Reassessing our relationship with food

Image of 2020 FarmStarters

Catching up with Georgina, Michelle, Nicola and Helen who have been on the FarmStart grower training programme since the beginning of the year.

"If there’s any upside to the current world situation it’s how many people have reassessed their relationship with food- whether they can rely on a steady local supply, understanding how it’s grown, and having the reassurance it’ll nourish the body because it’s grown organically."

Being a Farmstarter has given me an insight into this increase in demand I never would have gotten otherwise. I think that beyond Covid- 19 with the worrying potential lowering of import food standards and even GM crops being grown in the UK more people will be drawn to organic and ethically produced food.

The last couple of months have had a variety of tasks across the whole spectrum of growing- we’re still sowing heaps of seeds, we’ve transplanted into almost all the beds and we’re harvesting something almost every day, it’s fab. I’m starting to get a more holistic picture of how much we’ll be able to produce now that the crops are in place and I can see the amounts we’re able to harvest from them each week. It’s been incredibly satisfying finally getting the produce on the shelves, to hear the feedback about the quality and how quickly it’s been selling, not to mention being able to cook with it and taste it for myself!

My job can be quite demanding and any other spare minute is spent trying to grow our new business, so it can be a bit hard staying present sometimes. I'm really enjoying challenging myself to improve my dexterity and speed during tasks like transplanting and whatnot so focusing solely on what my hands are doing and trying to be more efficient keeps me on track. I can be quite hard on myself though if I don’t get a fast enough time or something isn’t done to the standard I was hoping for - I just have to remember to chill out, I’m still learning and it’s more important not to damage the plant through rushing etc. I’m hoping that by the end of the season though all the tasks I feel so clumsy at now will have become second nature." Georgina

"These past couple of months at FarmStart have been a mixture of emotions. It’s been both challenging and thoroughly enjoyable. All the hard work we did at the beginning of the year is finally coming to fruition and we are seeing lots of lush and healthy growth, plus these past few weeks has seen us doing our first bit of harvesting. All the beds have been prepared and almost all are filled; those which aren’t soon will be. It’s been amazing to see damp wet beds now filled with healthy plants which are thriving and beginning to produce lots of lovely vegetables. 

The most challenging part for me has been struggling with my energy levels. With the recent coronavirus pandemic and all the juggling that this has entailed in my personal life, I have felt both emotional and physically drained. The hot weather didn’t help as working outside all day in such high temperatures was brutal, although the occasional ice lolly did help. 

The most satisfying part of these past couple of months is working with such a great and hard-working team. We have really pulled together to get everything done and it’s great to see the progress that has been made at the Woodbank site. As everything becomes more organised it certainly makes the work easier and more enjoyable. Also, seeing the quality of the vegetables we are producing has been incredible. Growing Organically and with no animal inputs has produced such healthy and vibrant crops that anyone would be proud to put their name to. 

As I reflect on the whole covid19 situation and the current food system we have in place I feel both hope and despair. I am hopeful that people are now showing an interest in locally grown, good quality fruit and vegetables. I have certainly been asked a lot more about the programme by passers by as I leave the site. We have also been told that the demand for the Organic veg box scheme is growing fast and is now at its highest ever. This makes the work we have been doing all the more satisfying. On the downside, the government voted against amending the UK's Agriculture Bill which means post Brexit  food imported into the country will no longer have to meet the previous high standards we had in place, which is completely unacceptable and very worrying in my opinion. I can only hope that as people become more informed about these reduced standards and how this affects the quality of produce which will become available in the UK food market, the drive for Organic and local food will be fuelled.

My hopes for the rest of the season are to continue learning and honing my skills. Every week I feel like I am learning something new, even if it’s something small. It all adds up over time and one day you realise just how far you have come. I am also looking forward to learning more about how the site works and how to keep it functioning to its highest potential." Michelle

"Due to the mostly warm and sunny weather, it's been good to be outside to enjoy it. I actually love being in the polytunnel when it is hot as I can imagine I'm overseas somewhere, like Barcelona  or if it's humid, New Orleans, or if there's a heavy downpour, the Guatemala highlands during the rainy season! As anyone who grows food will know, May seems like one of the busiest times of the year. So we have transplanted to the fields lots of pumpkins, courgettes, bulb fennel, kohl rabi and kale.

It's been challenging to see firsthand how underpaid market garden farmers are. I mention this as financially from what we have harvested so far, we have generated less than the minimum wage each. No doubt an experienced farmer will be much more quick in their role than I am, so it is difficult to compare them to myself now. However, I cannot help but think there's something seriously wrong with economics and our global food system when the hours of labour to produce food from seed to harvest pays so little.
Despite my previous point, it's been satisfying to harvest kilos of veg from seeds that we sowed such as mangetout, beetroot and kohl rabi. Personally, cycling 38miles to get to Farmstart and back twice a week is paying dividends as when I played my first game of tennis of the year, I had much more energy than before, so much so I played ping pong and visited my plot straight afterwards! 
It's been frustrating to see our government usher in the Agricultural Bill through Parliament as it seems if passed, the legislation will lower food safety standards to open up our economy to cheap US imports.Is this what economic recovery from Covid and Brexit looks like? I hope not. 
The resurgence of Black Lives Matter after the horrific murder of George Floyd in the US has laid bare inequalities within the UK based on a person's skin colour. Throughout my years of being involved with or inspired by environmental justice movements in the UK, I have often looked around and have rarely met anyone like me, a woman of colour originally from a working class background. Inequalities in accessing a good, free education play a role in that, so does the image that working to create a progessive, fair and ecologically sound future is the preserve of white middle class people. For organic farming to be a realistic option for disadvantaged people to pursue, I truly believe there needs to be government funded training programmes to enable a diversity of people to explore if farming is for them." Nicola
"It's been a very busy couple of months on the farm. The first plants we sowed in pots and modules were ready to be transplanted into the field beds which were now prepped and ready. With our new transplanting tools we got to it, planting hundreds of squash, courgette, kale, fennel and kohl rabi by hand into carefully measured rows. We had a lesson in weather related disasters, when we got caught out mid-May after a spell of hot weather, when a hard frost killed off two rows of courgette plants we put in just days before.
A somewhat challenging time ensued when our course coordinator Helen was out of action due to an injury and was not able to be with us. We were left to fend for ourselves on site, albeit with some detailed instructions to follow and Kindling's Chris keeping an eye on us. Still, there was plenty of work to do and lots of small problems to solve. Although it was occasionally a bit stressful (we were working with soil which had baked as hard as rock), I think this time was really beneficial. It gave us the opportunity to organise ourselves, manage our time effectively and take responsibility for making sure that our crops were thriving. Now we're in June, it's lovely to see everything growing and we have started harvesting, which has to be one of the most satisfying parts of the job. We started with mangetout (a very time consuming pick!) and also some bunched beetroot. It was such a good feeling seeing the amazing produce we had nurtured from seed out on the veg display in Unicorn the day after we harvested it.
We Farmstarters can't take all the credit though - we've had loads of help from Land Army volunteers, who have kept on top of the weeds, tidied and organised the site and done loads of other jobs which we would not have been able to keep on top of during our two days on site. It's highlighted how vital volunteers are to many small farms, who rely on people giving their time to help. Luckily there is plenty of space to comply with social distancing so we have been able to have volunteers on site most days.
Going forward I really hope that the slugs don't munch on our newly planted squash and courgettes, and we see some sunshine again soon! We need the rain but too much all at once causes some problems with drainage on site, and makes working conditions rather muddy. Fingers crossed the storms are over for a little while." Helen
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