A Growers Diary; Future Farmers, Fair Food Futures

A Growers Diary; Future Farmers, Fair Food Futures

Venture down the road with Jermey’s in his latest growers diary installment. This time we get a sneak peek into the study side of the Future Growers internship and hear again about the shifting demographics of Irelands growers. With only % of Irish farmers under the age of 36years, its exciting to hear that already next years internship is in demand!

Moyleabbey FarmTuesday July 3rd

I set off for the orchard, ready for battle. In the shade of the apple trees, nettles stand tall in endless regiments, armed with their countless stinging barbs. Ragwort clusters among the long blades of grass, peeping with piss-tinged eyes, eager to colonise.

I am armed with a strimmer, topped to the brim with fuel. Rain-proof dungarees lend me an impermeable armour. I cut noisy swathes in the nettled grass, clearing wide circles around the base of every tree to protect them from the choking reach of the undergrowth.

Under the heavy waterproofs and the relentless sun, I begin to swelter. The grass, in some places, is chest high. Felling it with my small strimmer begins to feel like a quixotic task. I toss my armour aside and press on in my shorts. Eventually the nettles get the better of me. I kill the engine and lay my weapon down.

I’ve hardly started into the job, and already I feel exhausted. I stand still for some moments, surveying my mission impossible: over a hundred and fifty grass-choked trees surround me on all sides.

Suddenly, a startled pheasant bursts like gunshot from the tangled grass, making me jump. There is a hoarse cawing, a fury of wings and then graceful airy silence as he glides effortlessly down towards the lower field. The wings are cobalt, his chest a rash of electrified blood. A trail of feathers plume behind in a jet-stream of technicolour.

As I watch him land soundlessly in a shadow of firs, any thought of drudgery is dispelled. I tune into the chirrup of blackbirds rustling in a nearby hedgerow and the raucous scrawk of a sharp-eyed crow standing sentinel on the crown of a giant ash. I am reminded of the high privilege it is to simply be here, working in a thick of leafy greenness, birds and sun my constant company. I yank the strimmer into life and fell the knotty greens with new resolve.

Wednesday July 4th

Roughly every fortnight, I have the privilege of gathering with the other OGI apprentices for a day of instruction and encouragement. We gather for a workshop on some vital aspect of organic growing, each one delivered by a recognised expert. Over the lunchbreak, we swap stories of hard graft from our various farm placements, reflecting on the joys and challenges of our new workaday worlds. We also visit model organic farms, walking the fields in the company of seasoned growers, hungrily absorbing the wealth of ideas and experiences they are glad to share.

Today, we are gathered in a classroom in Cloughjordan eco village as John Hogan, agronomist, holds us spellbound. Various soil samples are heaped on paper plates and a pile of fresh veg, pulled from his garden, is piled on a desk in the corner. Every question thrown at him triggers a fresh salvo of parable-like digressions, many of them crammed with photographic detail: the feel of the soil between his fingers on a cold April day in 1985, the precise movements of the weather on August 3rd 1979, the heft of an onion plucked fresh from a field in August 1992… Pens scratch paper as we busily jot down the nuggets of invaluable practical advice that every anecdote contains.

He pushes a button on his laptop to bring up a fresh Powerpoint slide. It is full of complicated graphs none of us quite understand. ‘Never mind any of that stuff,’ he says. ‘Here’s the gist of it: a quarter cup of clay has more surface area than a football field.’

In the pulse of silence after John’s statement every brain in the room blows open.

Salad beds Thursday July 5th

Nothing beats rumbling around on the antique Massey 35. Down rutted paths, clods of muck flying off the giant wheels, the faithful chug of the engine under the rusty red hood, the grind and cough of the gears – a few minutes behind the wheel is all it takes to feel like a real farmer.

This morning, I’ve been entrusted with a rear-end loader full of cargo. My job is to transport a stack of crates and a young French wwoofer to the far end of the farm. As we chug towards a hairpin bend, Leo tugs my sleeve.

