Joe Rolfe - RB Organics
Carrots are a true Christmas staple.
Thriving in UK soils, they're an essential part of the festive season, whether roasted, honey glazed, or as a healthy snack in the New Year!
RB Organics farm in Norfolk are carrot specialists, supplying many of the organic carrots that will end up on people's tables this Christmas - we caught up with their Managing Director, Joe Rolfe for a deep dive into learning:
- More about the farm
- What it takes to grow and harvest carrots organically
- Joe's views on organic and agroecology
My position is Managing Director of RB Organic – we’re an organic specialist grower and packer of organic veg. We grow and supply directly to UK retailers and wholesalers and box scheme providers too. We’re tenants on two large estates in Norfolk and we also work with other growers around the country as part of a co-operative of specialist growers.
What’s it like on the RB Organics farm at Christmas time?
It’s been an odd year, as you can imagine, but good for us in many ways – we’ve just been busier and busier! In a normal year, December is the busiest time of the year, but normally you have 6 months to plan for it. Back in the spring, when the first lockdown happened, a Christmas-like volume of demand arrived overnight, so it was pandemonium during those six weeks.
Who knows what the future holds…. We’ve got used to the increased volumes now, but with the second lockdown, we had a similar effect for a shorter period and things are still very busy at the moment.
What makes RBOrganics different to a non-organic farm?
Looking at our fields, people wouldn’t know we farmed organically – if you come to our fields, you wouldn’t know whether we were organic or non-organic – people generally expect organic farms to be messy and much smaller.
In terms of differences, the mindset for non-organic farming is much more reactive – many non-organic farmers are moving away from this mindset – looking more and more towards agroecological methods and starting to talk about regenerative agriculture.
However, with organic principles, you simply can't be reactive – you have to be preventative in your mindset and work with what you’ve got – working with nature, not against it. For example, you will always have pests in the environment, but you’ll also have beneficial insects. Encouraging environments that let beneficials thrive and encourage balance is key – if you spray to kill all these insects, the pests will always come back first! Same goes for herbicides – if you look at the blackgrass problems in non-organic farming; this has been allowed to thrive by years of overused herbicides, it simply never used to be such an issue, but more modern methods of farming have caused it to thrive and fortunately our methods have prevented it from becoming a problem.
Cavity spot is a disease prevalent in non-organically grown carrots, we don’t generally have it as I believe firstly by not using fungicides and therefore not damaging the soil micro-organisms, secondly we don't give our crop everything it needs, therefore it becomes more resilient – this may be anecdotal but we just don’t suffer with this on the same level and I put it down to farming organically.
Resilience is key – a big part of what we do is build resilience into the farming system. Having good old fashioned organic principles at the heart of everything – long term rotation, building soil organic matter, not allowing monoculture & breaking disease cycles. It's also key for climate change mitigation – adverse weather patterns are hugely mitigated by having healthy, fertile soils, so when those events happen, your soils can cope with it – to a degree.
Yes, organic carrots are our bread and butter – alongside that we also grow organic potatoes and onions. The estates we’re tenants on in Norfolk both have a water reservoir – you can’t grow root veg in East Anglia without water! We share the estate’s land with their in-house farming enterprises - cereals and livestock farmers – whom we often supply our waste veg to as feed. The most important part of this is that we all collaborate with one another as the various different enterprises are so intrinsically linked, both in terms of weed control, soil health and management are but just a few to mention.
Tell us more about the need for irrigation in Norfolk –
When you’re trying to establish a crop and get it to bulk to a sustainable yield, you need to be scientific – having water available to use, in line with the weather, means we can accurately measure and control the level of moisture in the field, and apply water when necessary to the crop during different stages of growing. Even with water irrigation this year, we’ve really struggled due to such unpredictable weather patterns – meaning great quality, but much smaller length carrots. On the other hand, our potatoes and onions have done really well this year!
And how many carrots do you think you harvest over the Christmas period?
Christmas is always our peak in the season, including the run-up and the first few weeks of the new year, when people are buying a lot of carrots for their January health kicks! Over that period, we’re looking at producing about 2,500 tonnes – that works out to about 3.33 million bags of carrots!
Are you still harvesting carrots right now?
So, we harvest between July and March in Norfolk, we also have growers in our co-operative based in Scotland and Shropshire who harvest at different times due to their different climates – this gives us a really good stretch of UK crop, then we important from May – late June from a couple of growers in Europe. From January onward we put straw over our fields which keeps the crop dormant, stops it from re-growing and keeps it fresh and dry. This means we can pull the straw off and harvest carrots on a daily basis, regardless of the weather we experience, rain or snow!
We drill our fields from April – June, figure out how many tonnes of carrots we need, and then pick the fields we’re going to harvest during the winter and lay the straw down on those fields once the carrots have grown. If we grow, on average, 10 fields of carrots, 3-4 of those fields end up under straw. In Scotland, they ‘straw down’ from Nov-May and every field will end up under straw.
How long can you keep them dormant?
We’ll be harvesting our ‘strawed-down’ carrots from December to March in Norfolk, depending on how many tonnes we’re able to sell. South of Scotland, one of the biggest challenges is the possibility of pests, such as carrot-fly appearing. You don’t notice until January or February, when they pupate into larvae and start attacking the crop; this means it’s a risky game to keep carrots under straw for too long, as there’s a risk of losing your crop when you later uncover it. We’ve been looking into organic methods for controlling this, but it’s not a given – you have to have a lot of things in your favour for it to work!
Crop health and disease – if the weather gets very cold, there’s a risk this can affect the crop if it isn’t strawed down – if the freeze comes out of a carrot very slowly after a night of frost, that’s usually ok, but if the frost persists for a number of days when the crop isn’t under straw, crops can start to rot.
Under straw, the crown rot pathogen is probably the biggest risk – this is where the top of the carrot rots away – unfortunately you can’t see at harvesting stage, it’s a silent but deadly disease that you only notice once the crop has been bagged up and is out on the shelves due to its progressive nature.
You have a voice on social media, as a large-scale organic farmer - Do you feel like you have a responsibility to be an ambassador?
I definitely get farmers and chemical reps asking questions and we regularly host customer visits – we have a lot of customers asking questions. I’d love to be able to talk directly with citizens – I’m a big ambassador and advocate of organics – my fridge is full of organic and I genuinely believe if you could get everyone on an organic farm, it’d be easier to encourage people to pay a little bit more for it.
I’m a strong voice against beating down non-organic farming though – I just think we should get our positive message out to as many people as possible.
Finally, what would you say to people who are unconvinced by the price of organics?
It’s sometimes quite a difficult point to make due to the nature of individual perspective and how accessible this food may be. I would always ask “what is the real price of food?”. And what I’m questioning here is how is it possible to produce cheap food and what is the long-term cost to the environment of doing so?
If you buy a bag of my carrots for say £1, you can be assured that it comes from a farming system that’s sustainable for the long term and one where we constantly strive to improve and produce more-from-less using environmentally friendly practices.
Join our online community this Christmas
If you've enjoyed taking a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of organic farmers this Christmas, why not register for our regular email newsletter. We'll keep you up to date with the latest news from the world of sustainable food and farming, and you'll be first to hear about opportunities to support the movementsign up