At Bath Farmers Market

One of our Saturday morning treats is to go to the market –  http://www.bathfarmersmarket.co.uk –  and wander about spotting some favourites. Some of the stalls only show up fortnightly and some are occasionals so there’s always something to see. But the regulars are reliable – butchers, bakers, fishmongers and greengrocers plus some of the best cheeses and deli – all locally produced. There’s a really good atmosphere and organic produce is always available.  Just imagine, if every small sized town or large village could organise something like this it would support local small businesses – especially startups – reduce food miles, build new human networks and challenge the hegemony of the supermarkets. If you think that’s a romantic dream, ask yourself why the big supermarkets are chasing to keep up with traceability, little farmer biographies (are they real?) imitation sourdough breads and ‘artisan’ gins.  Why would we be satisfied with the phoney if we could get our hands on the real and actually talk to the producers?

In particular there’s a stall run by a local organic group where anyone can sell their surplus produce and share the proceeds. That could be a boon to allotmenteers like us who often have surpluses of extremely good but perishable crops. The essence of this is not to attract car drivers from 50 miles away but to encourage them to set up their own markets and exchanges. We’ve seen the way that microbreweries are being bought up and sucked into the corporate beast, and that can’t be the way to go.  Upscaling artisan industries merely repeats the mistakes of the past, and equates profit with value. We need a broader set of values and a different mindset for a new kind of entrepreneur to implement them.  Values like slow, local, inclusive and respectful of local community aren’t backwards looking romanticism but revolutionary and challenging. Local businesses that implement these values are often driven out by predatory supermarket practices and the result is unemployment, waste and pollution. I had a long converstaion with a struggling dairy farmer several years ago and he said that in order to enforce price cuts on farmers, one big supermarket was importing cheaper milk from Eastern Europe to drive down the price.  How can that be right?  In a market economy it’s buying decisions that can make the world a better place.

The farmer’s boot is the best fertilizer

Or, if you prefer, all this stuff takes a lot of effort to get from the top to the bottom of the site. We’re incredibly lucky to get almost unlimited free supplies of wood-chip and leaves from the Parks Department, and so a problem for them turns into an opportunity for us – one which is happily taken up by the allotmenteers who get quite competitive about the leaves in particular. We’ve got hold of a couple of 1000Kg builders bags, which are perfect for storing leaves, and as they compact and begin to rot we just top them up as long as there are leaves to be had. Almost all the books tell you that it takes a couple of years to reduce them to compost, but they’ll be pretty good mulch by next summer and we’re planning to accelerate the decomposition by adding what some modest folks call ‘human activator’ or diluted (10:1) urine which works incredibly well for the compost as well.

The wood-chip is equally useful (as I posted a couple of days ago) and so it is was gratifying to see both piles getting bigger and bigger up at the top. Meanwhile the timber arrived today for the next batch of bed building.  I’m full of admiration for Chris the delivery driver who was carrying three 16′ boards at a time down the slope to our plot. I could just manage one at a time, but he’s made of steel!

But the point about the farmer’s boot is that all that fetching and carrying also allows a lot of time for thinking, and time without number the solution to a problem has presented itself unbidden while I’ve been shovelling and carrying back and forth. Today it was the turn of the the new compost bins. I confess to begrudging any growing space to the utilities, but our present composting method using cylinders made from sheep fencing presents real problems when it comes to turning the heap. So today I decided to use one of the 12′ X 4′ beds and use it for three square compost bins side-by-side, so we can turn them easily and frequently.  Then I decided to build a ‘floating’ hot bed container that can be moved from bed to bed each year, working our way around all the beds one at a time.

Finally we’re going to refurbish the ramshackle supports for the grape vines that did us so well this year. I love a good project, and I can’t wait to get going – just give us some dry weather for a couple of weeks and we’ll be fine.  But one of the new beds needs to be built quickly because today I took a peep at the propagators in the greenhouse, and next spring’s broad beans have started to germinate.

I can sense the raised eybrows over the expense and it’s true, some people make lovely and productive allotments using nothing but recycled materials. As always I’d argue that you mustn’t let the perfect drive out the good. It works for us and we’re probably 80% self-sufficient for vegetables. One person’s summer holiday is another person’s allotment …. or perhaps three allotments! All I know is that our two plots give us more pleasure than any of the other things we could spend our money on.

