Organic Growers Gathering: knowledge exchange and collaboration
The Organic Growers Alliance (OGA)'s Organic Growers Gathering (6th-8th Oct) was gifted with what felt like the very last of the summer sunshine.
Taking part on prestigious SA licensee Tolly’s farm Tolhurst Organic, this small but vibrant event packed a punch boasting two speakers areas, a workshop area, a quiet yurt space, café, bar and not to mention a sauna right on the banks of the River Thames.
The Soil Association horticultural team and Innovative Farmers hosted a field walk in the brassica crops set within the fabulous agroforestry system. Our Horticultural Manager, Carolyn Coxe, led the session exploring the fundamentals of crop assessments and spotting pests, disease and weed pressure.
The group then explored integrated pest management approaches from the ground up – soil health, crop nutrition, variety selection, habitat creation to encourage beneficials, pest trapping and the use of crop covers.
We had invaluable open discussion drawing on everyone’s experiences to learn from one another and take away new ideas all whilst touching on potential new ideas for Innovative Farmers Field Labs centred around the use of brix testing to determine crop health and nutrient density.
Carolyn leading a session on pests and diseases
The breadth of knowledge exchange during the gathering was quite staggering. The packed market garden tour saw a discussion concerning the conundrum that 80% of the farm’s income comes from field scale veg whereas 80% labour costs are incurred by the market garden. Efficiency is key – whether this is opting for direct sowing in the field over module sown, or critiquing which machinery and type of tool works best. Efficiency in protected crop watering? Pete Dollimore led an excellent session on the myriad complex issues within crop irrigation – how to balance soil moisture with humidity, knowing the absorption rate of your soil, the different dynamics of sprinklers vs drip lines, and managing humidity levels to maximise pollination.
Tolly and soil fertility
Tolly made the striking biodiversity observation that his soils contain 10-15 tonnes-worth of worms per hectare. He attributes this to his healthy obsession with green manures – fertility builders such as lucerne, chicory, and sainfoin, as well as short term plants such as trefoil and clover. Blending species is key resulting in a range of different root depths drawing up different nutrients – Buckwheat for example can be used to make phosphate more bioavailable in the soil. Overall green manures are integral to both soil fertility and the biodiversity of the farm. Green manures sown beneath established squash plants to protect the soil over winter may then be left for 1-2 years in a field dedicated to soil rejuvenation. The trick, Tolly says, is to capitalise on the beneficial insects this will attract. Beetles may only travel 40 metres so before turning these fields back to crops consider creating habitat strips for all of this new wildlife to migrate to - all part of a resilient, vibrant farm ecosystem.
Brassicas in agroforestry system
Ben Raskin, Head of Horticulture and Agroforestry led insightful sessions on woodchip composting and setting up agroforestry systems. This led to some fruitful discussions where he welcomed experience and expertise from the growers in the room.
“I was inspired by the energy and commitment of the new generation of growers. It is a horribly tough time to be coming into commercial horticulture. There is a lack of decent training, wages are low, accommodation often not great and finding land difficult. However there was a dedication and determination to succeed amongst the organisers and delegates at the event that shone through. We have a duty to help and support new blood from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible. The task is huge and we need everyone if we are to get through what is coming.”
The Organic Growers Gathering was a triumph of an event which should be rightly attributed to the hard work put in by Sparrow and his fellow organisers. But also to the enthusiasm of the growers and speakers cultivating a space that was vibrant with positivity and the urgent need to work together.
Find out more
The Organic Growers Alliance hold regular events, online and in person. Find out more at organicgrowersalliance.co.uk.