Martyn's New Year Message (2018)

Reflections on 2017 and looking forward to 2018

 2017 was a good growing year. That is two good years in succession! Last year I said the success was due to good weather, good soil and good people and the same is true this year.

The weather has really been kind to us in 2017, with sun and rain in the right quantity and at the right time.  The spring was cold again and then we had that crazy hot, sunny, early June causing all the crops to grow exceptionally quickly giving us good early crops. We need enough sun and rain for crops to grow and enough dry weather to make weeding easy and effective.  This was true throughout the year; the only exception perhaps was the wet September.  The rain in the main growing months of July and August came regularly and there was no need for any irrigation.  We even had an exceptionally dry November allowing us to harvest root crops to last through till now.

Good people- the people working here are quite extraordinary.  We have Claire, Clare, Dave, Chloe, myself and Chris (part time) growing great crops and harvesting to fulfil our orders.  Irma and Fin have now taken on all the ‘Box’ packing and delivering themselves and Bridget is doing a great job of organising and very importantly customer relations. Fatma is running the farm school and events on the farm.  Finally, Mike who has been with us for over 30 years and as I explain below does most of the skilled tractor work and is a genius at mending and making things work.

Martin and Sara come in one day a week to run our farmers market stall and bubbly Erin who was our seven-month apprentice in summer is still working part time, whilst doing a Masters at Exeter university.

Chloe, Bridget, Fatma and I all do our bit for marketing -writing newsletters, meeting people at events, social media etc. and of course we are relying on you our customers to tell other people about us.
 

We are 2 years into a 3-year restructuring ‘self-management’ process, where I am no longer the ‘boss!’   Basically, we have shared out the growing of the crops between ‘the growers’ so we are responsible for our own crops from seed to market; with the Box scheme / on line shop being run by Irma, Bridget and Finn.  It is a process of me letting go of responsibility and the others taking on more and more.  To my surprise they are better than me at running most of the operations!
 
The soil still gets better and better with time. The key is to always have something growing or at least a minimal time with bare soil.  This allows that magical interaction between growing green plants and feeding the soil organisms, thus building ‘fertility.’  We are still ploughing for most of our cultivations, which theoretically damages the soil life however our crops are better than ever, so we are reluctant to change the system.  We use the plough because it leaves the soil free from weeds and debris which makes sowing, planting and weeding far more effective.   I think the success of this system is largely down to Mike, who has years of experience at timing operations, so the soil is in the optimum condition (not too wet and not too dry) for each operation and is not only willing, but positively keen to work long hours when those conditions are just right.
 
‘Efficiency’. There has always been a paradox to solve the decent wage/ affordable food/ sustainability balance, i.e. how people can earn a good wage, worthy of all their skills, knowledge, enterprise and hard work, producing food in a way that has minimal impact on the biodiversity and the planet’s ecosystems and at the same time keep the price of the food affordable.  

Unfortunately, cheap food has been a key political tool as low inflation is central to any political strategy.  The conventional solution is to buy food on the global market wherever food is produced the cheapest, which inevitably leads to specialisation and mono cultures.  We are now more and more aware this is not sustainable from an environmental and respectable work perspective.

I am convinced the solutions lie outside the conventional paradigms.  Relatively small producers, such as ourselves, growing a large range of diverse crops organically to sell locally is a positive alternative, as long as we are ‘efficient’ through all our operations, i.e. from seed to selling the produce to people. 

Making things more efficient is often simple; e.g. clear plans in place to get all our sowing dates correct leads to even production and minimising gluts, reducing wastage. One of our biggest costs is delivering. Our dream is to have lots of customers close together which makes delivering a lot quicker.  That is why we stick within a local delivery area of Exeter and the villages to the south and west of us and continue to grow our customer base in that area. 

Furthermore, we are always so grateful for any feedback from you; to let us know if there is anything you are dissatisfied with as quality and delivery are key to our success; recommendations of things we could supply and especially any recommendations to new people to try us out.

We have won several awards this year, but the fact that we are the best value veg box scheme in the country means most to me.

Our Thursday Farmers market stall in Exeter continues to grow steadily and we are very fortunate to have Martin running the stall each week.

There has been lots of positive talk about having a bespoke new, covered, Exeter produce market in one of the new developments.  This above anything else would facilitate a fundamental shift back to a local food infrastructure, giving producers an access to market and people access to fresh, local produce, in a very ‘efficient’ system.

