A string of depressions and associated weather fronts sweeping in off the Atlantic have given us three inches of much-needed rain. The accompanying winds damaged three polytunnels, and ravaged delicate crops of pumpkin and squash, but we are not complaining; seeing struggling, newly planted crops revive after a good drink, standing up and extending their roots into the warm, moist soil, makes the damage a minor detail.
The rain has brought an inevitable flush of weeds. Provided we get the timing right, for the more vigorous crops like cabbage we can cultivate between the rows with various weeding machinery: scuffles, brush hoes, finger tines, discs and ridging bodies. With the right conditions, it is possible to throw enough soil into the rows to bury emerging weeds without smothering the crop, thereby achieving almost complete weed control without any hand work. Success is down to strong plants, good timing, and obsessive attention to detail.
For the last few days, Jaap, a visiting Dutch agriculture student whose family farm the billiard-table-flat, stoneless polders north of Amsterdam, has been steering the brush hoe (with rotating, flexible brushes that nimbly uproot weeds as it rolls). Watching him bumping along on our precipitous slopes, with the machine bouncing around the slate and granite stones that litter our fields, I suspect he thinks we are insane. Perhaps it is time to invest in a stone-picking machine – though it feels wrong to part our soil from the stones that will eventually weather into the soil of future generations.
Another visitor, Timothy Njakasi, an old friend from Uganda, thinks we should use the stones to build terraces as he has on his farm; it would be beautiful, but while only 0.7 per cent of the UK’s GDP goes to farmers, the Herculean effort would certainly bankrupt us. Something must be wrong with a market where food is too cheap to warrant looking after the soil it comes from.
Despite the stones, slopes and lack of tropical sunshine, the thing that both Jaap and Timothy admire about Riverford is the close relationship with you, our customers. When we sow a seed, we know that the cabbage, lettuce or leek, if halfway decent, will be sold for the pre-agreed price; a luxury very few first or third world farmers enjoy.