Apprentice blog

Kate Collyns has been working as an Organic Apprentice at Purton House in Wiltshire since the beginning of October 2008. Kate is in her late 20s and has a BA in English & Philosophy and an MA in Philosophy. She made the switch to farming from a six year career in magazine publishing - her last job was editor of Healthy & Organic Living magazine.

The end & the start - 08 October 2010

It's official: I am now no longer an apprentice! As Rowie said to me last week: 'Congratulations apprentice – you're hired!' I'm now working with her three days a week, as a skilled worker, and have had £1/hour pay rise, hurrah! Mondays and Fridays I'm now working on my new project at Hartley Farm near Bradford-on-Avon, setting up my own small market garden there and selling through the farm shop. If I have any surplus veg, fruit, herbs and salad bags, I'm hoping to sell through local farmers' markets, and to some pubs and restaurants too.

I've been desperately trying to find some cheap polytunnels, and may now have landed one, but will probably have to buy the other brand new, erk! Even small new tunnels cost over £1,000 each once you include the plastic, VAT and so on. However, one grower has given me a good tip: to register for VAT as selling fruit & veg has a zero VAT charge, so any VAT I pay out on equipment can be claimed back. I'm also joining a local organic growers' group, so hopefully there will be people around I can ask for advice and so on.

And of course I'll be hanging around the new apprentices like a bad smell, and gate-crashing any local events whenever possible! Thanks to everyone who has suffered this random blog: if anyone has any questions about the apprenticeship I'm happy to help if I can - just contact Ben or Lisa at the Soil Association. Sign up to the scheme now and come and join the party!

End in sight - 02 August 2010

Only a few more weeks to go, and I will officially have completed my two-year apprenticeship. It's a bit sad really: the last 24 months have been brilliant, both in terms of working on the farm, and being a part of the apprenticeship scheme and toddling along to lectures and special apprenticeship days. I'm off to a celebratory weekend in Wales next weekend, and it'll be bittersweet as I'll feel a bit jealous that the new apprentices are just about to start! However, I've got plenty of things to be getting on with.

First I need to finish my project, which I'm doing on the wormery we've built. It's been an interesting way to use up all the cupboard and veg waste that we accumulate on the farm, and we've got some lovely rich compost out of it – the results of the analysis are back now and look good so far.

Even though it's the second year and I'm doing some of the same jobs I did last year, I'm still doing new things too, and learning lots every day. Despite feeling like I know nothing a lot of the time, I've decided to have a go at starting my own business, and am planning to start working on it (part-time to start with) in September. It's the scariest thing ever, but also really exciting: I wasn't sure where to start, but talking to Rowie and going on the business course at the Prince's Trust was an excellent start. Maybe, if all goes well, I'll be able to take on my own apprentice in a few years…

Busy times - 17 May 2010

I've just been watching one of those olde worlde farmingge programmes, and they said: "It's May, and so there's not much to do on the land at the moment…" If that's true, how things have changed! May is one of our busiest times: land is just about dry enough to work and prepare after ploughing for this year's crops; planting has begun in earnest; there are more seeds to sow; and the weeds are starting to take over.

But it's also one of the best times: seeds drilled outside are starting to show; we've planted lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers and aubergines in polytunnels already and are getting other tunnels ready for peppers, spinach and celery; and we've nearly finished planting onions and the first lot of brassicas outside.

Plus I have reason to be even more positive: I've just got a grant from Lantra of £450. Hurrah! Unfortunately this award is only open to girls, not guys, as the Women & Work programme is aimed at encouraging more females into horticulture, agriculture or forestry – but it certainly goes someway to paying for the apprenticeship fees. The Soil Association is also looking at other funding sources for apprentices, such as the Prince's Trust, so hopefully there will be more apprentices than ever starting next year.

Future food - 13 April 2010

Now we've had a dry, warm spell, we've been able to get the soil ready. The patches of land for the potatoes and onions have been mucked, ploughed and now cultivated a few weeks later; and today we put most of our potatoes in. As well as the fabulously useful Milva early potato, we're using Cara plus the (hopefully) blight-resistant Toluca and Sarpo Mira. Tomorrow we'll probably start struggling with the biogradable plastic in the wind, trying to lay it and roll it, ready to hand-plant our onion sets. Last year this job seemed to take weeks to complete; but on a sunny day with a radio handy, it's fantastic.

We've also just had the results back from our basic soil analyses which we sent off a couple of weeks ago: although difficult to interpret, after some internet research I think the results show that our overall soil has a healthy pH (6.4-7.9), and more than enough phosphorous, potassium and magnesium oxide... though I'm still not sure why the level of MgO is important. We also got the in-depth results of our wormery compost; again difficult to tell whether the measurements of minerals and elements are low, high or average - I'll need to do some more research I think. It all looks pretty promising so far - and our first batch of tomato plants we potted on with a smidge of worm compost are looking very healthy now. The next batch we've just potted on will be more interesting though, as half of one variety has about 1/4 wormery compost to 3/4 bought-in compost; and the other half has just the bought-in compost. Fingers crossed the worms win… 

Spring is back - 1 March 2010

The sun has been shining all day, and we've definitely decided that it's now the start of spring: woohoo! In the little heated greenhouse we now have a nice lot of tomatoes in seed trays, sweet peppers and chillies, plus a few trays of kale for some late spring/early summer greens during the hungry gap. Several of the trays have little seedlings just starting to poke up now, and it really feels great to be in there with the sun feeling positively hot on your back.

