- Soil Association
- Spring - Guest Grower
Guest Grower - Iain Tolhurst
Spring time at Tolhurst Organics!
We are almost at the first (official) day of spring, this is the day of equal light and dark it is also usually at around this time that the mud on our field access tracks begins to congeal into putty and ultimately dust. The muddy floor of the tractor also signals this huge change in our seasons, a gentle brush replacing the mud scraper.
This is the time on the farm when we start to get enthusiastic about the coming summer ever hopeful that it will live up to our usual expectations and bring forth a bounty of crops. At last we can begin to till the land as it dries out, getting ready for the 40 odd miles of row crop that will be planted into our 17 acres of land. Already much has been sown and planted into our tunnels and the dedicated propagation greenhouse is already more than two thirds full of young plants growing in our famous woodchip compost.
The first major act of tillage has been my ploughing of 2 acres of land for this year’s potato crop, turning in the multi-species green manure that aided by woodchip compost has been building fertility for almost three years now. In some ways it is a shame to upset this biological beauty of nature, settled soil full of teaming earthworms and so many micro-organisms that they cannot be reliably counted. The presence of dozens of Red kites swooping in down from the hills beyond this field is testament to the rich pickings that the earth is offering up. But to plant crops you need some tillage although we are careful not to go too deep and spoil this rich matrix of soil. It’s what farmers do-build carbon then farm it for food, just need to make sure we put back at least as much as we take away.
This fertility will carry a fine crop of potatoes and several varieties of this staple crop have been sitting comfortably under cover in our packing shed in potato trays to sprout in readiness for the anticipated early planting. We choose our varieties with care much of the seed is our own-grown carefully selected for size and vigour from last year’s crop, they invariably have resistance to potato blight, good flavour and long term storage.
Last year we trialled a relatively new variety-Lady Balfour bred in honour of that wonderful lady who got the Soil Association off the ground. It gave us a wonderful crop and even better for being eaten as it was a definite favourite with our customers. So this year we are planting 500kgs of seed which if last year is anything to go by should yield at least 5000kgs of nice spuds to sell and store through the long winter.
In the 130 year old Victorian greenhouse where we grow around 75,000 young plants each year the tomatoes plants are looking up to see if the sun is to make it today, they love sunshine and for us to get a decent crop in the UK we have to take some extra effort to get them growing early. We sow by the end of January, nurturing them in a specially converted part of the greenhouse where we can warm the roots with a heated-up gravel bed. A little extra light is introduced if the sky is particularly overcast; this keeps the growth strong and is just for the first few weeks. Then they are on their own and with suitable conditions they get planted out into a bay of the poly tunnels by mid April. It is always a slightly nervous experience as the risk of frost even in tunnels is still a danger for a few weeks.
This year on the farm is a special year, well more so than usual as all years are special. We are soon to get to the magic 40 years of organic growing, our first commercial organic crop was planted in September 1976 and we have been working at improving what we do ever since then. Organic for 40 years! Our first Soil Association inspection was done by Graham Sheppard the first organic inspector in the UK back in 1978. We have seen great changes during this period but the greatest change is our understanding of the role of bio-diversity in what we do. It all seems so obvious now why has it taken me so long to really get to understand it properly? So we are planning some celebrations for later in the year, but one way we are to mark this event is to do a little bit more for bio-diversity.
As well as looking after the soil with green manures compost and gentle tillage we care passionately about the local wildlife especially birdlife as they are the indicators of how diverse the local environment is. We are setting up a number of birds nesting boxes to ensure that all the birds we attract can stay around more permanently and have their families here in this wonderful habitat. Like us and our staff all living on site together brings great benefits to the environment. We will continue to encourage them with our species rich green manures and beetle banks brimming full of wild flowers, because for us this is what is really important about food production. The bio-diversity is the driver on the farm; it is what produces the food, bio-diversity is central to all that we do and the food is a by-product of that. This approach ensures that we have few pest and disease problems and that we are able to feed plenty of people from our tiny farm- organic forever!
Iain Tolhurst Guest Grower