Beetroots and the value of 'human harvesters'

Vegetables are a bit like children; when they’re ready to be harvested, they can’t wait. They’re more demanding than the cattle, who generally just get on with it.

We’re harvesting beetroot, Calabrese, and leeks at the moment on our mixed farm (combining animals with crops). We farm about 220 acres in total, on medium loam soil; the steep slopes are permanent pasture for livestock, and we grow veg in the flatter fields.

All the fields have six-metre margins where we don’t plough. They are havens of wildlife; we’ve got skylarks, barn owls, and bats, among others. The landscape is stunning – when you get five minutes to stop and look around, that’s the one of the best things. We also have a small suckler herd (cows with calves), and their manure is massively valuable for fertilising our veg fields.

We’re tenants of the National Trust, under an agreement called a Farm Business Tenancy (FBT), which we’ve held for five and then 15 years and is currently being renewed. These are often only set up for a couple of years, which do not provide a legal framework to encourage organic conversion. It’s common practice when these agreements come to an end that the land agent or estate manager serves notice to quit. This happens even if the landowner – who often doesn’t have contact with the tenants – would like to invite them to continue and build upon the previous years’ work and all the healthy established relationships.

The process to renew is then really long; it can take literally years and is counter productive for many reasons. There’s definitely a tenant farm culture that needs to change after decades of inadequate legal framework and mismanagement.

Beetroots
Harvesting by hand means exact amounts can be picked when needed. 

Meanwhile, Andy is out in all elements every day. The early Calabrese struggled in the spring, but overall everything is looking okay – we particularly like growing leeks because they cope well in most weathers.

We harvest the beetroot by hand now, though we’ve done it mechanically in the past. Although it may be more expensive like this, we can pick as and when we need it, so we don’t need to spend on storage – and also we don’t have to make sure there’s no stones in the beds, because we’re not using the tractor.

We’ve had nine people every day in the past few weeks, picking Calabrese in the morning and beetroot in the afternoon. These ‘human harvesters’ need to be really valued and seen as doing a vital job. Almost every week something is being harvested or planted. Vegetables are a bit like children; when they’re ready to be harvested, they can’t wait. They’re more demanding than the cattle, who generally just get on with it.

2 Comments

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  1. I just looked on .gov.uk website regarding farm tenancy agreements …and to be frank , I was appalled.

    I fail to understand why the National Trust ( of which I am a member) cannot do better with its tenancy agreements than the those presented and presumably applied to tenants.

    I wonder how many Riverford customers are NT members?

    Well, if you are, please note that the 22nd October is AGM day. We spent an agreeable hour last night looking through the ‘CVs’ of those who which to become 2021 trustees and voted for those who, it appeared , had some inkling about farming and the natural landscape, rather than built environment or retail.

    We’d like to think it made a difference…who knows?…but if you are a NT member please think about this AGM and voting. It can be done online – all you need is your membership number.

    We are also trying to discover the protocol for motion nomination etc.

    The article in the ‘News from the Farm’ is different from the one given above. I hope Kate and Andy get what they want from the NT.

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    1. Hi Astralstroll. Thanks for your comment, and yes good spot – we made a few changes to this piece after the print deadline had passed for the newsletter to clarify some of the points about tenancy agreements, which as you can see are complex to say the least! I don’t think many people realise how much a role the NT has in securing the future of farms like these.

      Great to hear from farmers about the realities they face, and yes absolutely hoping that Kate and Andy are able to stay on and continue the brilliant organic farming they are doing.

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