Perched on a hilltop just outside Neilston is a small market garden where vegetables are grown. This is Locavore Left Field, our tiny organic farm. The produce grown there appears in your veg boxes and is sold in our shops, so if you’re reading this there’s a good chance you have a cucumber, a bag of chard, or a bulb of garlic in your fridge which started its life on the market garden. Eating locally is a good even if you do it by accident, as food miles are best minimised, but it’s also a wonderful thing to be aware of. When you know where something came from, and the work that went into it, you feel differently about it. You appreciate it more, and maybe you enjoy it more too. Chard Week is about that too, the sense of connection: everything you eat had work put into it, everything you eat came from somewhere, and isn’t it interesting to know just where? And just who did the work?
I can tell you their names: Ryan, Louise, Maarten , Ffion, Dom, Craig and Sam tend the farm, supported by the volunteers Kath, Kirsty, Charlotte, Sam, Sofia and Rowan. And their intrepid and wise leader is Floortje, who I spoke to a couple of weeks ago to learn more about how our market garden works, and why.
How and when did you start working for Locavore?
I started working for Locavore in the spring of 2018. The farm had been running for a few years and this was the first year it would see a bigger team. I came over from Ireland for this job so I’m fairly new still to growing in Scotland. Of course then we had that unbelievably hot and dry summer in 2018 and it turned out to be a very un-Scottish first growing season.
When was the market garden set up? How many people work on it?
Right now we have a team of 4 year-round. We get paid a flat rate throughout the year but work more or less hours depending on the season. As you can imagine, the work is full on during the summer, which is when we are joined by our amazing seasonal growers who help part-time with the harvest, weeding, pruning and other jobs.
How do you decide what to grow?
Deciding what to grow is a very precise process! We keep minute records throughout the year and have very exact information what on each crop yields for us, down to the square metre. From that we design a Crop Plan, which is basically a really humongous spreadsheet which tells us exactly what to sow, how much, how and when, when to transplant it and when to prepare for harvesting it. It also tells us how much seed to buy, compost and other things. This plan gets made during the winter. That way when things get busy in the springtime we can always refer to the plan. People are often surprised at how much paperwork plays a role in our farming practices!
What is your favourite thing to grow?
My favourite things to grow are the cucumbers. We grow a variety called ‘Passandra’ and they are just delicious. There’s a bit of technique involved in the growing of them, pruning and the like, which I enjoy. I also like that you don’t have to bend down to harvest them!
The second thing I like most is not actually a food crop – it’s our green manures! These are cover crops that we sow after our kales come out of the ground, they are grown specifically to help improve soil fertility, nutrient levels and organic matter, whilst also suppressing weeds. It is a one of many sound organic practices of which I hope we will be able to do more over the next few years.
What are some of the ways you like to eat the most plentiful veg?
Right now we have over 1000 kg of chard maturing in our plots. That’s a LOT of chard. Lucky for us all, it shrinks quite a bit when cooked. My favourite way of cooking it is to use it instead of spinach in Saag Paneer or Saag Aloo. You can easily disappear a kilo of the stuff into that dish. Excellent. I chuck it all in, stalks and everything.
Any tips for growing in Scotland for customers with gardens or allotments?
I’m sure many of the subscribers who garden are way more experienced in growing in Scotland, I’m only new here. I would think the best gardening kit one could invest in for Scottish gardening is probably a wetsuit. All jokes aside, I think it’s easy to get swayed by all the various products that are available to gardeners these days, all sorts of sprays and lotions and potions. The only applications we use on the farm are chicken pellets and seaweed extract and that seems to go pretty well!
I think the best thing a gardener can do is learning to produce really good home-made compost – it’s way simpler than we are lead to believe. This will do wonders for your soil for you today and for the people using it after you.
Other than that, I think adding covered space to your garden, such as a greenhouse or polytunnel – if you have the space and can afford it – will extend the otherwise short growing season here to the max.
In general I think that the basics of gardening are really simple- some seeds, some soil, water and time is all you need- it’s really up to you how complicated it gets beyond that. Growing food is easier than we’re lead to believe, and growing your own is a radical act in itself. You can’t lose really.
How is growing in Scotland different from elsewhere in Europe?
Access to land and resources for new entrant smaller scale farmers seems the biggest challenge we face in combating the issues within the current Scottish food system, as well as climate change. We need lots of changes and hopefully our community of subscribers will help changing the ‘bigger picture’ into a more sustainable future where all farmers are able to carry out their work with dignity.
What’s special about how you farm?
We are a low-till farm, which means we don’t plough and do not disturb the soil whenever possible. This preserves soil life and prevents erosion caused by tilling, especially on sloped ground of which we have a lot. This means we are mainly human-powered and we use a lot of low-impact hand tools. We do have a little walk-behind tractor, but it has only two wheels and a much lower impact than big, conventional tools would have.
What kinds of machines/tools/etc. do you use on the farm?
We have a modest, but highly effective set of tools. Many of these would have been inspired by the pre-large scale conventional farming times, for example around Paris in the 1850’s, where a lot of the intensive market gardening techniques, now revived, would have originated (that story is a really interesting one for those of you who want to read up on it more).
