What is it like being a food grower in a pandemic?

Nicola with a wheelbarrow

It's April 2020 and our four farmstarter's aren't half getting thrown in to their work at Woodbank Community Food Hub, where they will spend the year on a growing training programme, growing organic produce commercially. The pandemic has made us all realise the importance of local food, here's how your local growers are feeling right now in this uncertain world...

"We've been learning so much about small scale market gardening, I wonder how all of the new information will stay in my head! As someone who finds it useful to learn by doing, getting stuck straight away into core jobs for the season has helped greatly with the learning process and understanding the realities of what this type of farming entails Helen, our trainer, is very knowledgeable about all aspects of the farm. There's also a really good atmosphere on site as fellow trainees and Helen are lovely people to work with especially during these socially-distanced and surreal times.

It's been a challenge to return to mostly all day physically-demanding activities when one of my previous roles was as a social and therapeutic horticulturalist in which we focused on how the process of growing helped people's wellbeing, rather than how to cultivate land most efficiently. Due to the outbreak of Covid-19, in March I decided to cycle the 9 mile journey to Woodbank from where I live in Old Trafford. Before I would get a train from Manchester Piccadilly to Stockport, then cycle the short journey to Woodbank to conserve much needed energy for the day. Consequently, while I've noticed I become tired sooner during the day on the farm, I have felt so much healthier for the 18 mile round trip, plus the route along the River Mersey at 8am is lovely!
I always get a buzz from seeing germinated seeds sown poke their tips through the compost - which grower doesn't? It's also been satisfying (and a physically hard job) to complete bed prep in its entirety as it takes much longer than I thought it would. Farmstart bed sizes are a big step up from those on my allotment plot which now seems tiny! Preparing beds involves destoning/weeding the ground by hand which has sometimes been quite wet or dry to work with, broadforking the length of the bed to aerate it, adding 8 wheel barrows of compost, then raking. 
I feel very fortunate to be outside all day 2 days a week at Farmstart, plus have a nearby allotment plot to escape to to surround myself with nature. Natural cycles continue and this brings me much needed normality. As local demand for fresh produce has soared in recent weeks this adds a heightened sense of pressure to cultivate the land, but it also emphasises how vital local and sustainable urban food growers are to nearby populous areas. The effects of the pandemic have also shown a rethinking of what or whom we view as being valuable within society - primarily health workers, public service providers and those working within food supply chains, including growers. This is quite apt in relation to my other role of producing a book for a charity called Rethinking Economics!
In relation to Farmstart, I hope the sunny warm weather continues! I also hope I reduce the time it takes for me to complete the more physically-demanding aspects of cultivation. In relation to Covid-19, as well as hope we all feel safe again soon, I hope I can cope with meeting the higher demand for fresh, local organic produce"  Nicola
"It's been a roller coaster couple of months since the pandemic hit; being able to continue at Farmstart has been tremendous for my mental health during such an uncertain time. I felt proud to be involved in such an essential activity as growing food for the city. We had to adapt to new ways of working with each other to keep to social distancing measures but it's easy when you have a large site to work on and plenty of jobs to keep busy. Kindling were very good at making sure we had everything in place to work safely. 
On the site we went from plodding around in thick mud to working with rock-hard, baked soil following a long spell of dry weather, which was a bit of a challenge! Although nice weather to work outside in, the lack of rain meant that the ground was super hard and difficult to cultivate, making bed prep an arduous task at times. More satisfaction was to be had in the polytunnels, where we sowed mangetout and beetroot direct, and also lots of crops in pots for transplanting outside later. We timed ourselves on each task, to record our speed and progress. I also had my first encounter with setting up irrigation, which I was always a little daunted by as it seemed so complex and fiddly. Once I had connected my first one up on a broad bean bed it all seemed to fall into place in my mind which was very satisfying!
The past few weeks have certainly emphasized the need for secure and sustainable local food production. With many people turning to local veg box schemes and growing their own veg, there will be renewed interest and support for local, small scale farming, and more people wanting to get back onto the land to earn their living. As a Farmstarter this gives me lots of hope and I'm glad I made the decision to start this journey. Over the coming weeks I am hoping to improve on my timings, and skill with using different tools." Helen P

"So far, I’ve really enjoyed the FarmStart programme (especially since the weather’s warmed up). It’s great learning about the technical detail required to accurately predict your yield, and little things like spending the time to record how much of each seed you’ll need to plant a bed to reduce the amount of pfaff and over ordering of seed etc. The amount of broad beans weighed out did the bed to the bean- magic! Although quite mundane, the biggest challenge for me is making sure I’m working with the correct posture- all the crouching, bending and lifting can be really hard on the body. Saying that though it’s really satisfying having done a day of hard graft- I’ve been surprised how many mornings I thought I’d wake up in a world of pain but have actually been fine.

It’s also really satisfying to start seeing hundreds of little shoots popping up in the propagation tunnel and the other crops zooming along in the fields and tunnels. More than that though, it feels great to be part of such an awesome team. To be surrounded with likeminded people all wanting to rise to the challenge of producing more during this strange time makes me feel like I’m in the right place. The way FarmStart has been able to adapt to the current situation in respect to the way the farm is run, and it’s changing demand in sales has shown the resilience of this type of system. I’m hoping that come the end of the season we would have surpassed expectation, both in the amount of produce we’ve been able to supply, and also in the way we’ve weathered the hardship of the time. " Georgina

"My FarmStart journey so far has been an interesting one full of ups and downs, but it is one that I am thoroughly enjoying. The beginning of the programme I found that the main challenge was the weather. Harvesting kale in the sleet with numb hands was no fun at all! Plus, the persistent wet weather meant beds and polytunnels were wet and flooded and quite a depressing sight.
However, the biggest challenge so far - as for everyone, I imagine -has been dealing with the pandemic of coronavirus and the impact this has had on society as we know it. It felt like the rug had been pulled for under my feet in one fail swoop and life changed pretty much overnight. We saw the closure of many businesses and public spaces, schools included, which I meant I had no childcare and was left trying to juggle everything as a single parent. New social distancing rules were implemented and keeping everyone safe took priority, which led to major changes in the way in which everything operated. After realising I qualified as a key worker due to working in food production, my children were able to attend school with the other children of key workers and I could get back to working on the land. This has provided me some normality and kept me sane during a very difficult and isolating situation. It also meant I have had to adapt my hours due to dropping off and collecting my children from school. Rather than doing 2 full days I am now doing 3 days, 9.30am – 2.20pm. So far it is working well and it’s something I am happy to continue with. On a whole I feel that Kindling Trust has dealt with the situation incredibly well, we have all adapted to the change in work rules, although it does mean things are now more time consuming due to washing tools, social distancing and dealing with the challenge of increased food production due to the pandemic.

The most satisfying thing so far has been seeing the difference from when we started until now, where the things we sowed in wet soggy beds are now thriving and everything seems to be coming to life. There are even flowers on the mangetout!! It is light relief to see that, despite what is going on in the world, nature continues as normal. It is certainly something positive to focus on.

Doing FarmStart has left me in no doubt that I’m on the right path for where I want to be in the future, now more than ever. During unprecedented times like these, where we are seeing empty supermarket shelves due to panic buying, plus an increase in demand for local produce, I hope that this will continue in the long-term and people will realise the importance of small scale farms providing communities with local produce in order to create a more sustainable food system." Michelle

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