By Autumn 2014 course participant Jennie Savage
"Informative and inspirational, we'd highly recommend it to others looking to develop their understanding of commercial growing”.
Late in October, in a draughty barn 12 miles from Manchester six students huddle round their tutor, warming hands on mugs of tea and making notes on the benefits of mechanised versus manual weed control. To the outsider it might not appear the most inspirational of settings, but for me it was hugely inspiring as a wanabee organic farmer. Our day at Moss Brook Growers allowed us to see the realities of organic farming, discuss the methods of setting the seeds, tending the crops and harvesting the resulting produce and gave a glimpse of the challenges and joys that come with the type of life I’m aiming at achieving.The purpose of the Commercial Organic Horticulture Course is, as I see it, to inspire and instruct those who are passionate about local, sustainable food production and have progressed to the stage where they desire to understand more of both the business and horticultural aspects of running an organic growing business. The course touches on many elements, including soil health, crop production on different scales, the day to day life of an organic grower and business elements including financial and legal requirements.
My passion for organic food production has developed over many years. My interests in Transition Towns, Peak Oil and the relationship between soil health and human health have led me to question modern agricultural practices. I strongly believe that we are heading into trouble with our addiction to oil based fertilisers and production methods, costly and harmful pesticides which denude our countryside of beneficial and essential flora and fauna. I believe in a more natural and less intensive food production system, involving lots of people and rewarding those people justly in a way that recognises the true value of nutritious, organically produced food.
My sister Kathryn and I are working towards setting up a market garden in Cheshire, our aims are to make a decent living in a manner that promotes mental, physical and spiritual health. We aspire to be a role model for other small growing businesses and to be a part of the local community as well as part of the wider local, sustainable food movement. It’s an exciting time to be setting off on this adventure, and the challenges are already proving to be many and varied, however our determination to succeed has received a huge boost from attending the Commercial Organic Horticulture Course.
A big benefit to us has been spending time both with those who are already part of an organic food growing business, as well as others like us who aspire to develop one. To hear about the experiences in the early days, the ongoing challenges as well as the benefits and rewards has been invaluable. Our hosts have been warm and welcoming, and very generous in sharing their experiences as well as encouraging us in our future endeavours.
For me and my sister the visit to Glebelands provided an excellent opportunity to grill Alan and his colleagues, as it’s the closest model to our desired business. A lot of detail was covered about how the business runs, from crop planning towards the end of the year, raising seedlings in early spring, the battle against weeds as the crops grow and then the intense months harvesting and succession cropping. This time a lovely warm yurt was our classroom, and the theory was interspersed with a farm walk and a very detailed introduction to raising plants from seed.
Often attendees of the Kindling courses go on to consider the excellent FarmStart initiative as a potential route to a growing business. My sister and I are fortunate to have some land on which we plan to grow, however the advice and the inspiration we’ve received throughout the course has certainly served to refine our ideas and re-inforced our determination to succeed. We will be re-visiting the sites from the course in the future, this time as volunteers, to gain further practical experience as well providing as a helping hand by way of thanks to our tutors. We also sincerely hope that this is the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship with Kindling and the various partner organisations and look forwards to reporting back our experiences next year as well as staying in touch with our fellow students.
And the broad bean seed? Well, my sister and I debated this long and hard in our polytunnel one day, and I have to say, the virtues of different orientations when planting have sadly yet to be discussed on the course, maybe because it has been packed with other fascinating, surprising and relevant information. But we’ve not finished yet, our final day on the course may be my chance to ask Jenny, which way up do you plant a broad bean seed??
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As of Spring 2015, Jennie and her sister are well on the way to setting up their own growing enterprise.
“Kathryn and I completed the Organic Horticulture course last autumn and we really appreciated the positive attitude of those tutoring the course and felt energised and focused as a result. We are currently setting up a half acre growing area and small polytunnel for the coming growing season. We have had our first go at crop planning, it certainly hasn’t been easy but it is an enjoyable process, it’s very exciting to be selecting the crops we will be growing this year. Information we received from Glebelands, which we visited on the course, has been very useful for this process.
We have decided to do a mixture of growing from seed but also buying in some baby plants which will be ready to go into the beds, we hope this will reduce the risk of significant crop failures due to our inexperience! We have also decided on our bed prep methods and hope to largely employ a ‘no-till’ method, which should promote soil health and fertility. We are anticipating some challenges with weeds, in particular couch grass, but we have our hoes at the ready and have read lots about organic methods of weed control.
An additional challenge for us is to secure a market for our produce. Whilst we are using organic methods we have not yet completed the conversion process so we won’t be able to sell the produce under the Organic label. Fortunately friends and family have been understanding and we hope to sell largely to them and also do some passing trade from the site. We are looking forwards to the coming months with optimism, it’s sure to be very challenging, and who knows what the weather has in store for us… we’ll let you know later this year how we’re getting on!”