It's not just trays either: we've put some spring onions in our allium tunnel, and last week I drilled four rows of turnips and four rows of radishes in another tunnel. We've also planted our some gooseberry bushes (sticks actually), and some redcurrants and even a whitecurrant plant as an experiment. It will be great to put more of our own home-grown fruit in our fruit boxes.

The end of February also saw the last of my seminars as an apprentice though, which was a bit sad. There are (were?) 11 of us apprentices, and we all get on well. Still, we're planning some social events over the summer, visiting each other's holdings, so we'll see each other again. I'll officially finish my two-year apprenticeship in October this year, and have to complete a project before that time: I've chosen to do mine on my wormery we built last year. Hopefully we can send off some of the worm compost for analysis, so see what nutrients are present in it. They seem to have done a good job on the first lot of green waste and cardboard we gave them over a few months last summer and autumn – it's lovely and crumbly now, and we hope to use it in our potting compost once the peppers and tomatoes have out-grown they seed trays. Hopefully it'll give them a great start before they go in the polytunnels; thanks worms! 

The quiet before the storm - 1 February 2010

I was much more prepared this time around for January to be a fairly depressing time of year. Hardly anything is growing, so there're not many growing jobs to be getting on with; even the weeds don't fancy growing in this cold and dark. Who'd have thought that I'd miss the chickweed? However, this winter has seemed a lot busier than last year. Maybe it was because I was more ready for the gloom; maybe it's because we have a few more customers to pick or pack for; or maybe there's just more mending and pottering around to do following the harsh weather.

Our sweet peppers and chillies in 2009 were amazing; we were picking fresh peppers in December, and only picked them out a couple of weeks before Christmas to make way for the garlic to go in. We had chillies in another tunnel, alongside non-brassica winter salad leaves (such as pretty beetroot); and I finally cleared it out a couple of weeks ago. We've added some aged rotted chicken muck (really nice and dark and crumbly), and now it's ready to go.

It's pretty geeky, but I have plotted Rowie's rotations (both polyunnels and field-scale) on a map on my laptop, and have colour-coded all the family groups so it's easy to see whether we can put tomatoes for example in a certain spot this year. Having all the solanaceae in red is pretty useful, and makes rotation planning easier, ensuring we don't follow one year of pepper by a year of tomatoes, so helping prevent disease build-up, and depleting the soil of similar nutrients at the same soil depth. We've got alliums following peppers now; but the next thing to go in the tunnels will be peas and beans for salad bags; and then the seed-sowing in module trays will begin in earnest from next week; then planting out; then weeding, more seed-sowing, planting, weeding… So it's been quite nice to sort things out now and plan ahead, as I know from last year that things are about to go crazy – and it'll be the best time of the whole year.

Healthy balance - 15 December 2009

We apprentices have finished our seminars for 2009; and there are just two more weekends in January and February next year for me – so I'm definitely going to try to absorb as much information as possible. The seminars have been amazingly helpful, in three main ways – obviously learning from the experts and picking their brains about specific problems; getting to know the other apprentices and planning what our next steps will be; and also having a good look round other farms and holdings to see how things are done there – invaluable.

Over the last year, the theme which has emerged both at work at Purton and through the seminars has been mostly about getting the organic balance right. Our seminar on environmental management came to the conclusion that being too tidy could rob wildlife of habitat and food (great excuse for being a little untidy, hurrah); while good horticultural hygiene is essential for avoiding pests and diseases. We've learned that timing is everything – crops need to go in once the soil has started to warm and dry, but if they go in too late then yields may be reduced. A balance also has to be struck between spending time weeding one crop well, and getting all the jobs done that need attention.

The same goes for all the new projects we want to get started on. We need to work out how many new crops and trials we can start and complete successfully, while still getting everything else done. But working out that balance is half the fun – so I'm going to work on lots of new projects over the Christmas holidays, and hopefully Rowie will agree to the best ideas. Then we can start ordering the seeds in: which is the most exciting part of all. Must remember not to get too carried away and order 22 varieties of tomato though…

Halfway house - 23 November 2009

I've now been at Purton House for just over a year, so halfway through my apprenticeship, and people are beginning to ask me the scary question: what are you going to do when the apprenticeship is over?

