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News from the farm   |   Farming

Soil, muck and spring

The last fortnight’s dry weather allowed our growers to spread muck, and in some cases plough the ground for early crops.

Traditionally, stubbles (the six inches or so of stalk left after crops are cut) were ploughed into the soil in autumn and early winter, leaving the furrows exposed to frosts, which, through repeated freezing and thawing, shattered clay clods.

By spring, a fine seedbed came easily with minimal cultivation; a big advantage when working with horses, but arguably less so with a 250hp tractor. In our increasingly wet and mild winters, ploughing too early, while the soil is still warm and active, can result in organic matter being broken down by bacteria and fungi, releasing soluble nitrogen and potassium.

With no active roots to use them, these can be carried away by the winter rains; an expensive loss of nutrients, and a potential source of water pollution. But temperatures have dropped recently, so our own ploughs will be in action with the next dry spell.

Spreading muck before crops are growing also risks nutrient loss and pollution. Ideally it would be stored and spread in March, but few dairy farmers have enough storage, and the ground is often too wet in March anyway.

So, the air was heavy last week as our neighbours took the chance to lower their stores enough to see them through to turnout (when cows are let out in spring). Some still use tractor-drawn tankers, but today the favoured method is the ‘umbilical’, whereby slurry is pumped up to 3km down firefighters’ hoses to a relatively light tractor and ‘dribble bar’, which spreads it with minimal soil damage. Earthworms hate slurry, and few would claim it’s perfect – but with the farmers getting 30p per litre for milk, don’t expect them to be able to make costly compost anytime soon. 

Finally, a limited print run of the latest Wicked Leeks magazine appears in some boxes this week. If you don’t have a printed copy, the digital edition is available to all for free at We hope you enjoy it.



    8 Months 1 Week

    I have seen examples of very simple double skinned biogas units used in poor rural eras of the world. I know that huge amounts of slurry = huge containment vessels, but shouldn't farmers be proactive in using these? It means slurry and other waste is contained, broken down quicker with less if any smell, can be utilised faster and is earthworm friendly - and the farmer gets free biogas for heating etc to boot! Win, win, win... Unless I'm missing something...?

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    Guy Singh-Watson

    Guy Singh-Watson has over the last 30 years taken Riverford from one man and a wheelbarrow delivering homegrown organic veg to friends, to a national veg box scheme delivering to around 80,000 customers a week. Tired of meetings, brands and the assumption that greed is our predominant motivation, Guy converted the business to employee ownership in 2018, using the proceeds to buy a small farm and return to growing organic vegetables. In common with many of Riverford’s new co-owners, Guy is an advocate of using business to shape a part of the world, however small, to be kinder, more considerate and sustainable; more like the world most of us want to live in.  His weekly newsletters connect people to the farm with refreshingly honest accounts of the trials and tribulations of producing organic food, and the occasional rant about farming, ethical and business issues he feels strongly about.

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