Escape into the fields today. Get stuck into stage 2 of Jeremy’s refreshingly honest & funny Growers Diary
Tuesday May 1st
We begin the day hefting shovelfuls of chicken manure. It’s years old, desiccated to bone-dry dust. The drizzle paints it tar-black while Liam trundles along in his bright red Massey Ferguson 35, spilling mounds from the rear-end loader. The waiting piles are pocked with shrunken feathers and the odd withered egg. While we walk behind the tractor and shovel it over the surface of the freshly-tilled soil, the wind slings the stuff right back in our faces.
In the evening, when my wife picks me up, she tells me I smell like a barn.
Wednesday May 2nd
When the rotating sprinkler is switched on inside the polytunnel, the swish of water against the plastic walls evokes the sound of crashing waves. The busy tick-tick-tick of the shutter mechanism mimics the rustling of cicadas. With the pong of humid earth in my nostrils, it all sounds positively Mediterranean. If I close my eyes and ignore the chill in my toes, I could be standing on a sun-warmed beach on the Cote d’Azur.
But it’s May in Ireland and it’s been so cold, everything’s a month behind. Water-logged soil and dribbles of sunlight have slowed crop growth. Wonky weather makes sowing and planting a challenge.
We weed the strawberry beds under a lead-grey sky. Another shower breaks. As the rain patters down, a French wwoofer rolls her eyes at me. ‘Not again,’ she groans. ‘Don’t you ever see the sun in Ireland?’
Thursday May 3rd
More chicken manure, and a mound of it mouldering under a blanket of Mypex beside the shed. I peel back the cover and the pile steams like a hot bath. It smells strangely sweet, like hot cocoa. I spend the morning ferrying wheelbarrow loads into the large polytunnel, to fertilise the tomato and bean beds.
The noxious tang sticks on my tongue all day long. I may never taste chicken the same way again.
On the farm, every crevice of soil teems with the traffic of its countless subterranean tenants. Crack the loamy surface and a see a slithering, scuttling mob of ground dwellers, few of which I know by name. Even those slimy commoners – the slugs and worms – come in a multitude of varieties.
Now that we are readying the large polytunnel for a variety of new crops, slug patrol is an almost daily fixture. Today is no exception. We peel back layers of fleece or plastic from the planting beds and crawl on all-fours, scanning the surface for evidence of the greedy eaters. Most are streaks of the usual dull grey-brown. Some are sleek black and crouch in the undergrowth like sleeping ninjas. Others are sunburst orange and glisten on the dark earth like tiny flames. If we are armed with a scissors, they die in a bulge of wet guts. Most are pinched between our grubby fingers, plonked in a waiting bucket and then slung into a nearby hedge.
I spend most of the afternoon shifting a pile of cow manure, every shovelful spaghettied with glistening pink worms. I fill the rear-end loader of the tractor and carry every one of the wriggling creatures to their doom. These worms are compost worms: the alien earth of the polytunnel is fatal to them. ‘They’re great nurture, even when dead,’ explains Liam, as I spill my cargo through the polytunnel doors. They start to shrivel into soil food while their close relatives, the earth worms, take over, ferrying the nutrient-rich particles of manure deep into the crop beds.
Worms are the bowels of the earth. They swallow the soil and pass it through their bodies, blending it with a cocktail of fertility-boosting intestinal juices. Every worm tunnel – and there may be millions buried in an acre of good land – is laced with the hummus that infuses health into every green thing, even as it bores a path for the downward push of their roots. Without these squirming marvels, the riot of life in the soil would grind to an abrupt halt.
Thursday May 10th
Like most urbanised townies, I long understood the habit of weather-watching to be no more than a quaint Irishism. A go-to topic to pass the time of day. That was when my work-life ticked to the rhythm of timetabled meetings and a daily commuter routine. A ceaseless barrage of emails, along with the frenetic twittering of social media, had me glued to the clock.
This morning, time is creeping on and we still haven’t stopped for our 11.00am break. I begin to feel nervous. Liam is showing no signs of slowing down. I draw attention to the fact that we have strayed from the usual schedule.
‘Liam, aren’t we meant to stop for a break?,’ I enquire, throwing a nod at my watch.
‘But it’s not raining,’ he replies.
I look at him blankly. I don’t understand.
He frowns. ‘Rain’s coming. I thought I explained that earlier.’
Only then does the penny drop. In the earliest days of the apprenticeship, when Liam mentioned the forecast, I nodded along, thinking it was no more than the usual polite banter. Now I understand: the weather commands our agenda, not the clock.
