We are registered with the Soil Association and so all our crops are grown to their strict standards. We follow a rotation of different crop species so as to avoid building up any nasty pest or disease problems and also so the soil is broken down at various depths in different years.
Growing to organic principles not only means that we can guarantee no chemical residues within the food we produce, as well as food with a decent flavour and full of nutrients, but we also provide a great habitat for a multitude of wildlife, from the tiny insects right up to a wide variety of birds, bats, and mammals.
Under an organic system we have to source seeds that
have been produced organically, as well as being unable to use any form
of treated seed. Many growers use seed treated with chemicals for various
reasons, helping the seeds to survive and grow strongly, and keep pests
and diseases at bay.
We produce most of our transplants ourselves, sowing them into module trays, we have had issues with the seed compost we have been using over the past few years and are trialling different brands in the hope that we can find one which is consistantly good. We start these off in our greenhouse before moving them on to benches outside to harden off prior to planting. We have several heated benches inside for rearing more delicate crops such as cucumbers and tomatoes. We usually have some plants available for sale at the appropriate planting times.
In spring 2006 we decided to get some of the plants that we need in large quantities produced by Wessex Plants, based in Congresbury, as we had been finding we were running out of space in previous years. Wessex Plants produce millions of transplants each year, with a growing percentage Organically reared going to various Organic producers around the country including Riverford. We were very pleased with the quality and continue to buy in some plants with a few changes every year to suit our growing plans.
We grow most of our own plants from seed, starting them off in module trays of varying sizes. All planting in our tunnels is done by hand, along with some of the field crops. We plant as much as possible using our module transplanter which we picked up cheaply and after a good deal of cleaning up it works amazingly well. It can plant from around 3 inches up to over 2 foot distances meaning we can use it for most crops.
Root crops are direct drilled using an old three row seed drill as they don't like being transplanted and end up with very forked roots.
Larger plants, such as Squash, Courgettes and Runner beans are planted by hand, usually through a biodegradeable polythene mulch made from non-GM corn starch. We used this first in 2006 and, despite a failure with our early Courgettes due to slugs, we found it to be very effective in a very dry summer at keeping the moisture in, and keeping the weeds down allowing the plants to thrive. Following harvest we simply rotavated the mulch into the ground where most of it had broken down by the spring.
Potatoes are harvested using an antique spinner which cuts under the row to loosen the soil, and then throws the potatoes out with a spinning wheel (in theory). Every other crop is harvested by hand, either dug with a fork or picked / cut directly.
Our main pests are caterpillars - the green cabbage moth being the worst, and aphids. To combat caterpillars we have begun using a biological control called Dipel when we notice they are active which is sprayed onto the crops and affects only the pests by breaking down their unique stomach tissue. We also use a limited amount of protective fleece over some of our carrots to protect against carrot fly. A larger problem we have had with potatoes, carrots, sweetcorn, squash and even broad beans is a huge badger population at our land on Kenn Moor, which has resulted in us taking these crops out of rotation in those fields as we lost a massive amount previously.
Other products that we do use with permission from the Soil Association are Feramol, an iron phosphate based slug pellet which is harmless to birds and mammals, and Savona, a soft soap which we use to control Spider Mite and Aphids through spot treatment of badly infested crops.
Our main defence against pest however is the amazing population of predatory birds, mammals and insects which manage to keep the populations of most pests down to a manageable level for the majority of the year, encouraged by our wide headlands and well maintained hedgerows. We also suppliment these naturally occuring predators with a variety of bought in species, especially in the polytunnels.
Our defences against disease are to rotate the different vegetable varieties around the different plots within our fields as often as possible and to try to maintain good overall plant and soil condition. Some vegetable varieties are also available with natural resistance, especially Potatoes with resistance to blight which is our main problem. Another disease we have encountered is Violet root rot which affects carrots so we are not growing carrots on the affected area for some time.
This is by far the largest problem we have to face.
While a completely clear bed may look nice it doesn't provide much to
the environment, and water evaporates very fast from bare soil so we
don't weed out everything, just enough so that the plants don't have
too much competition and can grow well.
We usually have the biggest problem with direct seeded slow growing crops like Carrots and Parsnips, which can take up to three weeks to even show above the ground, unlike fat hen (our most vigorous weed) which seems to germinate within seconds of cultivating the ground. To combat this we do use a flame burner, which passes over the whole bed destroying the cell structure of any seedlings that have germinated, leaving the slower growing seedlings which are still under the soil untouched. This helps, but isn't quite as effective as we'd been led to believe, so we always have to hoe and hand weed our Carrots and Parsnips, although it's easier than it would have been without the burner.