A personal account by Sam, seasonal grower and 2021 FarmStarter at the Plot
What is a farm? When I first came across small organic growers in the US I thought they were giving themselves airs, calling themselves farmers.
I grew up in a UK where hedgerows were a historical topic. The illustrated paean to their past glory, Hedgerow, by Eric Thomas and John T White, published in the year of my birth, sat alongside childhood visits to the historic farm at Acton Scott as foundational experiences, but the field at the end of our garden was 30 acres.
The Plot as I knew it in 2021 was an acre. When I rejoined in 2022 things had changed. The Plot was two acres, half of it recently ploughed; the lead grower was Dennis instead of Tamsin; and the crew was all new to me. I wasn’t sure how it would go – 2021 had been a warm and amazing experience and the 2022 edition was shorn of the majority of friendships I’d found in it. The sex balance in the garden had changed – I’d been the minority of one in 2021 whereas Jo held that title in 2022. Was there then going to be a new vibe of rugged individualism and macho competition as we vied to lift the biggest bag of turnips? As it turned out, not as I feared.
We had a new grower, a new packing shed, two new fields, and a new box scheme to support. I was hot on the heels of change in leadership though – Tamsin left Dennis with the reins the week I arrived, and we had the old planting scheme, old hand-tools, and the age old problem of the hunger gap to face. In a break from my 2021 cohort’s tradition of desperately scrambling in May to grow something… anything… please, there was produce leaving the farm (well, mostly the polytunnel at White Lund) even before I arrived. The challenge of keeping the crops rolling was broadly the same though – late spring brassicas are fickle beasts, and you need to pounce on them if you want to come away with a clean clip. It took us weeks to get ahead of the curve, to get sales up to a level where we could cut crops early and clean and know there was enough in front of us that we didn’t have to hold back. I suspect Dennis might say he never truly felt relieved of that pressure; The Plot is still young and fresh, trying to serve a lot of constituencies and find a game plan, so there is ducking and weaving and scrabbling for the line.
In two days a week, I insulated myself from that as best I could and tried to put a shape on what I had influence over. So, aside from some lovely mornings, I spent a lot of my summer in a shed, shifting my view from a spreadsheet to a scale, to a wall of boxes and very occasionally to the errant chicken that was exploring the two foot alley between us and the cowshed. I worried about how to make best use of what we had picked and ensure everyone got a similar mix in their bagged salad. I fretted about how to handle the stickers we sealed bags with to make bagging slightly quicker. I suggested that root crops be bunched and rubber-banded in the field, doing away with fiddly string (though I think the final blow for the string was when I cut 30 odd lengths for Dennis to bunch onions and they were all too short). And, Friday afternoon farm-walk by Friday afternoon farm-walk we all got to know a bit more about what was facing us next week, and we watched as the investment in the rotavator that was made in the Summer paid off.
The rotavator made time enough for The Plot’s volunteers to keep on top of the weeding, and made sure beds were sown and transplants made when they needed to be. In combination with more speed picking and packing, the rotavator made time and space enough for us to smother the weeds that had leered at us from the newly ploughed and harrowed upper pastures in the early summer. Squash and beans made it into boxes from those pastures, and the wind started to pick up. Dew started to sit on the grass during the morning pick, and hands started to chill again. I left before what I anticipate will be the flood and the mud. I left early for a pay rise and a full time salary doing a job that I had been in the throes of rejecting last winter. A job where, as Dennis reminded me on my last day, it will be difficult to stay in touch with the soil.
Opportunities changed for me, but the pressures remain the same – there’s still a mortgage to pay. For all the eagerness of the Farmstarters to learn, the pinch does hit and giving your time and energy for free makes you think hard about what it all means. I was paid this year and it was a blessed relief when I realised those two days of extra in-pocket meant the savings that had been depleting for years could start to turn around.
Returning to those childhood influences: operations at the historic farm at Acton Scott have been under review since 2021, in part for reasons of financial sustainability. As we all face the consequences of some bleak decisions made in Westminster and some bleaker still made in Moscow, you can’t help but reflect on the connectedness between all of our lifestyle choices.
Last week I listened to a speaker identifying one of the values obtained from herbicide resistant maize in Africa. One argument was that a two and a half acre field of maize represents an un-hoe-able amount of crop for a single farmer when, with a knapsack sprayer, that field could be weeded in a morning and save a week of work. I reflected on how that meant the family members who used to return to the village for weeding season would no longer need to – they could stay in the cities to work and earn.
In a conversation about my turn-of the century family on my Grandfather’s side, comparing them with my Grandmother’s side who were itinerant in the Huddersfield and Saddleworth area, my Mother once remarked that they were all solid, citizens, market gardeners and the like.
It is a complicated thing this farming, this feeding, this market gardening. My 2022 experience with the Plot has not changed the reflection I made on 2021: community remains central to what I feel can and should be achieved in this.
So, as I leave, I hope that for those who stuck with us through this season you have chance to reflect on the little bit of soul that has seeped out of your team at the Plot: our work, our mingling, our arguing and our moments of fun would not have happened without you. You are most welcome.