We haven’t always had the luxury of being able to walk out into the market garden, pull the starter on the little tiller, have it turn a bed, and then grab some seed and run them through the seeder, connect the drip tape to the irrigation sub-main and bingo!, a vegetable plot is done and on it’s way.
When we arrived here at Near River all the fields were under pasture. Originally this was dairy country which means we have that delightful South African grass, Kikuyu (Pennisetum clandestinium) to contend with. It has rapid growth and an aggressive nature, which is ideal for livestock but possibly one of the worst species of grass should you need clean areas for organic plant growing. You really do lie in bed at night in high summer and hear this stuff growing – it’s that rampant.
Looking back, this really is the measure of how determined we were, as we declared that we’d clear all our production plots without herbicides. In other words we’d rid these areas by cultivation, digging the rhizomes out. Crazy I know, but for a very good reason. However, unknown to us at the time, the locals started running a book as to how long we’d last!
This particular 22 acres had a number of appealing attributes and for a horticulturalist hell bent on growing plants organically, finding a property like this that had had little or no chemical use for the best part of fifteen years truly was a find. The estate agent was rather shocked when I told him I was bringing a spade along to an early property inspection. “I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and you’re the first person to bring a shovel along”. After initial pleasantries, I wandered around the property and dug some holes, pulling up samples of the soil, and it was amazing – it was alive, worms and other micro-fauna in every spadeful. This was a great sign – it told me the soil was good.
Whilst I’m not going to jump on my soapbox just now, let’s just say that all the petroleum based fertilisers and pesticides that mainstream agriculture has used since they where introduced after the second world war (yes we’ve only been farming that way for less than three generations), have done a great job of poisoning our soils and killing the life that exists in them. Whilst it is relatively easy to rebuild soils, finding some that were full of life was a godsend.
Despite our eagerness to commence as soon as we got here, there were many constraints to starting. All our capital had gone into purchasing the property, so there was nothing left for even a ride-on mower, let alone a tractor and some implements. I’d had a domestic landscaping business so my collection of hand tools, mowers, whipper snippers, hedge trimmers and chain saws were most useful, though 22 acres is a big jump from a suburban quarter acre block.
Our first lesson in ‘country time’ was learnt when it took 10 weeks for the local contractor to come and slash the paddock that would become our market garden. Admittedly the weather provided some interference, and we discovered the impact rain has on soil and compaction and what that means for running a tractor over the area.
Eventually the market garden paddock was slashed, the plan that was drawn up was marked out and the great Turning Of The Beds began …… s l o w l y. The one thing that kept us moving on was the realisation that eventually, the development phase of the market garden would be completed – all the plots and beds would be cleared and created, and the irrigation mains and sub-mains would be in place. It would be some time before that all occurred but it certainly was looked forward to.
I had devoured many books and websites, and found the leading lights in small scale organic market farming. From America, Elliot Coleman, and Johnny’s Seeds, whilst closer to home Allsun Farm and Green Harvest Seeds all provided wonderful information. Sowing times, preferred bed length, run them north south or east west, what to grow, how to irrigate, it goes on. You become a sponge, absorbing bits and pieces from everywhere – and the local growers provide the most relevant details.
Meanwhile, each weekday morning all four of us would grab our garden forks and spend half an hour digging in the dirt. It certainly caught the attention of the locals as they passed by, and slowly progress was made, but it was back breaking work. Kikuyu is not shade tolerant, and covering it is one way to slow down or even impede it’s growth, so we took to covering the production plots with sheets of corrugated iron or tarpaulins prior to working them with our forks. We even spent our first Easter with four friends and an additional purchase of garden forks – yep digging in the dirt. I don’t remember exactly when but eventually the first plot was declared ready and the planting began.
The intricate design that the landscaper designer in me created was a total of 8 quarter acre plots, each measuring 17m x 33m in length. Market garden guru Elliott Coleman deemed that 100ft beds were the preferred length with 4 foot widths allowing for a set growing area and a narrow path down each bed.