‘Please, you go slow,’ he requests in broken English. ‘This one bad corner.’

I shoot him a thumbs-up. ‘No worries, man. I got this.’

I slow to a crawl for a few seconds as we round the sharp corner. Thinking we’re in the clear, I grind the engine into second gear and feather the accelerator. The tractor lunges slightly as it climbs a rise in the path, causing the rear-end loader to lurch.

I instinctively throw a glance over my shoulder. The crates are present, but no Leo. Then I catch sight of two legs in the grass and realise he’s been thrown out.

I squeeze the brakes and turn to see him brush the leaves and twigs off his clothes. He is ruffled but, thankfully, uninjured. I mumble an embarrassed apology. He declines the offer of another lift. ‘No thank you. I walk,’ he replies, and determinedly sets off on foot.

I chug along behind at a snail’s pace, feeling not a little mortified by my vehicle-handling faux pas.

Spring onionTuesday July 10th

I am dispatched to the lower field to pick the remnants of the strawberry crop. By now, it has all but dried up. Only a scatter of ripe red eaters dot the bedraggled leaves. The plants appear hungover, their jewellery of wizened fruit a sad vestige of festal Summer growth. Soon, the bird-proof nets will be removed, leaving the fag-end of the crop for hungry magpies.

As I settle down to fill the first punnet, I hear a rustle and chirp under a tangle of netting. A young thrush, having ventured through a hole in the net somewhere, has become enmeshed in a nylon death-grip. I step closer, and as my gigantic shadow looms, the tiny creature squeals and flaps furiously, entangling itself in a still tighter grip, one of its delicate wings now horribly snarled in a stringy knot.

I peel back the reams of netting as delicately as I can, every movement causing the bird to work itself into an even tighter fix. I pull back and holler for help but my voice rebounds in a hollow echo. Louise is too far away to hear me.

I commence a second rescue effort, cursing the clumsiness of my hands and the seemingly endless tangle of net until finally, I clasp the frail, warm feathered form in my hand. The tiny heart beats like a piston against the tips of my fingers and the elastic bone of its rib-cage is no more than a thimble-weight in my palm. Black bead-eyes stare point-blank, polished with terror. The tiny body spasms. The piston beats quicken. Twice the terrified bird wrangles from my grip.

Slowly, I unclasp the gnarled wing from the pinch of the net. I throw back the last layer of protective gauze, gently lift the quivering bird and open my fingers. The liberated prisoner darts to vanish in a hedge. There is a trill of notes from somewhere hidden. I interpret each one as a word of thanks.

PeasThursday July 12th

The peas are so verdant, their tonne weight is causing the bamboo and 4” x 4” stake supporting the trellis to lean drunkenly. I hammer fresh stakes into the earth to anchor the failing trellis before it finally collapses under its green burden.

Peas are part of the family Leguminosae (legumes). Peas, like many other legumes, have a symbiotic relationship with soil-dwelling bacteria called Rhizobia. As the pea seedlings develop, their roots secrete substances into the soil, attracting the Rhizobia nearby. The bacteria enter the roots and stimulate the growth of swellings called nodules in which they multiply. In exchange for a share of the sugars produced in the leaves and stem, the Rhizobia ‘fix’ nitrogen – a major growth stimulant – and pass it on in a usable form to the plant.

When the pea plant dies, this nitrogen passes into the soil, nurturing the minute and teeming biological life it contains. Organic farmers often grow legumes for this reason alone. They make an ideal green manure.

But that’s not all there is to these little green miracles. The peas in the pod are crisp, sweet and addictive as any opiate. I spend so much time shovelling the things down my gullet, the job takes twice as long as it should.

Tuesday July 17th

French beans spill in a vast leafy curtain, dividing the domed expanse of the large polytunnel into two halves. I teeter on the scaffolding that runs through the centre of this verdant cascade, plucking slender green pods and placing them in an old shopping bag roped around one shoulder. I shimmy down the length of the planks, so high my hair rubs the sun-warmed skin of the polythene ceiling. I share the altitude with fanged spiders, industrious bumble bees, the rainbow blur of hoverflies.

