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One Smallholding - a Giant Leap for Mankind

February 22, 2020

If Greta Thunberg ever sails up the River Lyne in her electric boat, or if Sir David Attenborough ever makes a six-part series on the wildlife of the Bewcastle Fells, they should seize the chance to check out this particular sixteen acres of planet Earth. They would find cause for hope.

 

Climate change activists, all-round-good-eggs and anyone else that's interested, would see that we don't just grow healthy fruit and vegetables organically in a challenging environment. We strive to integrate food production with natural ecosystems so that biodiversity is enhanced, nutrients are cycled, pollution is prevented, soil organic matter is preserved and climate change is tackled head-on. We believe that, if the philosophy underpinning our growing system were to be adopted globally, we could feed everyone, fight wildlife extinction and make a massive contribution to reducing atmospheric concentrations of climate-heating greenhouse gases. As the first moon rambler might have said: this is one smallholding for a man but potentially, a giant leap for mankind.

 

If you're one of the two hundred families who enjoy our fruit and veg every week, you will appreciate the emphasis we put on quality, variety and value for money. The box scheme makes it easy to be vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, gluten-free, low-FODMAP or on any other special diet where healthy fruit and veg can play a part. But it's also good to know that our ethics run deep and that every box and bottle sold supports our Earth-friendly efforts.

Deep ethics are all very well but how do they relate to the basic gardening principles we follow day to day? Picture a skilled rope-maker, or a Celtic silversmith crafting a bangle. Like them, we aim to braid three vital strands, namely 1). growing wholesome food, 2). building healthy soil and 3). sustaining complex ecosystems - and like them, we might quote you seven words of ancient wisdom: 'a threefold cord is not quickly broken'.

 

Strand 1: Wholesome food

 

Speaking of old quotes, here's one from the eighteenth century poet William Cowper: 'Variety's the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour'. Quite right! That's why we aim to provide a flavoursome  mixture of produce - way more than five a day - all year round. William loved gardens and appreciated nature's bounty so I'm sure he would have approved.

Food production in our orchard and market garden contributes to thousands of meals and provides about forty different varieties of fruit and vegetables every year. The fruit includes apples, pears, plums, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blackcurrants, while summer and autumn vegetable production focuses on leafy greens and salad crops such as cherry tomatoes, mini cucumbers, French beans, and humble lettuce leaves made fancy with sprinkles of edible flowers.

 

Other nutritious greens include kale, cavolo nero, chard, cabbage, broccoli and kohl rabi. During winter and early spring, the inevitable icy cold and rain, conspire to test our Stoic spirit but we still aim to harvest the hardier leafy greens like pak choi, mizuna, miner's lettuce and spring cabbage.

Leeks, spring onions, parsley, sage and chervil add some interesting flavours to the winter veg box and supplement the tons of rooty veg including swedes, parsnips, celeriac, beetroot and carrots, and other winter favourites such as Brussels sprouts, squashes and assorted winter cabbages that we buy in from other organic growers.

 

That's an impressive list but it only accounts for the first strand of the Eva philosophy. What about the other two?

 

Strand 2  Healthy soil

 

The concepts of healthy soil and complex ecosystems are deeply intertwined and to weave in gardening or farming calls for some careful unravelling. If you're too heavily focused on yield, it's like trying to braid playdough snakes with piano wire. You end up shredding not sustaining. Conventional arable agriculture uses monoculture cropping, heavy machinery, pesticides and artificial fertilisers. Here's a brief outline of how our methods aim to do a lot better than that.

Winter is the starting point in our nutrient-cycling year. That's when we take the compost we've made from apple pomace and veg trimmings from the packing-shed, shovel it on to the soil and work it in a little. We also grow red clover and vetch in some of the beds earmarked for annual vegetables then as the nights draw in, we cover the greenery to exclude the light.

 

Come spring time this so called 'green manure' has died off and we can treat the resultant residue in the same way as compost. In the garden, annual crops, like green manures, reach the end of their useful life well before they would senesce in the wild. We help them along by chopping, covering, or pulling them up and barrowing them to the compost heap. By the time they get to the soil, the process of decomposition - indicated by a change from green to brown - is well under way thanks to the digestive actions of fungi and bacteria.

 

This simple first step in the cycling of nutrients in soil leads quickly to mesmerising complexity as more and more layers of the hierarchy of soil life come in to play. Depending on which microhabitat you visit, a small handful of Low Luckens soil might contain one earthworm or one beetle, some millipedes and assorted fly larvae that are all easy to see. But there are many more layers of soil life than that and as body sizes shrink, population numbers go up - a lot. There could be hundreds of nematodes, tens of thousands of springtails and mites, a hundred thousand protozoa, millions of bacteria and miles of fungal threads. Soil life, like all life, comes in a wide range of sizes. From micro to macro, from the invisible to the in-your-face, they live out their interrelated lives. As surely as tides ebb and flow, night follows day and seasons come and go, all organisms follow life cycles from a beginning through a fun-filled middle to an inevitable end. By 'fun' I mean the glorious growth and reproduction that, at least from the point of view of the perpetrators, seems to be what life is all about. But all living systems from ant-hills to empires eventually decline and fall.

 

In their heyday, as they go forth and multiply, the heftier creepy crawlies but especially earthworms,  process decaying plant fragments - in one end and out the other. With concertina motion like an extra long pink accordion, earthworms mould soil's clay, silt and sand into tunnels and galleries that with well-aerated, moisture lined walls provide their tinier colleagues with agreeable accommodation.

 

Here for example, nematodes eat bacteria and fungi, springtails and mites eat bits of decayed plant as well as fungi, protozoa eat bacteria and other protozoa - and with all this consumption there's lots of excretion, which also feeds battalions of bacteria. It's pretty clear that there's more hectic circulation in a gram of soil than you'll ever witness at Hardwicke Circus - or Piccadilly Circus for that matter.

