After a gloriously dry and bright autumn, winter arrived with a vengeance last weekend, stripping the last leaves from the trees and saturating our soil. Such rainfall can be hugely damaging in terms of soil erosion, but we were well prepared, having loosened compacted tracks to aid rain penetration and mitigate flooding, plus adding hardcore to muddy gateways, sowing green manures on bare ground to prevent soil nutrient loss and creating some strategic dams. Tractors will now be banned from our lower lying fields until spring to avoid destroying the delicate soil structure so critical to good crops next year, so winter harvesting of leeks, cabbage, kales and cauliflower will be done on foot with the aid of tracked, low ground-pressure vehicles.
It takes a very special person to withstand a winter in the fields; the physical hardship is not so much about the penetrating damp, but more the clawing mud hanging to your boots, making every step take twice the effort. Less sticky, sandy soils would make work easier but as they can’t hold moisture in summer or prevent nutrient run-off during the winter rains, they don’t grow such good
veg in organic systems; our soils are mostly balanced intermediate clay loams with about 35% clay. We make sure our harvesting staff have good wet weather gear but a day in the driving rain pulling leeks must rank alongside fishing and coal mining as one of the toughest jobs on the planet. Many of our fields are too distant to get staff back to our canteen for lunch, so this winter we are experimenting with getting hot soup to them as a small gesture of appreciation. The individuals that stick at it year after year often acquire a Zen-like calm and say that even on the grimmest day they prefer being outside to working in the barns or office; I reckon it is genetic. Other than genes, decent rain gear and hot soup, what makes a winter veg picker happy is a good crop to get stuck into. Fiddling through undersized or diseased plants to trim and sort is frustrating in the summer but quickly becomes depressing in the winter; this year however, after a good summer’s growing, things are looking good for both our pickers and your boxes. Spare a thought for those hardy souls bent with their backs to the rain as you chop up your leeks; we would have no business and you no veg without them.