AMAZING ORGANIC HARVEST !!!

“Harvesting has been done by hand for most of human history”.

On small organic farms like Sutton Community Farm with minimal mechanisation, harvesting is the most labor intense activity of the growing season. Most organic farms prefer to use volunteers workers to hand-pick the crops. The main advantage of using human labor to harvest the fields is the care people give by only picking ripe, healthy, right size vegetables using their knowledge, discernment and experience.

Many organic vegetables crops are highly perishable, and if not marketed when mature will quickly go to waste. Most small-scale sustainable organic producers, market their crops directly to the public at their farm gate, website, farmers markets, local restaurants, organic local grocery shops or through box schemes deliveries. Direct sales to the public also achieve higher prices that sales made through intermediaries.

Vegetable crops are demanding of both manual and managerial labor. To achieve acceptable quality many vegetables have to be harvested within a time window of only one or two days. Sufficient labor, equipment, transport and a market outlet must be available when needed in the right quantities.

Many factors contribute to vegetable quality, and visual appearance is generally the first factor. The shape, its colour, the way it looks, must be free of obvious defects, including cuts, bruises, decay or shrivelling.  Firm texture like crispness is important in many crops like carrots and lettuce, while aroma plays a key role in attracting buyers  of tomato and basil. Thankfully organic produce tends to store better and has longer shelf life than non organic produce, probably because organic vegetables have lower level of nitrates and higher level of antioxidants.

Post-harvest  activities include harvesting, handling, storage, processing, packaging, transportation and marketing. Excellent management is needed in the post- harvest chain to avoid the problems in this area, to prevent the losses of horticultural produce.

Cob oven building workshop

“Cob”  is a traditional building material dating back thousands of years. Cob is made by mixing clay, sand, straw and water. It is a wonderful thermal mass, so it is a perfect material for all kinds of projects.
In order to make our pizza oven at Sutton Community Farm, first we needed a sturdy base that could hold heat; thankfully, we had Kevin’s building skills to help us with the building of a fantastic level fire-proof platform, with a top layer of reclaim fire bricks that formed the floor of the oven.
Simon Blackwell, our cob oven “guru”, made us split into two teams, my team was in charge of building a “sandcastle ” !?………

DECENTRALISED NATURAL WATER MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS

With water retention landscapes, it is possible to provide enough freshwater for animals, plants and humans beings in every region of the world. Water is the key to a stable climate. A natural built reservoir that allows water to seep into the ground has a balancing effect on the climate. There is no life without water. We need to create natural, decentralised water landscapes, using retention methods to collect rain water and store it on the land to promote the growth of vegetation.

All around the planet the soil is drying out and water is being lost due to bad management of resources, centuries of intense and incorrect cultivation methods have resulted in the drying out of the land.

Contour lines and natural watercourses are a very valuable aid when designing a retention space. The first step is to look, to read the landscape, to recognise the contour lines, and how the water will run and collect. The lakes and ponds need to be placed in the low and deep zones, where water from a large catchment area can be collected. Most valleys have a narrow point and the dam needs to go there. The core of the dam consists of loam and a aquifer ( barrier) that is watertight.

Continue reading

Soil Management

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

TOP SOIL

Top soil is the upper layer of soil, this soil has the highest concentration of organic matter and microorganisms and it is where plants concentrate their roots in and obtain most of their nutrients. The top soil is very important so we need to minimise plowing, tilling and digging. Every time the soil is tilled, surface – layer organisms are buried, threads of beneficial fungi are broken and earthworm tunnels are destroyed, plowing can bury plant debris and top soil up to 14 inches deep, where oxygen levels are too low for decomposition.

The soil microorganisms do much more than nourish plants, soil microorganisms digest nutrients and protect plants against pathogens and other threats. The living soil is the Earth’s most valuable ecosystem, providing ecological services such as climate regulation, mitigation of drought and floods, soil erosion prevention and water filtration.

Continue reading

Organic farm management

Organic agriculture is based on:

  • The principle of health : organic  agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of the soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible. The health of individuals can not be separated from the health of ecosystems. Organic agriculture should avoid the use of fertilisers, pesticides, animal drugs and food additives that may cause adverse health effects.
  • The principle of ecology : organic agriculture is based on living ecological systems and cycles, it works with them and help sustain them. Organic management must be adapted to local conditions, ecology, culture and scale. Inputs should be reduced by reuse, recycling and efficient management of materials and energy in order to maintain environmental quality and conserve resources.
  • The principle of fairness : fairness is characterised by equity, respect, justice, and stewardship of the shared world. This principle insists that all animals including insects and microorganisms, should be provided with the conditions and opportunities of life that accord with their physiology, natural behaviour and well-being.
  • The principle of care : practical experience, accumulated wisdom, traditional and indigenous knowledge offer valid better solutions, tested by time. Organic agriculture prevents significant risks by adopting appropriate technologies and rejecting unpredictable ones, such as genetic engineering.