 

Dead plants decay and what seems like a highway to oblivion becomes the route to resurgence as the elements of decomposition cycle through myriad other life forms. Given adequate air and moisture in their snug nooks and alcoves, the growing, dividing and differentiating populations must liberate carbon as carbon dioxide. In daylight, some is sucked in by soil algae and the plants above and some escapes like exhaled breath, but soil chemistry also results in a build-up of certain carbon rich compounds that resist further change and so can persist for hundreds of years. In this way, well managed soil can sequester more carbon than it releases to the atmosphere. This is a fundamental aim of our approach to gardening.

 

Soil grows warmer in the spring and, for plants, this is when the up-side of the nutrient cycle gets underway. Roots absorb the soluble products of decay, often aided by long fine threads of mycorrhizal fungi, and via the magic of photosynthesis, the resultant hierarchy of growth builds the molecules of life into cells, tissues, stems, branches, leaves, pods, sweet berries and tasty roots.

 

Strand 3: complex ecosystems

 

The economic argument for striving to enhance the complex ecosystems of the soil is pretty straightforward because it leads to more productive crops, but when it comes to the many other ecosystems on the smallholding, an old school bean-counter might require some convincing. We look after a short, steep-sided stretch of the River Lyne where brown trout  swim and otters dive in the shade of an ancient oak wood.  Here roe deer and badgers maintain their historical rights of way through the bluebells and ramsons. Crowded with hazel, and half hidden by moss and ferns, a spring that used to supply the farmhouse now supplements the rainwater captured from barn roofs to irrigate polytunnel crops.

 

At the top of the bank the wood edge is formed by a line of tall beech trees that were planted two hundred years ago. They now shelter the neighbouring field and its two long polytunnels. Like a pair of giant caterpillars, they mould themselves to the downward curve of the field with their heads to the north as though competing in a race that has a finish line perhaps somewhere around Roadhead. So far it's neck and neck.

 

There are three small fields like this arranged round the house and farmyard, one dominated by three enormous oak trees and two by polytunnels. However, all of the covered areas added together account for less than one acre out of the whole sixteen and that leaves a lot of scope for nurturing complex ecosystems. In a different league from the three postage stamp plots  round the farmyard, the big field stretches itself over eleven acres up a gentle undulating slope to the west, and, like most of Cumbria, it's grass.

 

But rather than keeping sheep and cattle to turn it into flesh or dairy products, we cycle its nutrients in the form of grass clippings from field to polytunnel fruit and vegetable crops and otherwise leave the pasture to look after its own stock of carbon. Old pasture like this and the soil beneath it locks up significant amounts of carbon - a lot more than conventional arable fields ever manage - and you can add in the woodland and surrounding hedges that account for even more.

 

These hedgerows are old and bushy, and like an extravagant beard, only trimmed when they present a danger to health and safety. A good example complete with a willow-shaded ditch, runs alongside the road that leads to the rest of the world, and marks the eastern boundary of the big field. On agreeable summer Saturdays, a brisk walk up the road and back can include a pit-stop at the top gate where you can loiter with the sun on your back, pink dog roses twining through hawthorn nearby, and your head in the scent of honeysuckle. Along the unmown road verge, purple knapweed flowers act as butterfly magnets drawing in painted ladies, peacocks and small whites - sometimes all at once. Stately meadowsweet and common valerian dominate the ditch-sides, the cream and pink of their delicate flowers a cut above two sprawling attention seekers - yellow trefoil and  purple vetch - on the other side of the road.

 

Autumn gales shake the branches and twigs and ripe crab apples hit the ground. Their bruises turn brown and, as they soften, their sour juice grows a little sweeter. Sweet enough to attract red admirals when the sun comes out again. In winter, fieldfares fly in to dine on hips and haws and, along with blackbirds, robins, starlings, mice, voles, foxes and badgers, they also like to have a go at the windfalls.

 

 

A bean-counter would point out that none of these creepers, scurriers, hoppers, munchers and fluttering songsters have any direct effect on food production so why bring them up? Well, I could plead that, if not hard cash, at least there's entertainment value to be had. For example, in spring, when snowdrops give way to daffodils, and hollows in the big field at last begin to dry up, brown hares abandon their habit of skulking, head-down among the rushes, and launch into crazy routines of cavorting and racing that really ought to be set to music - perhaps the Benny Hill theme.

 

 

 

Less flippantly, I could mention the wild bees that pollinate my French beans and fruit trees, or the ladybirds that eat the aphids that attack my greens, or the willow warblers that eat the cabbage white butterflies that lay the eggs that hatch into caterpillars that eat my Brassicas. But more importantly for Strand 3, all complex ecosystems are hierarchies of cycles of flowing elements such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous that would otherwise dissipate into the atmosphere or flow off down the waterways to feed algal blooms, create more dead zones in the sea and, generally speaking, hasten Armageddon. So there's that.

 

The future

 

Our approach to market gardening takes account of the whole complicated ecosystem of which we are part and we say 'first do no harm'. But growing food, like all human activities, is a potential threat to the earth, air, water and life that supports us, so we feel that we must take care, think hard and not screw up.

 

As storm Dennis roars in the ancient oaks and pummels the flanks of our polytunnels, I close my eyes and imagine a certain place a year or two hence. Standing at the gate to the big field with the sun on my back and my head in the honeysuckle,  I see a new orchard which, more than any garden project we've worked on in the last twenty years, realises the idea of the three braided strands: production of wholesome food, building healthy soil and developing complex ecosystems. I'll bring you the details at a later date but in the meantime rest assured that when you buy our juice and veg-boxes, you are supporting horticulture that could help to save the living world.

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