would like to see something of where your sweetcorn is coming from, we will post photos of the farm on our Facebook page.

Guy Watson

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Pascal and Phillip fighting through a particularly weedy patch to pick sweetcorn into barrows.

broad beans & Heisenberg’s principle

broad bean picking handsHalf the staff are lost in the broad beans, picking with deft, nimble and (I hope) well motivated fingers, moving systematically up the rows like marshalled locusts. A bean top rustles now and then and occasionally a head pops up to carry out a completed crate, but otherwise they could all be asleep in there.

fields of frost

frozen veg

2009 has started as 2008 ended; dry and bitterly cold. Not that we are complaining; it takes a while in the morning to get some of the older vehicles and younger staff going, but most pickers would choose cold and dry over warm and wet, provided the task at hand is fairly vigorous. It is a bonus to be able to walk cultivated ground in January without carrying ten pounds of mud on each boot and without having to be hosed down at the end of the day.

The frosts have got right down to our normally protected coastal fields; even the rock pools were frozen yesterday. Some of our less experienced co-op members are sweating a bit seeing their cabbage, leek, cauli and sprouting broccoli all frozen like iron. The last few nights have been minus six which would have been a disaster had it arrived suddenly on wet ground and soggy leaves. Plants are much better able to deal with a severe frost that builds slowly and arrives on dry ground. Provided the thaw is equally gradual I am confident the only casualties will be the cauliflowers that were starting to open, exposing some curd.

The most immediate problem for us is getting the stuff picked; you would need dynamite or a Kango hammer to extract leeks this morning. Picking frozen leaves is painful for our staff and risky for the veg; sometimes it will thaw out in transit well but sometimes it just slumps into a slime, so we are generally delaying picking until lunchtime. By then most of the frost has left all but the north-facing fields but this doesn’t leave enough daylight to get everything picked.

Caught in the act – bunching onions

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.

Martin Ellis