Politics creating change. There are many positive initiatives taking place: for a start our new Minister, Michael Gove has been a revelation and advocate for environmentally friendly farming and improving animal welfare, such a breath of fresh air compared with his predecessor!
The Soil Association have been really smart to promote the ‘Food for Life’  https://www.foodforlife.org.uk/ and ‘the Sustainable Food Cities’ sustainablefoodcities.org/ campaigns which after several years are now producing big changes on the ground. Also, their ‘Innovative farmers’ initiative amongst farmers has really taken off and allowed some good research coming from a farmer’s perspective.   We are involved with some trials with other South west growers about ‘Zone tillage’ which cultivates narrow permanent strips for planting as opposed to ploughing.

On a local level, Exeter now has a ‘local food network’ with a strategic umbrella organisation - ‘Food Exeter’.  In October Food Exeter launched the Food Exeter Strategy 2017.  They are a very proactive, small group of people from different organisations in Exeter focusing at present on ‘Sugar Smart’ campaign, securing a network of Food clubs across the city and Creating a Local Food distribution hub.  (The new website will be ready later this month: foodexeter.org.uk)

The RSPB have set up the Exe/Teign Valley Facilitation group, with the aim of bringing together all the farmers/ foresters /land owners from Exminster to Dunsford to discuss and enable environmental projects and grants.  There has been a great interest in this by all the participants and it is brilliantly facilitated by the RSPB who have a magical ability to engage farmers in wildlife without making anyone wrong. We had a free workshop from Joel Williams about Soil Biology and demonstrations on establishing conservation blocks; all were well attended.

I really like the concept of embracing people with growing food. Please read the Food citizens report which can be downloaded from this link http://www.foodethicscouncil.org/our-work/food-citizenship.html.

Government intervention. Generous (40% of capital) government/ EU grant funding for investment in specialist equipment is still available.  However, there is a real focus to give grants for high tech/ robotic equipment, e.g. driverless tractors, Smart spray and fertiliser applicators, robotic weeding machines, etc.  

It is an interesting mindset to tax people in work and use the money to encourage the use of robotic machines through subsidies.  Robots have the potential in the long term to take over many farming and vegetable growing operations.  Is this good?  There is a fundamental philosophical debate which seems to have been missed.  Surely it is good to have people working on the land and enhancing a deep connection with nature?

There are still subsidies for growing ‘energy’ crops, which in practice is maize as it is the most productive crop; unfortunately, it is also the most destructive crop for biodiversity.  Thus, much of the best land to the east of Exeter is used either to build on or to grow maize to feed bio digesters between Clyst St. Mary and Woodbury.  The bio digesters produce gas which is burnt to produce electricity.

Unfortunately, these distortions in the market place are difficult to overcome and it may well be prudent to invest in robotic weeding machines and grading machinery to remain competitive in the long term.  Our competitors in the conventional and organic sectors certainly are making these investments.

Finding cash for Capital investment for machinery has always been the Achilles Heel of small businesses like ours.   Whereas a ‘specialist’ producing on a large scale could warrant a big investment in one specialised machine, we produce a large range of crops on a relatively small scale, which do not warrant such investments.   I would like to think there is a more local and direct way to raise capital for investment with a good return for the investors. We don’t really need robots, just simple machines that make life easier and our production more efficient.

Community events We have been incredibly fortunate to have Fatma running our activity days. Through the year we have regular events, bringing enthusiastic people and families to the farm, many for the first time.   Some of the events really help us as producers e.g. apple and squash harvesting.

The farm school and activity days are a great asset to the farm and at the same time allow people to engage with the land and growing.  We need to make an investment in better cooking facilities and a proper ‘shelter’ for adverse conditions.  Fatma and I along with her team of great volunteers have decided to separate this ‘Educational/Activity’ side from the farm business and set up a social enterprise or charity with separate accounts.  This will then be eligible for specific grant funding as opposed to taking funds from the farm which are needed for farming investments. Using this model Fatma and her team can grow the Farm School and activity days separately from the farm.

I know Fatma would love to hear from you if you are interested to be involved with this project. Please visit the Farm School page on our website.

Hopeful Future I see 2017 as one of the greatest years for positive change, around social, environmental and ecological challenges.  And it is only something that can snowball into an unstoppable energy, fed by the hopes of the younger generation.  We are no longer swimming against the flow, the tide is on the turn.

The world over, people and politicians are standing against injustice and growing in confidence to stand for what they believe to be right.  For the first time Climate Change and caring for other species is high on the political agenda and individuals are making great, positive changes.  Together we can make it a great 2018.

Martyn Bragg