risks & spring swimming

Donald Rumsfeld called them ‘unknown unknowns’; the risks that you didn’t even consider. I contemplate this as I walk round my farm in the French Vendée and ponder three years of mistakes and learning. There are no weapons of mass destruction lurking in the bushes, but we have had hail storms, pestilence, deluge and French bureaucracy. Perhaps I could have foreseen some of these. Prudence would have counselled against the enterprise but despite two out of three years being financial disasters, I have no regrets. Today I signed up for another loan with the surprisingly obliging French local bank manager, and so we set off for another year (with a few less unknowns).  

Looking at the crops, I am filled with optimism; so much so that I just jumped into the lake (which is still very cold) to calm down, before retreating to the fire in my bus to write this. We cut the first pak choi and lettuce this morning and very fine they were too. Our team of locals, bolstered by some Slovakian Hungarians and a few English emigrants, were in fine mood; it has been a long winter and a wet, difficult spring, but a good crop always cheers people up.

The idea of the farm was (and largely still is) to bridge the ‘hungry gap’ in the UK between the end of the old season crops and start of the new (typically the next eight to ten weeks), keeping the boxes varied without the long trip from Spain. As you cross the Loire, sunshine levels increase markedly but it is only marginally warmer in early spring. Everything we have planted so far is under cloches or fleece to bring it on by an additional two weeks. 

Lettuce, cabbage, spinach, chard, courgettes, kohl rabi and turnips are looking good protected from the east wind. The critical skill at this time is knowing when to remove the covers. Too soon and the crop will lose its early advantage and risk frosting; too late and leaves grow soft and vulnerable to the leaf scorch which cost us the entire spinach crop last year. With the benefit of experience, we have got it right so far this year; the lettuce, spinach and pak choi have tasted wonderful and, with strong leaves, I hope will travel well, keep well and be enjoyed.

Guy Watson