The principal methods of organic farming include crop rotation, green manures, compost, biological pets control and mechanical cultivation. These measures use the natural environment to enhance agricultural productivity : legumes are planted to fix nitrogen into the soil, natural insect predators are encouraged, crops are rotated to confuse pets and renew the soil, and natural materials such as potassium bicarbonate are used to control disease and weeds. Building healthy soil is an ongoing project for every farmer, even where topsoil is organically rich we need to revitalise the soil beds regularly. Cover crops are very useful in this regard.

COVER CROPS

Cover crops such us rye, crimson clover, buckwheat and legumes are very easy to grow over winter months, they are planted to help the soil heal and rest, while at the same time,this crops  will add and restore organic matter and nutrients to the soil when they are digested by soil microorganisms. Because they are sown thickly, they also help to outcompete weeds. Cover crops also control the erosion of the soil from heavy winter rains, and help prevent soil from over compacting  in cold weather.Even though some cover crops will die during the coldest weather, the crop residue will still be a valued supplement in the spring.

CROP ROTATION

Crop rotation gives various benefits to the soil, like the replenishment of nitrogen through the use of green manure in sequence with cereals and other crops; improves soil structure and fertility by alternating deep – rooted and  shallow rooted plants. The right combination of vegetables planted together (companion planting) improves growth, reduces disease, encourages beneficial insects to thrive in the farm, discourage pests and increases crop yield. For example : plant tomatoes near onions, asparagus, carrots, parsley or cucumber, but keep them well away from potatoes or members of the cabbage family.

Continue reading

Gallery

Composting

Compost is a fantastic source of rich organic matter which provides nutrients to the soil for growing plants…….

We have a great compost system on Sutton Community  farm, with many compost bins and a very efficient compost toilet;

Our system of Recycling everything and using all kitchen waste like fruit and vegetables scraps , tea , coffee,etc for our composts green matter is very efficient , we also add all the farm green waste too like weeds, plants, clippings, leaves, wood chips, etc together with the brown waste of organic soil, paper, cardboard,etc. We add straw or twigs first as this aids drainage and helps aerate the compost, by adding organic soil to the compost we can mask the strong odours, plus the microorganism that live in the soil help in the acceleration process of decomposition.

It is nice to see so many worms living on our compost, this is an excellent sign as the worms aerate the soil and work and thrive in that moist warm environment.

Our compost bins are made of wood and covered with wood or a plastic sheet , to help retain moisture levels and heat, also to prevent from being over-watered by rain.

Gallery

Potting up

Potting on from seed trays

We select a tray of “Sorrel Volare” plants that are overgrowing the tray and need transplanting into individual pots, first we mix the compost until we achieve a fluffy consistency, filling each individual pot with soil, we then separate each sorrel plant without affecting their roots and place them on their pots, we cover slightly with more soil and press down a little with our fingers, after transplanting  all the sorrel of the tray, the pots are ready for labelling and we water them well.

With the “celeriac” tray we follow the same system as above, only this time we place two plants on each individual pot, one on each opposite corner, so later it will be easier to separate them without affecting their roots, when it is time to transplant them into our beds outside. The celeriac plants are so tiny at this stage that we place three of them together on each corner.

Potting on from Modules,  Transplanting / planting out

Once the salad seedlings that are growing on the cell modules are 5 – 8 cm high, is time to transplant them on the beds of the poly-tunnel if the weather is still too cold outside, or on the fields is the temperature is warm enough and there is not risk of frost ……

We usually work in pairs on a bed preparing the soil and mixing the compost with the shovel turning the soil, making the soil lighter and aerating it until it has the right consistency for our plants, we remove any large stones or roots from weeds placing them in buckets for recycling, we  then make straight rows of five small dig wholes were we will plant out the  “salads”  leaving enough space for them to grown on, around 30 cm  depending of the salad variety, we drop the salad   into each whole and cover with soil pressing down slightly making sure the plant is secure in place. We place a label next to the plants and  water them at the end of the day.

Continue reading

Gallery

Proficient Weeding

Why digging out weeds can be a mixed blessing ?…….

On the positive side,  we finished the day with a clean and tidy surface  on our beds salads, which is great !!! and we have removed lots of weeds and roots from the soil , that we don’t need, also great ! , plus the action of digging will also aerate the soil and allow us to introduce organic matter if needed on the soil. And later the unwanted weeds will  be taken on the wheelbarrow to our compost area to be recycled…..so far so good !……

But on the other hand, the soil movement can bring new weed seeds to the surface of the soil where there will soon germinate, starting the weeding circle again, which is hard work ! and the digging action can also chop the roots of perennial weeds such us couch grass and spread their coverage, so not so beneficial either …….

