into the mud season
Over thirty inches of rain will fall between now and the 1st of April. There will be periods of cold but it is the rain, and the resulting mud, that makes Devon's winters a challenge. Because we pick all the non-root vegetables fresh each day, we still have to get out there and pick however foul the weather, or there would be no boxes on your doorstep the next day. I think there must be a special gene in a minority of people that makes them willing and able to cut cauliflowers or pull leeks in the horizontal rain. Amazingly most of the field crew will decline the option of a barn job even on the worst days.
Walking around with balls of mud on your feet is bad enough but being expected to carry a crate of veg at the same time is too much, so we have made some wacky machines to help. Conventional tractors are wonderfully versatile tools but they perform poorly, and damage our beloved soil too much, when the going gets tough. Sometime in October or November we give up on tractors, which exert about twelve pounds per square inch ground pressure, and move to an assortment of tracked vehicles which apply only one or two. We did even have a fully fledged, very dilapidated, ex-military amphibious "snow cat". It was great fun but the farm workshop has refused to give it its annual rejuvenation this year. The other vehicles are boringly slow but will plod across the wet fields causing almost no damage whilst giving some shelter to the pickers and providing a working platform for crates of cauliflowers etc. When they are full they are unloaded onto a trailer or truck to bring the veg back to the farm.
Celeriac, celery, parsnips, carrots and parsley are all members of the umbelliferae (umbrella like flowers and seed heads) and are closely related to the cow parsley or our hedgerows. As such they are all host for the dreaded carrot root fly, which is attracted by their smell and then lays its eggs in the soil around the base of the plant. The eggs hatch into grubs, which burrow into the roots creating little tunnels under the surface.
Non-organic growers use a barrage or persistent chemicals in the soil, followed by a program of sprays to catch the adults before they lay their eggs. This is why the Government's Food Standards Agency recommends topping and peeling non-organic carrots. We have two strategies to keep damage levels at acceptable levels. The first is to choose exposed, hill-top, fields for the crop so that the tiny adult flies are swept away in the wind before they get a chance to locate their sweet smelling host. The second it to avoid planting ay of these crops within 400m of an existing or previous crop of the same family. A combination of these two techniques works pretty well in most seasons. This is relatively easy for us becuase we are all mixed farmers but it is much more difficult on the sandy soils of Suffolk and Norfolk where most of the nations carrots are grown.
Our celeriac is sown in a glass house in February and planted out about 18 inches apart in May. They need a lot of water initially and then a long growing season. The ugly roots start forming in August and reach their full size by November. We have just started selectively pulling the largest roots which each have to be lifted and trimmed by hand. Like all the umbelliferae, celeriac loves plenty of rain so we have a fine crop this year. They can take light frosts but need to be in store before Christmas. It stores remarkably well, right through to March or even April, in our stores and, provided we have not bed trimmed it too hard, should keep for several weeks in a cool vegetable rack.
Celeriac has been slowly culinary gaining ground over the last decade despite its wrinkles. Last year I got into very deep water by likening its appearance to a worried Ian Duncan Smith's forehead. A week is a long time in politics and he resigned with regal nobility while the newsletter was a press precipatating a barrage of complaints about by insensitivity. If only celeriac was better looking it would be right up there with the once humble, now trendy, beet-root. Yes I read in the papers last weekend that beetroot is the vegetable to be seen eating this winter.