I used to watch the weather through a window. Now I am immersed in it. Gone are the watertight schedules of city life. Now I work around the mercurial whims of the sky. Precious hours of sun provide an open door for tilling and planting; tilled drills must be filled with seedlings before the next heavy shower; young plants must be sheltered with fleece cover in case of frost.
Weather-watching is serious business. The life of the farm hangs in the balance. If we refuse to bow to the dictates of the daily elements, nothing will grow.
Tuesday May 15th
I am battling a cold. Fluey symptoms sap my energy. My nose is bunged with running snot and I spend a good portion of the day honking into a tissue. Organic farming is strenuous enough, even when you’re in the best of health. Labouring under this dead-weight of tiredness, I seem to slow down until I feel as if I’m moving in a vat of treacle. Everything takes ten minutes longer than it should.
At one point, while sitting on the tractor, I try to click the brake off by repeatedly pumping the pedal with my foot. My boot slips and the pedal springs back into my ankle. Pain catapults up my leg. Liam sees the whole clumsy charade and reprimands me for rough-handling his tractor.
Half the time, I’ve no idea what I’m doing. It’s hard not to feel like an eejit. I try to draw encouragement from the fact that my wife says my hands are becoming ‘farmerly’.
Thursday May 17th
It’s gratifying to watch the farm metamorphose under Summer’s touch. The strawberry plants glow in lines of emerald green. The polytunnels are jammed with a vibrant mix of salads, celery, tomatoes, beans, peas, spinach and chillies. Sweetcorn, Brussel sprouts, beetroot, onions, scallions, garlic and pumpkin grow steadily in the outdoor beds.
The orchard is bursting with blossom – apart from a single naked tree. It stands, gaunt and leafless, opposite the window where I sit for lunch. Liam was kind enough to call my pruning efforts ‘brave’ but evidently, I was far too hard on that tree. There are signs of budding on one or two bare arms. Here and there, a solitary green leaf is poking up. These signals of life give me hope that the tree will survive and eventually recover from the severe cuts of the blade.
All day, the sun is gloriously unrelenting. In the late afternoon, we begin preparing freshly drilled strawberry beds for planting. Each of the four mounds rise as high as two feet and stretch for more than fifty metres. We soften the clods with rakes and shovels before emptying the trenches of stones.
My wheelbarrow fills with rocks of varying sizes until the wheel glues in the muck. I empty one load and then another into the hedge, gradually clearing the soil surface until it is soft and loamy underfoot. As I heave and push, the sweat beading my brow, I begin to feel like Atlas, the mythic figure tasked with bearing the weight of the earth on his shoulders.
And then I think of the swallows who landed on the farm only this morning, completing the journey that took them from Southern Africa, over the Sahara Desert and across the Mediterranean Sea. Already they are busy with the intricate work of building a nest in a new land. Their gargantuan labours put my own in perspective. Suddenly I don’t feel quite so tired anymore.
We carpet the earth with vast sheets of Mypex, spreading it over the drills and fixing them in place with mallets and dozens of plastic pegs. Heat radiates from the black textile surface as we pull and adjust it to fit. By day’s end, the mounds are covered and ready for planting.
Tuesday May 22nd
Time to net the strawberry beds. I spend the morning strimming the knee-high grass and weeds that cluster around both ends of the drills. Then I get busy pegging plastic down to deter regrowth and provide a smooth platform for storing crates when harvesting begins.
In the afternoon, the sun turns the world gold. I tramp around in my wellies and cap, my Superman t-shirt dampened with sweat. All along the drills, metal bars spike the soil, ready to support the protective net. My job is to hammer each one deep into the soil. I clamber between the plants, wielding the jackhammer like a kind of breathless, cross-eyed Thor, puffing with the weight of the thing in my hands and clumsily clanking the steel bars out of place until most of them keel over.
I toss the mighty hammer aside and reach for the even heavier post hammer. This formidable instrument looks like a hollow snub-nosed rocket, with handles attached on either side. I lift the hefty iron tool in both hands and drive it down into the top of each post to force it into the earth beneath.
Each blow produces a reverberating klang. It rings in my ears like a chapel bell. I stagger along the tops of the drills like some demented monk calling the farm and all its creaturely denizens to prayer.
We need you folks!
Help us nurture a culture of food citizenship, share our content and tell us your thoughts in the comments section.
Why not share your story with us? Our door is always open for chat, pop by and say hello!