My lottery numbers still haven't come up, so starting my own smallholding or veg box business from scratch is looking increasingly unlikely. However, I've been finding out about CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) schemes, which look to be the next best thing. The idea is that groups of people who want local food start a group to promote the idea, look for likely pieces of land, maybe recruit a grower if there isn't one already in the group, and pay them to produce veg boxes for them every week – and maybe the group comes along at weekends or whenever they're free to help out on the land and enjoy themselves. I'm going to start looking into areas nearby that might be interested in setting up a CSA and are looking for a newly qualified grower in, oh, say a year's time…

Meanwhile, I'm hungry to gain all the experience and skills that I can, courtesy of my patient boss Rowie. I can't say I'm especially skilled in the mechanics department (I'm from the advanced switch-it-off-and-on-again school of tech support); so far I've squeezed a dent in the side of our large van (a bit), bent a trailer (temporarily), bent another trailer's towbar (slightly), and even our indestructible quad bike is looking at me suspiciously. It's amazing though: I'm mortified each time and lose confidence, but Rowie just laughs and says not to worry. Of course it helps that the van was a bit dented anyway (honest guv), and the trailers aren't brand new, but still. If someone dented my car I'd be very upset; yet Rowie's amazingly easy-going.

Inexplicably, Rowie let me lose a few weeks ago on our lovely old medium-sized International red tractor, to spread rye and vetch seeds on plots of land which we're covering with green manure for the winter (or in some struggling areas for at least a year), to improve soil structure and fertility. After about half an hour, when I'd got the hang of opening and closing the broadcaster on the back of the tractor without wobbling around too much, my lines weren't actually that bad. Later I went up and down the same patches with spring tines on the back of the tractor, to help cover the seeds slightly as pesky birds had discovered the feast. The tines combed the soil nicely, and my last patch looked almost presentable. Now the shoots are starting to show, and suddenly I don't feel quite as useless - I made them grow! Maybe machines aren't so bad, after all.

As time goes by - 14 October 2009

How embarrassing; I can't believe the last blog was back in June. These 'summer' months have galloped by, with weeks of rain, weeding, picking veg and planting.

We've harvested the squash now ready for winter; the incredibly prolific courgettes have come to an end now, and the cucumbers in the polytunnel have slowed right down too. This week has been especially sad as we've pulled up the last remaining tomato plants. They've been incredible – they got blight very early on even though they're in a polytunnel, but we stripped off a load of leaves and infected fruit to help the air circulate and hoped for the best – thankfully they carried on cropping with much of the fruit staying perfect and blemish-free. Pulling up the plants means no more tomatoes now, and no more summer for another year.

It's not all gloom though; instead we've got a load of Oriental salad leaves, chard, lettuce and mustards in the polytunnels to make our tasty salad bags, which helps lighten the heavier winter veg (and makes the veg boxes look good). The boxes certainly need to continue to look their best. The battering organics has had in the press over the last few months hasn't helped the precarious organic economy: the 'light greens' seem to have forsaken their lovely veg boxes all over the country, though our numbers have remained relatively stable, so fingers crossed for the next few months. Hopefully people will continue to realise the great value for money their fresh veg box is, and the importance of choosing local food for the local economy, and local people.

Going green - 25 June 2009

Who'd have thought: I actually have green fingers. Not because my thousands of precious seedlings sown over the last few months are doing well (we've even picked and sold lots of lettuces, chard, herbs and cabbages already) – no, my fingers have today literally turned green after side-shooting a couple of hundred tomato plants.

It's quite a feat really: my hands are permanently so dirty and black, their new beetle-green sheen is relatively attractive. My long-suffering boyfriend despairs at my filthy paws these days: no matter how hard I scrub, they refuse to get properly clean. Still, at least I look like a proper grower now!

My hands just get dirty straight away again anyway now: aside from the rows and rows of summer and winter brassicas we've put in (think I'm getting the hang of sitting on the planter on the back of the tractor now), we've hand-planted French and runner beans in the ground, all the sweetcorn is in now, as are the carrots and parsnips (by both hand-drill and tractor). Now the planting and weeding jobs are nicely mixed up, so it's impossible to get bored. Easy to get burnt though: friends want to know where I've been on holiday – I'm currently perfecting my farmer's tan. I don't think I've ever really been brown before: if we do have this promised long hot summer, I'll have to be careful that with my green hands I don't get mistaken for a tree...

Eat what you sow - 19 May 2009

It's only the middle of May, but things have been pretty busy on the farm for the last eight weeks or so. We've sown hundreds of module trays of cabbages, purple sprouting broccoli, kale, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, chard, courgettes, sweetcorn, cucumbers plus lettuce every two weeks... not to mention getting our potatoes in, and planting thousands of onions and shallots through biodegradable black plastic in the field. And that was just Tuesday.

My favourite things though have been our bread bean and pea shoots. As it's currently the hungry gap, there's not much choice around to put in our veggie boxes; but we planted a polytunnel full of broad beans and peas back in March, before it was needed for our tomatoes. Our seed planter decided that the beans and peas were the wrong size, so I ended up planting pretty much the whole tunnel by hand - which took a good couple of hours and was hard on the old back and shoulders. About a month and several wheel-hoeings later, we had a great crop of shoots for salads and sandwiches, so picked them and put them in our boxes, together with a recipe for pea and bean shoot risotto.

I felt very proud; it was so great to see something in the boxes for customers to enjoy that I'd planted myself; and they tasted nice and fresh too, a perfect change from the heavier winter veg. A couple of customers told us that they really enjoyed the recipe and shoots – surely one of the most rewarding feelings around. It keeps us motivated through hours and hours of weeding, anyway...