Still, Weeding management  is both beneficial and necessary in a vegetable plot.

To make life easier we could  use mulching on top the soil to reduce the need for so much weeding, and  cover the paths too, mainly because the majority of weeds grow in the path and then spread to the beds, most of the time we pull weeds out of the beds and they end up in the path, making weeding a demanding never ending task. There are many eco-friendly materials we could use for our pathways than can serve as a weed barrier like cardboard and hay, wood chip, pavers, old carpets, etc

To avoid the hard labour of weeding outside on the fields, we are using “mypex” to cover the soil.

Mypex is a woven plastic fabric that cuts out most of the light but through which you can grow plants, it also warms the soil and it is reusable for several seasons. In my opinion it didn’t look very eco-friendly the first time I saw it , as it is expensive and hard to manage, at the same time, the long time labour of making holes or openings for planting out different vegetables, setting it up on the fields, and holding it in place with heavy sacks full of soil, seem like a nightmare. But it is probably an easy option, and much better than using a weed poison killer like some non organic farmers do. Another good point to save labour later on is that  we can put an irrigation system underneath to water more efficiently , and we won’t have to do any weeding on those crops, the only problem we can encounter maybe later on are pests control, or damage to the plants due to water-logging, if it rains a lot like last summer.

Sowing seeds

Preparing the soil 

At the large wooden  table we mix two types of organic multipurpose compost bags, making sure we mix them correctly , smoothly and without any big lumps, we do this manually breaking up any lumps of compost so it has a fine, fluffy consistency or until the mixture is ready to put inside  the trays.

Sowing seeds into cell trays

Sowing seeds into cell trays is ideal because each small cell can house one seed and when we come to  transplant them into the ground there will be less root disturbance. It also means that the tiny seedlings can be protected from poor weather and slug attacks.

We use clean plastic  cell trays for small seeds or individual pots for large seeds, making sure we always label them when we finish sowing the seeds.

Filling the cell trays lightly with the special prepared compost, we then make a small hole in each cell with one finger, were we drop a small organic seed into each individual cell, sometimes if the seeds are very small two seeds may end up  in  some cells, which is not a problem as sometimes it gives them more chance to germinate, and at a later stage of growing when we are transplanting them into bigger pots we may have two plants instead of one; then we cover the seeds thinly with more compost.

They are ready to be water gently now……  later  the cell trays will be taken to our heated propagator shed, were they have a greater chance of popping through the compost. 

Sowing seeds into trays 

We fill the seed tray until it is overflowing with compost, then we smooth it down with our hand so it is relatively uniform in surface, sometimes we sprinkle the seeds specially if they are very small, at other times with bigger seeds we place them on the tray trying to achieve a uniform spread placing around 30 seeds in a tray. We press down the soil and the seeds together then cover with a light sprinkling of soil. We make sure the label the tray with plant variety and the date it was sown, then when we finish all the sowing we water the trays and place them in a warm place.

Sowing seeds into pots

Filling the small pots  lightly with the special prepared compost, we then put around 20 small leek organic seeds on the soil, spreading then around the pot evenly, then we cover them thinly with more compost , we patten down with another pot and is ready to be labelled and placed in plastic trays  for easy transportation.

They are ready to be water gently now……  later  the small potted seeds  will be taken to our heated propagator shed, were the seeds have a greater chance of popping through the compost.

Record Keeping

We start each day with a walk around the farm, first we check the small heated germination shed, were we are propagating the seedlings trays, it is warm inside and dark, perfect for the seeds to grow.

We  look for signs of life in the trays and we found two trays ready to be taken out into the  light heated poly-tunnel. On our diary we record the temperature inside the shed, writing the current, the maximum and the minimum temperature, we also record the temperature outside, which is like freezing today !!!

Taking the trays with us we walk to the heated poly-tunnel, were we also record the temperatures inside and outside the heated mat, we have a thermostat there normally set at 20°C. It is important to observe if  the seed trays are doing well, if there is signs of dryness, humidity, dump,etc. We always open the plastic sheets to let air circulate during the day time and later water the trays that need more moisture.

After checking all the seed trays and notting what need to be done that day we walked to the other poly-tunnels to check how the brassicas, salads and herbs are doing, we are happy with the progress and how the plants are growing even in really cold weather with no much sun light at all……

We grow around 150 different types of vegetables at “Sutton Community farm”  most of them I have never seen before in my life, and that is the beauty about  growing organic plants, the diversity, the quality, the goodness you can see and taste makes me so happy !!!.