Eat ypir flowersThursday July 19th

The barbershop sound of scissors snip-snip-snipping is background noise to every Thursday morning when we harvest a million salad leaves. Crisp lettuce, exotic chrysanthemum greens, baby spinach, tangy sorrel, crisp summer purslane – just some of the varieties we snip and roll into blue plastic crates.

Forty crates will round off a morning’s haul: almost 40 kilos of salad. The pile hulks in a mountain forest on the steel table-top in the washroom. While Louise mixes the lot for bagging, I go out to pick a hundred-and-something nasturtium flowers. Deep orange, wild red, radiant yellow – the colours make me think of a Caribbean summer. By the time the bags are filled, every flower is a brooch in a mermaid’s lush green hair.

Wednesday July 25th

Wednesdays we pick and peel onions. I spend the best part of the morning peeling away layers of soiled tissue membrane until orbs, milk-white and deep purple, shine in bundles of three, tied at the stems with a brown rubber-band.

OnionWednesday August 8th

Today, we host the other OGI apprentices at Moyleabbey Farm. While we walk the beds and fields, listening to Liam tell the story of the farm from earliest days to the present, I find myself chiming in with questions. Even after six months here, there is still so much to learn.

When master gardener Klaus Laitenberger delivered our workshop on pest and disease management in May, he related how, when he first started offering classes in organic gardening, most of the attendees were pensioners with time to burn. Mainly genteel women with the odd reluctant husband in-tow. Things have changed irrevocably: now it is mainly twenty- and thirty-somethings lining up to learn the craft. Few are from farming backgrounds; most grew up in the suburbs or in the heart of busy cities, their interest in organics sparked by lifestyle choice, health reasons, environmental concern or disgust at the rapacious ethics of big brand food companies.

This year, about a dozen of us embarked on the OGI apprenticeship. We hail from various counties – Wicklow, Laois, Cavan, Mayo, Dublin, Westmeath, Kildare – joined by a couple from Quebec, one woman from England and an Israeli native, now settled and working in the gardens of Airfield Estate in Dundrum. The farms we work on are as varied as they come: some are smallholdings of less than three acres; others are thirty acres-plus.

Future Growers All of them, just like Moyleabbey Farm, are cultivated according to organic principles and standards. Biodiversity, soil biological activity and biological cycles are acknowledged and carefully nurtured. The health of the soil, plant, animal and human is sustained and enhanced as one and indivisible. All of us on the OGI apprenticeship scheme are passionate to see this kind of agriculture develop across Ireland. Some of us are already gearing up to start our own organic farms and market gardens.

Meanwhile, the rumbling of interest in the organic way shows no signs of slowing. From what I hear, there is already a fresh batch of recruits lining up to take our places on the apprenticeship scheme next year. For anybody concerned about the future of sustainable land-use in Ireland, this is good news.

Thursday August 16th

Carol is a feisty, silver-haired Brooklynite in her late 50s who comes to volunteer on the farm a few days a week. If it hadn’t been for her sharp eyes, I’d never have spotted the bombed-out freezer oozing pink syrup across the cement floor.

The sweet aroma of strawberry hung thick in the air. Spatters of red juice streaked the freezer interior, dripping from rapidly defrosting punnets. I empty thirteen kilos of the stuff into two steel pots and scan google for the simplest jam recipe I can find.

Beet leafThat was yesterday. Today, while I get on with harvesting beetroot, a brand-new Austrian wwoofer keeps watch over both pots while they simmer busily on the hob. By the time late afternoon rolls around, the fresh jam has been decanted into waiting jars – all of them filched from a stash of empties almost three decades old, kept under my in-laws’ stairs.

I head home with a hefty jar-full, complete with peeling Hellman’s label and dinked blue lid. By dinner time it’s already half-empty.

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