The eight plots would let us rotate the different family of vegetables through the garden and permit others to rest. The wisdom behind crop rotation is based on the principle that each vegetable family has a specific set of nutrient requirements, so if you continually grow the same plant in the same soil obviously you will deplete the required nutrients for that plant family. This is one of the main problems of large scale industrial mono crop agriculture. Another benefit of practising crop rotation is that certain plants supply beneficial residuals to the soils that they are grown in; legumes fix nitrogen to the soil; mustards have an allelopathic effect on the soil which is beneficial for following them with tomatoes to name two.
Another practise that we follow is allowing plots to rest or be in fallow for a season. This allows the soil and the micro fauna that lives in it to rest and rejuvenate – we may cover it with a layer of mulch or sow a cover crop over the plot and then slash the crop and leave it on the bed to decompose and feed the soil. This is the main difference between traditional organic agriculture that has been practised for millennia and chemical based agriculture – our reason for existence is to feed the soil, all our attention and activities are centered on feeding the soil rather than feeding the plant. In many ways its just like what wine critics go on about when they say that you can taste the wine terrior which refers to everything about where the wine is grown. We believe similar attributes can be said about our food – it tastes the way it does because of where and how it is grown.
By feeding the soil and continually building it with the addition of compost and other organic material we believe that the nutrient content of our plants over time will continue to increase. The decline of many things can be traced to the introduction of chemical agriculture, one being the nutrient content of the food that we now eat compared with the content of the 1940’s and 50’s. We still have a long way to go to fully understand the intricate process that happens out of sight below ground in the soil in all the minute root hairs – the interaction between sunlight, water, air and soil
Like most new growers we were keen to grow as much produce as we could which led to the planting of a wide variety of vegetables. Some were successful – many were not. Some have continued to be successful each season and each year, and whilst some are proving elusive, dare I say we are becoming smarter at what we do. Given that we are micro producers in the scheme of things a few economic realities hit home very quickly. We really needed to concentrate on high value crops and growing bog standard lines did not make sense – heirloom varieties obviously attract more attention with chefs and farmers market clientele. For example, beans are a fairly labour intensive crop to harvest and the large industrial growers get them picked by machines so no matter how good or fresh ours were even at twice the price of the others it was not really worth while. However growing butter beans (they’re yellow) or purple climbing beans and instantly you have a point of difference. The colour attracts attention and you have an opportunity to engage with people who comment that they have not seen them before or remember them from their childhood.
Another thing that we have learnt is that size does matter but not in the way that you think. As a society, thanks in part to the Coleworths duopoly, we have become obsessed that bigger is better when the reality is that these pumped up, over sized, often tasteless vegetables are a mere shadow of their smaller forms. Finger leeks, finger fennel, baby beets all are soo much sweeter and flavoursome for the customer with the added benefit to the grower that the growing space is turned over quicker. Chefs often become very excited when presented with this type of produce, particularly if it has just been harvested and you have a month long supply.
There have been many heart breaking moments over the last seven years and all of them have provided valuable lessons of one sort or another. Across the road from our market garden is a rather extensive State forest which is great, as it is the upstream watershed for one of the water courses that flows through the property. It also means that it is the perfect habitat for a wide variety of wild life. And beautiful tender, sweet, fresh vegetables are food to them too! Monies were spent on a variety of fencing options in the form of permanent perimeter fencing and movable electric fencing, which minimised the incursions to an acceptable level. We then also discovered the benefits of peppering, which has successfully excluded rabbits from the area, and the skill with which our domestic dog (Max) can deter wallabies from a paddock.
So as you can imagine, these are but a few of the myriad of matters we’ve had to contend with. Regardless though, the most important is your context for the dirt under your feet. You see dirt is not just dirt. For us, it’s good clean organic soil and it is the most valuable asset that we have. We as farmers are merely stewards of it for a short time and we take great care to improve it, allowing us to leave our little part of the world in better shape than when we found it.
This is the seventh post in a series about our journey to Near River, how our ethical pasture raised traditional field grown small holding enterprise has come to look like it does, and what we’ve learnt along the way.
Here are the previous posts, and yes, I’m an 80s music tragic.