On Glebelands Farm

Andrew is off again on The Kindling Trust commercial growers course. Last week he was at Fir Tree Community Growers Cropshare and this weekend he spent time with Glebeland City Growers. There are always tips to be learnt and below he shares some of them.

Learning how to grow at Glebelands.

I think I am becoming the guy on the course who when the instructors ask if we have any questions I ask where they get their module seed trays from. When it comes to good seed trays I am a bit of a geek, I have suffered for years from grand looking module seed trays that when filled have split on the way from the potting bench to the glasshouse. I hate the faff of having to put a solid seed tray under these flimsy modules as it takes away a seed tray that I could be using. That's why I get excited when I see so many seed trays.

The most exciting thing about seed trays is how long they last.

Glebelands is run by a great team who were welcoming from the start. I showed up thirty minutes early, I have to face facts that I am either early or I show up just in time for the baby to graduate. I have back problems, so I spent my day shuffling around, my left leg is playing up at the moment fluctuating between cramp and being a peg leg. Glebelands though is a wonderful site by the River Mersey, on sandy soil protected from the river flooding by large mounded banks. Glebelands is 2.7 acres in size with 1.2 laid to use in a mixture of polytunnels, glasshouse, open beds and field. They specialise in salads and brassicas, sold via Manchester Veg People and The Unicorn Grocery; 'salads' is catchall word and means everything from lettuces to tomatoes to greens. On the day we referred to these as 'brassicas' to cover a large horticultural family. As commercial, independent growers they start out all their stock on heated benches meaning they can control how the plant grows from sowing to harvesting. It was interesting to compare how they managed with the cold start of 2013 compared to our rather mild 2014. We looked at how much these hot benches cost, they are cheaper than our quarterly electric bill at Pig Row, and the use of natural and artificial light. It was also interesting to see how their time on the site alters over the growing season, ranging from 5 hours a day in winter to 12 hour days in summer. The final placing of the crops are in the ground, either in the field or undercover in large polytunnels on the site. A major problem that did come up on the day was an age old one for all growers, water and weeds, we'll discuss these later on the post.

Hot benches raise productivity and aren't that costly.

The friendly team of three at Glebelands were Adam, Alan and Charlotte who took us through their growing system and I learnt something new at each stage. For example, did you know for something to be organic it is not about the soil? It's about whether the crop came from organic seed (Tamar Organics seem to be a favourite with organic growers in these co-operatives) and has been grown on in organic compost (it's the same one we use, approved by the Soil Association, Moorland Gold) but it is the final part that makes it 100% organic, it has to be planted in the ground for it to be sold as organic. There was a lively debate in the group about how much space is wasted in this process in anything grown undercover. Even though you can sow in organic compost, you cannot plant in a pot full of organic compost and then call it organic because it wouldn't then build up a model of rotation, as stated on the Soil Association website to be an organic farmer one of the ideals is: 'a diversity of crops and animals are raised on the farm and rotated around the farm over several seasons, including fallow periods. This mixed farming approach helps break cycles of pests and disease and builds fertility in the soil'.

So, though we could argue that the use of organic soil growbags could do away with this build up it wouldn't be organic. That means you can only use the horizontal in your growing system and the vertical garden could never be organic. This to the group seemed like madness as we acknowledged that soil is already damaged due to the industrial revolution, deforestation, mining, twentieth century factories, the use of chemical sprays within farming, including the use of neonicotinoids, that has left every square inch of English soil saturated with chemicals we'd rather not think about. However we acknowledged that there is nothing we can do about this other than avoid farming on old factory or brownfield sites, and to nurture the soil we have through a rotation system. There's still plenty of ground to go around. It did make me consider whether I want to go down the organic route, even though we are organic it is a lot of work for what could be a small gain rather than going down a ethical route that would employ horizontal and vertical growing spaces, like such groups as Growing Power in the USA.

How a small acreage can increase profits.

However, what was interesting about Glebelands is how this team of three have built up the business over the last five years increasing revenue and reinvesting into the business. They've had a bore well drilled to get them away from relying on water and the inevitable water meter and dropping pressure in summer months. Any grower will tell you that in hot months and water scarcity that the pressure drops on the main. This is a big financial step for any independent and show their commitment to a long term infrastructure plan, it was great to see how excited they were about this and how you got a sense of a group of people who loved what they were doing because it wasn't just a business, it was a business making a difference. You could see that in their smiles, their humour and even their discussion on creating a weeding plan. You never thought there'd be such a thing beyond a hoe and weed but in one of the polytunnels we were introduced to every hoe they had. Yes, there was sniggering. Yet, a weeding plan is needed by all of us to see how and when we should hoe the little buggers off. This certainly works undercover but in open ground you are subject to the weather. However, as many of you will know the best time to get perennial weeds out is after rain and the best time to hoe annual weeds is when they appear.

Old machinery still has a use on the plot.

It was good to see the cycle of planting they had and how they used handheld tools beside a more mechanised side. Though it was acknowledged that the tractor they have, though a wonderful work horse in its sixth decade, wasn't used too much to avoid compaction as they were on sandy soil. It was interesting to see a small scale working farm that also employed a plan to nurture the soil. There were concerns that the soil contained too much organic matter from the application of their homemade compost (which was on a mammoth scale, one ton of compost applied for every 4 x 200 foot row). Glebelands like Fir Tree use green manures to cover bare soil (the soil in the below photo has just been turned). It is amazing how little we know about soil, and how much we are learning.

You don't have to dig to increase yields.

However, it was being in a group of like minded people open to discussion about our food growing future that made the day. Though I'm glad I know where those seed module trays came from.