Where have all the greens gone? A farmer’s explanation.
Cavolo Nero (black kale)
You may have noticed the greens in our boxes have fallen below their usual abundant, home-grown standards for the time of year, and that we have been rather root-heavy. I hope that a bit of an explanation will encourage you to bear with us.
Why are the boxes short on greens?
We expect to come back after Christmas to a deluge of produce that has been growing away while we were on holiday. But this year we have a real lack of greens: cauliflower, cabbages, purple sprouting broccoli, leeks, spring greens. We have cabbages struggling to reach the size of a cricket ball; a cauliflower crop where the ‘smalls’ (curd size under 10cm, which usually make up 10% of the crop) account for nearly half the crop; spring greens running four weeks late and feeding more deer and rabbits than customers; and leeks limited to small shafts by the weather.
The immediate reason is the exceptionally cold snap which has two consequences. Firstly, we can’t harvest them while they are frosted. And secondly, in such cold periods many plants just close down and don’t grow, even in our most south facing and coastal Devon fields.
But the problem actually goes back to the appalling summer of 2008. Many of these crops were planted then, and should have had a warm dry period to put their roots down and start their growth. Instead they went into inhospitable, wet, cold soil, where the nutrients were leached away by rain. They had no need to put roots down deep to find moisture, and the cold inhibited their initial growth.
What are we doing about it now?
We are sourcing all we can from our other farms, benefiting from some differences in climate and soil. But the cold has been widespread so we have not been able to get as much as we’d like. As you may have noticed, we are doubling up on the produce that is coming in small.
And looking forward…
We promise not to go on moaning at you about the weather year after year! We will always grow all we can on our home farms and with our local growers. But now that we have our five sister farms serving different regions, we plan to make better use of the particular geography, soil types and technical skills – and accept that not all vegetables can be reliably grown in all areas. Examples are:
• Onions, where in Devon we have moved away this year from our own ware onion crop because the necks never finish properly and are susceptible to mildew. We will still have the green bunches straight out of the field at all farms, but will concentrate loose onion growing with our River Nene growers in East Anglia where we can expect the best quality.
• Butternut squash crops in Devon have repeatedly failed in recent years and for the last two years the crop was a complete write off. We don’t get the temperatures and sunshine hours down here to get a reliable crop every year, so we are planning to plant 50% in sunnier East Anglia and have 50% as a failsafe with an excellent French grower we have been working with for some years.
• The sprouts from Devon were small and many showed the characteristic black spots of alternaria on the head. We managed to fill some of the shortfall with sprout stalks from Organic Dan in Lancashire who grows for Riverford on Stockley Farm. The quality was exceptional, probably down to the peat soils which are rich in nitrogen which the sprouts love. Organic Dan will produce most of our sprout stalks for next Christmas.
• We are planting a large additional acreage of cabbage, spring greens, purple sprouting broccoli and cauliflower. This is on top of our planned usage and will provide a useful pool if times are hard in the field.
Hope is in sight!
Fortunately, the situation has improved this week: produce is starting to move in the fields and yields are improving. The purple sprouting broccoli has been excellent and is starting to roll in at increasing volumes. The roots also taste wonderful, probably helped by the cold weather (the swede on my Christmas plate was the best for some years!). The cauliflower is also starting to flow in at a more consistent rate, helped by some milder temperatures – I have just seen the latest delivery and it looks excellent.
So, apologies for the lack of greens these last few weeks. And thank you for sticking with us.
Luke, from Riverford in Devon