We’ve talked about our broadfork before. Again, a French invention (merci!) patented in the 60s that allows us to aerate our soil with minimum disturbance and without reverting to the plough.
I think everybody’s favourite tool however is our wheel hoe. It’s a really cool piece of engineering – basically an oscillating hoe attached to a long handle and a wheel, which makes for fast and easy weeding. I love how it increases the efficiency of the weeding job exponentially with a minimum of moving parts.
Have there been any major crop failures/disasters?
We’ve been lucky to not have major crop failure lately. I think this is due to having quite a bit of experience now with what does and doesn’t work at Left Field. The biggest setbacks have generally involved weather (when a Storm With A Name wiped out 40% of our courgette plants in 2018) and pests- this year saw a serious infestation of fungus gnats in our propagation tunnel which caused a 4 week delay to our cucumber plants. They have recovered (stand down everyone) but it was touch and go for a while. A serious attack by mealy aphids on our brassicas meant having to revert to spraying Pyrol on our kale in 2018- the only time we’ve used pesticide on our farm. Pyrol is a mix of Chrysanthemum and Canola essential flower oils – it’s fully organic and regulated by the Soil Association. It was an interesting process to go through and good to see how many hoops you need to go through before being allowed to use anything at all on organic crops – as well as seeing how simple ingredients like this can be all you need to save a harvest.
Have you begun to see the impact of the climate crisis on your crops?
I think the climate crisis is all around us, and on the farm I think the weather getting hotter and drier is the main indicator. We hope our green manure will continue to contribute to a healthy soil that can retain moisture even better.
What does the farm’s year look like?
Working on a farm is working in a cycle. In winter we make our Crop Plan, buy seed and compost stock, carry out building and maintenance tasks and apply compost to our raised beds. The springtime is really busy sowing seeds and raising seedlings, as well as preparing some 140+ beds for transplanting into. Early summer is when harvesting starts taking up more and more of our time, and we try to keep on top of weeds on all those beds, now uncovered and planted into, in constant danger of getting colonised by docks, thistles and coltsfoot. Once our climbers start producing tomatoes, cukes and beans come mid July/early August (on top of all our cooking greens and salad leaves re-growing) it’s literally all systems go, and all we do is harvest like there’s no tomorrow for up to 7 days a week (we call this the 5 dimensional busy times!). Things calm down a bit again come late September/October, but by then we are already sowing and raising seedlings for the winter crops we grow in our polytunnels. By November we generally all try to get a holiday in. By then it’s back to the spreadsheets, and after that, spreading compost!
What does a week on the farm look like at the moment?
We are a 7-days-a-week farm, meaning that our rota is made up so that there are people on the farm every day, to make sure we give our crops the best care possible.
Funnily enough our week starts on Thursday, which is when we have our weekly meeting. It takes about an hour and a half to minutely plan all the weeks jobs and logistics and sort them all out on ‘The Board’, which is potentially the beating heart of the farm – a big and generally mildy muddy whiteboard with a section of each day and lists, lots of lists. We refer to the board each day, all week, rubbing out the jobs completed, and adjust the job list as the days go by. In good weeks, the board is empty by the following Thursday.
Friday, Saturday and Sundays are reserved for transplanting, sowing and other crop maintenance tasks (the week days being more focused on harvesting). We spend a surprising amount of time on irrigation during the summer as well and have various systems rigged up for this for our indoor and outdoor crops.
Every Monday I walk around the farm with a clipboard and marker and estimate how many kilo’s of each of our crops we will have available for the veg boxes and shops the week after. This is possibly the most nerve wracking part of the job (you try look at 460m2 of lettuce and predict how many kg’s there will be in there in 8 days time).
I pass this list (usually with lots of scribbly notes attached, such as “if we get a really sunny weekend we may get lots more cucumbers’, or “4,217 bulbs of garlic left in the field, but I could be out by five hundred or so”) to the incredibly patient Adam from the Veg Box team, who then works his magic of converting it into a picking list for the next week, which we use to harvest the right amounts for the veg boxes.
Monday is also the first of our harvest days for the veg boxes. Depending on the weather, we may start as early as 5am to get the crops harvested and into the chiller before the sun wilts our leafy greens (leafy veg retains moisture overnight and loses it during the day). Depending on amounts this harvest may well last into Tuesday.
Tuesday afternoon is pruning time when we look after our tomatoes and cukes. We prune each plant every week and train them up strings to make sure they will give us the maximum amount of fruits possible. If we have time left we try to get some weeding in. Tuesday is one of our two volunteer sessions of the week, the other being Thursday, and our awesome crew of volunteers make all the difference in getting the work done.
Wednesday is our second vegbox harvest day, and again it may last well into Thursday.
Friday is a minimal crew day where supervisor Ryan and me usually finish up jobs from the week gone by, do admin and whatever else is urgent.
If you’re interested in volunteering on our farm, please know that we currently have a waiting list to do so, but we encourage you to email the farmers at firstname.lastname@example.org for an application form anyway.