Tomatoes! Flowers! Farmers!
The jewel in our vegetable crown is here - the gorgeous tomato (technically a fruit, but toe-may-toe/toe-mah-toe, right?) If the humble swede marks a low point in the vegetable year, than we have reached the peak. Veggie++ customers are the first to enjoy this crop, with other bags soon to follow suit.
If you have a splendid recipe for any vegetable, please share it with us! We love to see your creations and inspire fellow LG chefs. Be sure to check out this week's recipes below.
Fellow LG customer, Frances, would like to share British blooms with you and introduce you to LABOOS, her Peckham based florist. Check out this beautiful bouquet bursting with colour.
"LABOOS is an eco-conscious florist offering seasonal bouquets of British blooms using ingredients from local artisan growers & small scale commercial flower farms in Kent & Lincolnshire. We are a foam free, plastic free (not even a scrap of sellotape) studio using recycled packaging & delivering flowers greenly via foot, bike, bus or train. If you'd like to order flowers for a special occasion or even a weekly bunch for the house, then please get in touch either by email - firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram @laboosflowers."
Paul Wells is a cheery farmer. He starts off our chat with a joke, “What’s the difference between a good farm and a bad farm? ... About a week!” Ba-dum-tss, goes the imaginary drum kit in the farmer’s comedy lounge. Admittedly, the joke is initially lost on me. What he’s alluding to is the weather – specifically water – and how such a short span can sow misfortune. The growing season is always hectic for a farm and water is both a saving grace and a force to reckon with. With a wet winter behind the Walmestone team, early planting went well. A few months later, in the midst of pandemic and the hardships it brought, the span of dry, unabating sun meant water quickly became a concern on the farm.
Walmestone Growers lies east of Canterbury in the fertile farmland of Kent. Paul joined as farm manager about five years ago with a wide range of skills across wholesaling, bookkeeping, and management. The farm was established in 1985 with the unique purpose of growing crops for zoo animals. They still come first at Walmestone, and animals from Howletts and Port Lympne wildlife parks are treated to fresh crops from the farm (they are also sponsoring a “buy lunch for an animal” program while these parks are closed and pressed to care for animals in lockdown). We’re lucky they’re willing to share with people too. Paul has been in the organic farming business for about 10 years, and under his care, Walmestone converted poly-tunnels to organic growing. In the past, the team would travel to London farmers’ markets to sell to human customers, however the hustle and bustle of city life didn’t fit. “I love to be in nature, look up and see kestrels flying above. You look up in London and there are cool buildings, but it’s not for me,” Paul says. Tomatoes are Paul’s favourite crop to eat, but spinach is his favourite crop to grow. He explains, “It’s really easy, just stick it in the ground, and it can be swamped with weeds, you cut it and it comes back again. Spinach is great.”
A neighboring farmer, in his 80s, recently remarked to Paul that he has, “never known weather like I’ve known it now.” The consensus around this area of Kent is that the weather is becoming less consistent. There are weeks of rain or weeks of dry, with little intermediate weather in between. “You want a mixture,” Paul states, “And winters are getting milder.” This spring, with no rain and very dry conditions, Walmestone found themselves chasing their tails a bit with planting. Once the health crisis hit, planting fully took a back seat. “We should’ve have cucumbers by now but they’re two weeks late,” because of the situation, he reveals.
The weather is but one of several challenges to planting on the farm. As many of our other growing partners have shared, sales went through the roof in March as people entered quarantine. Local farm shops turned to Walmestone for more produce, but the farm lost many staff members to illness or travel difficulties. They have operated the past 10 weeks without a full staff, and yet are still packing their own wholesale boxes, selling to veg schemes such as Local Greens, and supplying local businesses. At present, they cannot grow carrots because of lack of staff to handle the equipment for organic growing. Farm labour continues to cause stress and Paul sees his local asparagus farmers hurting a lot because of it. Locals have stepped up to help where they can. “We had a mini-cab driver, never driven a tractor before, join to help us,” he says. There is also a local chef who was meant to travel to Spain for work, but turned to farm work when her plans were cancelled. “The staff work so hard and are really helpful. Some of them have only seen a computer screen before and we have to train them,” Paul continues, “Farming is not unskilled work. People turn up and see it is hard work and they come once and don’t come back. We are going to need more people. The harvest has only just started. Prices will go up because of lack of pickers,” he warns.
At the supermarket, we may notice each week that every vegetable is there and nothing really changes. However, this is not the way food used to be. Seasonality at the farmers’ and wholesale markets means the crops change and not everything is always available. When the price peaks for a particular crop, that often means it’s going out of season. Paul believes, “People have forgotten this is what happens. We deliver boxes to elderly customers and they remember what it was like, they are familiar with seasonal eating.” Box schemes are brilliant, in Paul’s view, because they’ll accept a mix of whatever is in the field. “Wholesalers want to pay the bottom price, the more layers [in the supply chain], the cheaper the price has to be for the farmer,” he elaborates. He champions schemes that don’t need much packaging, as this also reduces the time and cost needed to prepare a crop. All Local Greens customers should be happy knowing you’re supporting small farms, and keeping the countryside a bit more diverse. “If it wasn’t for box schemes, we’d be growing mono-culture crops. Without them we wouldn’t be here,” Paul adds. Yet, if unreliable weather brings shifting seasons, were will this leave seasonal eating? This is a quandary a new generation of farmers must solve.
Reflecting on his surroundings, Paul realizes that there are lots of old farmers, and not so many his own age. “We need to keep it going for the next generation,” he concludes, “Organic growing is better for the wildlife, biodiversity, bees, bats, birds, you want to protect that,” he states, “Visit a conventional farm and it’s very sterile. It doesn’t feel right. The soil suffers and it takes decades to restore it. We’re looking after the land for 50 years or so for the next generation.” Farming is not as hard as it was 25 years ago with advances in technology, but climate challenges are on the horizon for farmers of Paul’s generation. There’s a positive feeling now coming out of corona virus, yet worry lingers about farm. “May and early June is always a mountain to climb, and this year might be a bit steeper than normal,” Paul says, thanks to late planting and very dry conditions. We hope this week’s rain will soften the mountain a bit for Paul and the Walmestone team, and their harvests of varied and scrumptious vegetables will continue long into the season.
If you’re interested to see how rain affects the farm, Walmestone has their own weather station set up for curious nerds and novices alike.