For me it's all about the soil and the environment. Organic food is so often discussed in the context of health benefits or taste, and these are important, but it's protecting our soils and stewardship of the land – principles which lie at the heart of organic farming – which matter most to me.
Becoming a grower at FarmStart has allowed me to play a very hands-on role in these things and it's an amazing thing to be a part of. This is my second year, and it's been at least as wonderful and trying as the first! Right now we're harvesting huge quantities of strawberries and while the crop hasn't been problem-free – bad weather and the ubiquitous slugs causing the most problems – I definitely count this as one of our successes.
I've learned that counting successes is an important thing to do as a fledgling organic grower, since they help keep you going through the difficult times. Of which there can be many. Back in April this year we spent hours and hours digging up couch grass and crawling along on our hands and knees planting out 700 or so carefully raised purple sprouting broccoli seedlings. We returned after a week of heavy rain to find a depleted and battered looking crop. Slugs and couch grass had combined to wipe out around a third of our plants. It was heart-breaking and at the time it felt hopeless, but we continued to weed and weed and weed the remaining plants. After a period of painfully gradual improvement and following that, a couple of weeks of warm weather, we started to feel more positive about our moribund broccoli. Amazingly, we now have a very respectable looking – if reduced – broccoli crop.
FarmStart is hard work; let's make no bones about that. But for me that's part of the attraction. My route into organic growing was through volunteering. Back in 2012 I quit my job and spent six months Woofing in the Netherlands and Wales. It was an incredible experience and one that made me certain I wanted to become a grower. But in the back of my mind was an uncertainty about whether I could 'hack it' in the real world of long hours and hard, sometimes heavy, work. FarmStart is providing me with a low-risk way of finding out (so far there has only been one moment of wanting to walk away – see aforementioned broccoli drama).
It's hard for me to put a value on FarmStart, both personally and in the context of the important job of changing our food system. Kindling have provided my fellow growers and I with an opportunity to access land that wouldn't have otherwise existed. I can say with certainty that I wouldn't be growing veg if FarmStart hadn't been set up, that's an important point because we desperately need more farmers! And it's an important point for me, because it's means I'm able to spend my time doing something that I totally love.
As any organic grower will tell you, it's hard to make growing veg stack up financially, especially on a small scale. And while we are still a way off achieving this, things are already looking a bit better than last year, and hopefully next year will be better still. My ultimate goal is to be able to pay myself a wage as a grower (at the moment I work full-time and go to FarmStart at the weekends), but it’s not all about the money. I’ve spoken to lots of growers over the last few years about the difficulty of low pay and long hours and one particular comment has stuck in my mind. Jan, one of my WWOOF hosts at ‘n Groene Kans in Utrecht, once told me that though he worked two jobs and his family had not much money, he felt like a rich man when every year in mid-June, his two children would complain about being sick of eating the delicious organic strawberries he grew on the land.
I hope to continue being a grower at FarmStart for the next few years and eventually get to a point where I can do it on a full-time basis, hopefully at the Kindling farm – an exciting prospect!
Read more about FarmStart here.