Richard Plowright - 30 September 2009
It is four months since I wrote my last organic farmer’s blog which used to inhabit the whyorganic
website. Browsing the new Soil Association website yesterday I found the empty space where the new blog is supposed to be and decided that the time had come for me to fill it. Right?
"Haven’t you said everything that there is to be said?" Remke has just this second called dismissively from the kitchen, "you’ve been writing for over a year."
"It’s a new audience and new things happen every day" I called back.
"No it’s not, it’s the same people. They are probably fed up of you!"
"My tractor is stuck in low range. That’s never happened before!"
To introduce myself; in brief I am Richard Plowright, I have been growing organic vegetables commercially for about nine years, and three years ago moved to Stowey Rocks farm near Over Stowey, on the Quantock hills in Somerset. Stowey Rocks is a county council farm and should be my home for the next 7 years or so. I live here with my partner Remke Cool, although she might challenge my use of the word 'live'. So yes, we grow organic vegetables for a living on about 30 acres of the farm, and retail through our vegbox scheme and small farm shop, and wholesale to a small number of local customers in Somerset and occasionally beyond.
Growing organic vegetables has been a bit of a challenge during the very wet summers of 2007 and 2008 and drove us and many others to despair. For a while back in July this year, we had uncomfortable feelings of deja-vu as the sun shrank and the rain came down. A month ago I was lying awake in my bed at night, worrying whether we would ever be able to harvest our onions without resort to expensive drying. Now, with the onions safely dry in store, along with our potatoes and with our squash ripening in the late September sunshine, I can afford a cautious smile of satisfaction. Weather wise it has been a perfect month for us, we coughed and spluttered in the rains of July and early August but survived to have reasonably good vegetable crops. We have the best crop of parsnips we have ever grown.
If you've read my blog before you might not expect me to maintain this uncharacteristic level of optimism, and if there is a ‘fly in the ointment’ it is that we are told that sales of wholesale vegetables are down on a year ago. I have to say that we have not yet noticed a reduction but neither has there been any growth in our markets. Just to add some more balance, I should tell you that most of whatever profit we might make is about to disappear on a tractor repair.
You may not know this, but tractors have lots of gears. When mine is working it has 12 forward and 12 reverse gears. That is, a low, medium and high range, each with four gears. A separate lever determines whether I go forward or backward in each gear; complicated isn’t it? At the moment my tractor is stuck in the low range, giving me just four gears. Now you might think that four gears should be enough for any man, but in reality it is not. We are harvesting potatoes which I do in gear one in the low range, so that is fine. The problem is getting to the field, which is taking a considerable amount of time and is extremely frustrating. If you are a commuter and not a farmer, try driving to work in first gear when you are in a hurry and you will see what I mean.
Why don’t I get it fixed? Well I will but the tractor will have to be off the farm for about three days, according to Jeremy our tractor fixing man, and I want to finish the harvest whilst the weather's good. The repair will probably cost about £1000. Most tractor repairs seem to be around this amount, I don't know why. I don’t bother to ask for quotes anymore. "What do you reckon, about a thousand?" After the customary intake of breath through clenched teeth, accompanied by gentle head shaking the mechanic will reply "Yeah, won’t be far off." I thought so!