Grandparents hand on more than genes

IMG_4714The little boy on the right is me, and it’s my sister who’s got her hand in the feed bucket. The photo was taken probably 67 years ago on my Grandfather’s smallholding in Stoke Row, Oxfordshire.  In those days there were red squirrels in the woods behind, and now it’s an industrial estate. But this isn’t a lament for lost idylls, I’m making a much bolder claim. TPC was a carpenter from generations of carpenters who had assimilated what’s now called ‘generic’ building into their bones. He retired three times, his last job was as foreman on a restoration project working on medieval buildings in Bristol. He wasn’t an historian, he just knew how timber frames worked in the days when the knowledge was all-but lost, and he was 70 years old, younger than me now, but not that much.

IMG_20181115_130649A few months back I was laying the foundations for the greenhouse on the allotment and as I was trowelling sand between the flags I tapped the edge of the trowel twice on the slab . It was an instinctive gesture that went off like a fuse, deep in my memory, because I knew that I had learned that simple and completely unnecessary gesture from him. And I realized too that I had learned everything I was doing that morning from my grandfather and my father. That memory of helping my grandfather to feed the hens, too, is one of the threads from which the Potwell Inn is constructed.

Then yesterday I was working on the allotment when two of the grandchildren turned up and I knew that there was a duty inscribed in my memory that I needed to carry out. Here it is: the ride in the wheelbarrow – deeply subversive it turns out and rather like laying down wine for the future.

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This year’s awful spring – some stats.

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I compiled these statistics on 3rd April this year because my sceptical mind was making me curious as to whether the spring had been quite as wet as the newspapers were suggesting. Please look away now if you find this stuff boring, I wouldn’t blame you but for me it’s invaluable to look at the data before I start building the ark! There’s loads more on the site for non geeks!

These are the rain totals for Bath during Jan, Feb, March in mm

2007 4, 65, 97, 172.7

2008 183, 55, 119, 358.4

2009 No data

2010 62, 104 , 41, 208.3

2011 58, 58, 13, 129.6

2012 38, 30, 31, 100.4

2013 68, 17, 56, 142.6

2014 97, 77, 44, 219.2

2015 71, 41, 23, 136.6

2016 No data

2017 49, 42, 41, 133,

2018 91, 24, 101, 216.8,

So the median figure is 139.6mm and the average is 181.8.

Allowing for some missing data from 2009 and 2016 I think this shows that the year so far has been the third wettest since 2007; higher than average and much higher than the mean for the first three months. Which all goes to show that it’s wet, but not by any means biblically wet, just part of life’s rich tapestry! The figure for 2008 is interesting because that turned out to be a year of awful summer floods, and you can see that the ground was already saturated only to be drenched by heavy rain in August.

The Met Office data give the monthly averages as 82, 53 and 63mm giving a total of 199.4mm and that covers 1981 – 2010; so by that standard this spring is pretty average.

And so the traditional planting of potatoes on Good Friday begins to look a bit shaky because Easter Day can be any one of 35 possible days between March 22nd and April 25th and Good Friday could be any time from 19th March and 23rd April which covers a multitude of weather possibilities.

Wouldn’t it be sensible to plant potatoes some time around the second week of April which should see us free of frost before the shoots emerge?

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Well that bold statement in April didn’t anticipate the “Beast from the East” a month later, and which felled our first planting of runner beans on May 1st. However the spuds we sufficiently underground to survive the onslaught. Here’s my diary entry for 16th April:

“Finally, after lunch I set out the rows for the potatoes (“measure twice, cut once”) and set about planting. I got the Sarpo Mira, the Desiree and the Pink Fir Apple in but then I ran out of space. In the plan I’d allocated twice as much space, but the purple sprouting and the other brassicas are still occupying the adjoining patch so the Jazzy and the remains of the Red Duke of York are going to have to go in one of the new beds on 168B. Still, it was a brilliant day and we achieved a lot. Now I ache in every bone and sinew and tomorrow I have to start all over building a new bed and path, digging the whole piece and fertilising it and then planting the remaining potatoes. But at least they’ll all be in.

The water level in the the trial hole next to the Lord Lambourne apple has dropped by two inches and the bottom is almost dry, so that’s great news and takes some of the pressure off. [Madame} has also been busy weeding so the plots are looking very good.”

