'Unexpected' doesn't quite cut the mustard does it? We're delighted that George & Cate have found time to reflect in their own words on what has been a somewhat unusual year at Sandy Lane Farm.
What a 12 months it has been for us all. An unprecedented rollercoaster, to use just two words that seem to have become inextricably linked with 2020. Despite the unpredictability of the last year, with a supportive community & dynamic working partnerships, our small organic, mixed family farm has been able to make a sustainable difference.
The First Lockdown
At the beginning of the Covid crisis last March, we saw a three-fold increase in demand for our produce. We are a family run farm & at that time we were operating with a very small staff base - mostly part time help with both of us taking care of all the admin, whilst trying to farm as well.
For the first 3 months of lockdown we had to simultaneously juggle monitoring orders as they came in from Ten Mile Menu and our ‘Click and Collect’ shop, deal with shortages or price rises from wholesalers, plan for the following week and sort out all the harvesting and veg packing. It was so daunting but we found that our size & organisational set up was in our favour. We were nimble enough to respond quickly and safely. As customers will know from Steve’s updates, Ten Mile Menu saw demand rise from c200 veg boxes a week before lockdown to well beyond the 500-550 we decided to limit them to. Demand has now settled around that number, which is about what our farm can support with our current growing practices (more on that later). We’ve worked really hard with Ten Mile Menu to deliver a consistent service in spite of many obstacles.
We all dealt with longer hours, physically demanding work & ridiculously hot weather at times. We have still made personal sacrifices in terms of family time & homeschooling etc & the worries about whether it would all be worth it in the end. At times we have felt very overwhelmed, daunted & extremely stressed. We documented a little of this in some diary entries for R4 Farming Today. Even though we might sometimes feel at it’s mercy, having to do what needs to be done is part of the privilege & a responsibility we take very seriously on the farm & teamwork got us all through it.
Staffing-wise, we had the opposite problem that many larger farms had last summer. We were inundated with people asking for work. This was fantastic (and a welcome change!) but also a challenge to manage. It was regrettable that we weren’t able to answer every email that we received. A few months on and we have been able to employ a full-time grower, a veg box manager & 5 more part time staff, many who have come from a variety of different careers & who live locally.
A highlight from last summer was also being able to host socially-distanced volunteer days. A group of willing helpers (including a good number of teenagers who assured us that no parental bribery was involved) helped with weeding, harvesting & seed saving. We hope they’ve managed to get the thistles out of their hands by now….
It has been a challenging start to the year with multiple factors complicating matters. According to a recent report by the Soil Association, the organic sector in the UK has grown by 12.6% - mainly driven by deliveries and organic veg box schemes. This national rise in demand for UK produce is a really positive outcome but it has meant the ‘hungry gap’ (the time when getting leafy greens is a challenge for the UK climate), has come early by about 3 weeks as we and other growers are struggling to get enough produce ready to pick. For example, cabbages have been smaller, kale has been over picked. Covid, Brexit and continental weather have made importing produce limited and expensive to buy in.
Other issues we’ve faced have been sourcing compost as we were on a 5-month waiting list. Sourcing seeds has been a little stressful too. Understandably, many UK growers have been scrambling to get seeds in time for the upcoming season which has led to a huge strain on online outlets trying to keep up with demand. We’ve also encountered restrictions on sourcing seedlings. Only large quantities of single varieties can now be ordered, which gives small scale growers like us less flexibility. Before last year, there was much more give & take in the amounts that we could order.
Looking at how far we have come and given our past trajectory, it’s clear that it would have taken another 3 years to see the growth that we’ve experienced over the past 10 months.
Our flexibility & nimbleness served us so well at the peak of demand but it’s now apparent that we need to reorganise to become more resilient. This is in terms of the amount of veg we can produce and extending our season in the coming years. We’ve already started to migrate our market garden growing areas to No-Dig. It’s a costly and time-consuming start up but one that should vastly increase yields and minimise weeds and watering. A new polytunnel has been put up to increase yields of summer tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, peppers and winter leafy veg. In-house propagation capability has been seriously ramped up so that we have much more control over continuous successions of seedlings ready to plant out. We are also minimising summer, field-scale leafy veg (with the market garden taking up the slack) so that we have much greater capacity for space-hungry winter veg supply.
A growing part of the farm business has been the increasing demand for organic eggs. We are now able to take on an extra 200 layer hens and will be planting new trees for their range. More trees are also being planted in our field scale veg beds (agroforestry), creating windbreaks, attracting wildlife, encouraging soil health, and increasing drainage and leaf litter.
To keep momentum up we’ve been able to make modest investments in precision planting machines, one for onions/beans/garlic and one for beets/carrots/parsnip seeds. Good accurate planting makes all subsequent stages much more successful – from consistent germination, to accurate spacing for optimal veg size, to quicker canopy development to suppress weeds, to greater overall plant density – all leading to greater yields on the same ground.
One major missing piece of the puzzle for us is water security. The farm is situated at the beginning of a water catchment basin, meaning that water that falls then flows away from us. With that in mind, we drilled an exploratory borehole in the summer – targeting a “reliable” zone nearly 100m down. Unfortunately, there was no significant flow of water and we were advised to not drill anywhere else. This really was an almighty blow and a day we will never forget. But so much of farming & growing is about problem solving and we’ve come to terms with the results. We are now looking at water collection and storage ponds that can help us through summer droughts and provide water for wildlife. This is a significantly large project and something we will have to tackle slowly, over a number of years.
Encouragement & Thanks
Writing this blog hasn’t been easy but we were determined to do it. George & I don’t always see much of each other, due to the various demands on our time but it has been so rewarding to reflect on what’s been achieved.
Over the year, the kind emails that customers have sent, confirmed that we were meeting a need and really helped us along. Retaining as many local customers as we have done so far, has been very promising. It now seems obvious but the result of having to share the challenges of unprecedented demand has been really positive & means that there is greater understanding of what it takes to get the veg to a customer’s front door. We’ve also learned the importance of understanding just how much we can provide, rather than what we can’t. This crisis has helped all of us to focus on what our priorities are & we truly hope that the demand for local food & drive towards a more sustainable food system, is a lasting legacy.