While I’m on the subject of spring, it’s worth talking also about springs.  The allotment stands at the bottom of the Avon Valley, overlooked by the southern end of the Cotswolds. So in wet weather there’s a great deal of water heading in the direction of the river.  The old timers on the site tell me that there are three underground streams crossing it and there’s certainly evidence of one of them which flows across the pavement and on to the main road.  I’m wondering whether our plots are near the course of one of them, which is good news and bad news depending on the season. As the photo of the trial hole shows, waterlogging is a real problem and so I hope all the remedial measures will help a bit otherwise we’ll be looking at more expensive options like land drains.

Does “Forest Path” describe them?

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Great excitement at the Potwell Inn last night as I got the plot drawings out and prepared an order for the next batch of edging boards.  The timber is quite expensive and so we can only buy it in batches as funds permit.  I can get ten 6′ boards into the car, but it can be extremely hazardous driving down the steep hill into Bath, with a hundredweight of timber seesawing next to my left ear. The sawmill sales staff occasionally cheer me up with tales of poked out windscreens and totally destroyed dashboards.

So then I was wide awake at 2.00am pondering whether I’d got the measurements right, and whether the plots should be orientated North/South or East/West.  I’m sure I went through this when I drew the plans but you know how it is in the middle of the night., insomnia gardening is the pits! Then I started worrying about the expense, do we really need all that new timber? Well there are two or three good reasons for moving to beds.

IMG_3747We have a real drainage problem on our plots, and last winter we couldn’t get on it for months for fear of compacting the soil and making it worse.  That was the major reason for dividing the wettest of the plots into beds as soon as possible in the spring. I hesitate to call them “raised” beds because as we were digging them we were also levelling the soil which slopes downhill, and we wanted to introduce a degree of terracing. So what with about a ton of topsoil bought in, and more bags of composted manure than I dare put a price to, we’ve landed up with level terraced beds bordered with 22mm X 200mm gravel boards secured with long wooden pegs.

 

In order to assist drainage, the paths were dug out to about 18″ deep and a layer of gravel was poured in and covered with wood-chip, barrow loads of it, which is free on our site. The soil from the paths was used to raise the beds. I don’t much like plastic sheets or weed control mat because in my experience weeds very quickly overcome them and I wanted the maximum possible speed of drainage from the beds, besides which they never decompose and present a problem for the future.  It’s worked very well so far, and apart from regularly hand weeding out the occasional Olympic athletes of the weed world like couch grass and bindweed, the paths have been maintenance free – except for the fact that bacteria, fungi and worms just love the material and it quickly decomposes into friable compost causing them to shrink.  I love the thought that even the paths are adding to the organic material on the plots.  That’s why I think they should be described as ‘forest paths’.

So to defend the expense – reason one is drainage.  Reason two is to move towards ‘no-dig’ gardening and let the worms do the work.  I’ve yet to be persuaded that it’s wormageddon if you lift spuds with a fork, but there’s a vast difference between gently lifting a potato haulm or a parsnip with a fork, and double digging the plot from end to end. Reason three is ease of maintenance of the beds.  With a 4′ bed you can do everything you need from the path and never compact the soil. Of course you can leave gaps between rows on bare soil, but come February and they’ll be poached and compacted.

IMG_4505Anyway, the order went in this morning and it will be delivered on Friday.  I love a bit of civil engineering, and if you look under the net to the right of the path in the photo above, you’ll see that next season’s garlic is already enjoying being tucked up in bed for the winter. My job today was to top up the paths and level them again. It’ll probably amount to fifty barrow loads before we’re completely finished, but the beds look lovely and they’re dead easy to manage.

The other job was to start filling our collection of builders’ delivery bags with leaves to make leaf mould.  It’s amazing how quickly it breaks down.  Last autumn we spread 4-6″ of leaves on to two beds and there was virtually nothing left by this spring – the worms had done all the work for us and we grew some lovely spuds on one of the beds.

Pickled eggs and crisps

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“Provinder,” he whispered, drawing near to the Inn. “Cold sirlion for choice. And nut-brown brew and wheaten bread.”

Madame has pointed out that there is a major historical error at the Potwell Inn,  inasmuch as there are no pickled eggs lurking darkly at the back of the bar –  and therefore she is not able to indulge her favourite passion for consuming them, lurking like  reproachful sheep’s eyes, at the bottom of a packet of crisps.  I pointed out that the Inn is trying to move with the 20th century and may well introduce “Chicken in a Basket” at some point, and in any case Alfred Polly suffered terribly with indigestion and so pickled eggs were not his ‘thing’ as it were.  Furthermore I could find no reference to them anywhere in the novel.

However a happy landlady is a happy pub, and so I have bowed to her pressure and produced a jar for her exclusive use. We always treasure our customer feedback. I must clean behind the cooker at some point!

Ever seen a cow smile?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI think these must be the happiest cows I’ve ever seen.  I took the photo in May 2010 when I walked 200 miles of the Camino between Le Puy en Velay and Cahors with my son Andrew. Purely by chance we were crossing the Aubrac hills just as the transhumance was going on.  Cattle were being walked back up to the high pastures with real ceremony and all the surounding villages were decked out for a party that seemed to go on for days.  This was “La France profonde” and we were pitching our tiny tent wherever we could because we couldn’t afford even the hostels. But these cattle had just arrived and they were so happy I swear they were smiling. We were too. The local cheese was wonderful and made a change from our terrible diet – we had no means of cooking with us and so we plumbed the depths of cold cassoulet eaten straight out of the tin. Most character forming.

They came to mind today when the (British) government released yet another report on bovine TB suggesting that lax bio-security, inadequate fencing, poor diagnostic tests and excessive movement of cattle between farms was at least as responsible for the spread of the disease as the badger which has taken most of the blame so far. The debate – if you can call it that – has become very polarized between the advocates of culling and those who put the welfare of the badgers at the forefront.

You can’t blame the farmers for wanting to do something about this hideously expensive disease, but they’re between a rock and a hard place. The consumers, the supermarkets and the government have pursued a ruthless policy of “cheap food at any price” and now we see the results. We have an ecological crisis in which we’re losing species at an unprecedented rate.  We have a crisis of obesity caused by junk food.  We have an environmental crisis which is being stoked by our overconsumption of meat. Farmers are stuck in the middle, with pretty well everyone blaming them, rather than the rest of us who made it happen.

Badgers love maize. For us at the Potwell Inn, that means they love our sweetcorn. Every year they drop in once a day during July and August to check how ripe it is and then they calculate when we’re likely to pick it and eat the lot the night before. This season we saved half of ours by netting it, but the badgers had the rest. So that’s why I feel competent to discuss this issue at all. I’ve lived and worked in farming areas for decades and I can see the problem from both sides.  TB isn’t just ’caused’ by a bacteria. We’re surrounded by bacteria and without them life on earth would cease, but the bacteria become a problem when they invade a host that’s stressed and unable to fight them off; and cattle on many farms are really stressed. Intensive farming on the scale we’re seeing it now, produces highly stressed animals that are vulnerable to all manner of diseases including TB. Bio-security is a hopeless attempt to carry on the way we are by locking the stressed animals in sterile prisons. We get the same problem on the allotment.  Plants that are stressed by drought, heat or over/under feeding are the first ones to get attacked by diseases and predators.

One of the contributory factors in this mess is almost certainly the increase in fodder maize.  It’s a very high value food but it’s not the same as grass – especially the old kind of pasture in which ‘weeds’ add to the value rather than having to give supplements.  Badgers love fodder maize and wherever it’s grown the badger populations seem to rise. Isn’t it just posible that the link between badgers and TB isn’t a causal link at all but nothing more than an association.

So if I were a farmer I’d be screaming at the government – “Well want do you want us to do, then?!!” Culling badgers – forgive the pun – isn’t a magic bullet. Vaccination could help, and it would be cheaper and less impacting on an ancient species, but if the underlying engine driving this is government/public encouraged overproduction, then by moving towards a more sustainable regime farmers could make a contribution to ecology, environment change and the national diet all at once. But they do need to make a living.

IMG_0112So back then to Aubrac and those wonderful smiling cows. We didn’t see any rich farmers on the whole walk, but we saw a lot of farms and villages doing their best to preserve a way of life that hasn’t changed in centuries. and so it seems we can have happy cattle and wonderful cheeses, and we can have wonderful meadows too, decked in spring with every kind of orchid and alive with insects.  But if we get rid of the farmers we won’t have any of those things, and if we want them badly enough the change we shall have to embrace will be to live more simply. If we really insist on eating Big Macs and smoked ribs every day for next to nothing, then we can’t expect to have anything except a degraded environment and a legacy of debt to the land that our grandchildren will have to pay.