By John Pawsey
Since my last submission to Direct Driller's Farmer Focus was in September, I owe you a report on what we have stuck in the ground for harvest 2022 and how it’s looking at the time of writing.
Buoyed up by my harvest 2021 organic oilseed rape crop, I planted a further crop in August, but I was persuaded that my previous mix of rape, fenugreek and beseem clover was not the way to go and that rape, buckwheat and a more frost intolerant variety of Tabor beseem clover was a more reliable option. Why I didn’t ignore that advice given that my previous crop did so well is beyond me, as the new mix offered my oilseed rape to the flea-beetles for breakfast. It pretty much didn’t even manage a true leaf. I visited David White in Little Wilbraham late in the autumn and his flea-beetle-free diverse mix of all-and-sundry plus rape looked amazing.
The organic grower can only plant companion species that will be taken out by a frost, whereas David can plant a much more diverse mix to confuse said insect and then tickle the unwanted plants up with a light dose of herbicide. He's David (all-the-tools-in-the-box) White as I affectionately call him.
I should point out at this juncture to save the younger reader from Googling the word “frost” an explanation. In the 1970s, sometimes the temperature would dip below freezing overnight (I know, it seems crazy. We wore real fleece from sheep in those days, not a pretend one made with petrochemicals), and when we woke up in the morning the grass was all white in the garden because the water on the leaves had frozen into beautiful crystals making everything look like fairyland. Also, the ground froze, meaning that there was a huge amount of resistance in the soil and we could take a 20-ton tractor and a massive cultivator onto our ploughed fields to do some cultivating without damaging the soil. Now kids, Google “oxymoron."
Anyway, my failed oilseed rape crop was re-drilled with vetches which looks fantastic.
We planted our usual amount of spelt, which I love as it grows so tall by this time of the year. It is taller than any of our weeds, which makes the farm look amazing from the road.
The same applies to Millers Choice heritage wheat, which has the same positive visual effect for my farming neighbors. By the way, reader, if you are thinking of growing any spelt, the only variety to grow is Zollernspeltz. Don’t be persuaded otherwise by your seed person. If they try and tempt you to grow spring spelt, cancel your account with them immediately (because they are idiots) or ask for an extra gear on your combine harvester that you won’t be able to afford the repayments on.
We have also planted 25 hectares (about 60 acres) of Wildfarmed Grain for musician-turned-farmer Andy Cato. Andy came to Shimpling Park Farm last year, and annoyingly he was charming, handsome, knowledgeable and extremely tall. He also has a full head of hair, which I always hate on a man. I invited him for lunch, and I am afraid to say that Alice Pawsey let herself down and her family down by swooning all over the poor chap. It was pathetic. He then broke one of our kitchen chairs by the simple act of sitting on it. I suggested to Alice afterwards that perhaps he was a little fat, but she assured me it was muscle built up during the days when he worked his French farm with horses. Said chair is still broken because, “Andy sat on it." See what I mean?
I had the absolute pleasure of going to Andy’s farm in Coleshill a couple of weeks ago, and what he is doing there is truly inspiring. I seriously urge you to go if you ever get the chance. It’s mind blowing. I travelled down to Andy’s farm with Alex and John Cherry of Groundswell (a UK-based agricultural conference) fame or as I tell my friends, I rode to Wiltshire with "regenerative royalty."
All our winter wheat this year is a 50/50 mix of Extase and Siskin, and all our winter beans have been sown with the same varieties with Vespa as a bicrop. Our harvest 2021 bean/wheat attempt was a little light on beans due to a low germination in the beans of 75%, so when it came to separating them in November last year, we had almost exactly one-third beans to two-thirds wheat, but we managed to raise the wheat grain protein by a percent, which was encouraging.
This year’s bicrop has a much better bean establishment, and looking at them today, I would imagine that the ratio will be reversed. It will be interesting to see what that increased bean yield has on the quality of the wheat.
I’ve been pestering Josiah Meldrum from Hodmedod’s for a number of years to grow some of their exotic pulses for them. Apart from Josiah also having a full head of hair, he is a really nice man to deal with.
Whenever you work with for some companies growing novel crops, you get the niggling feeling that you have taken all the risk and the price you get in the end from them didn’t really reward you for your labors. I get a warm feeling when talking to Josiah and so we have got a bicrop in the ground of camelina and lentils for him. Josiah said that the lentils will use the camelina as architecture to prevent them from going completely flat at harvest time, making their August gathering a joy. I believe him. To be honest, even if it doesn’t work, I will forgive him and grow more next year because he is such a lovely man.
Another great man to grow for is Peter Fairs from Fairking. Peter is the man we grew the first crop of organic chia for last year. If you are interested, it was the first crop of organic chia ever grown in the history of chia growing in the whole of the United Kingdom (just saying). It actually did incredibly well, and although it was relatively uncompetitive with weeds initially, we hoed it carefully once, and then it grew up like a forest. I think we harvested it late September, and Andrew Fairs (a family company), also having a Claas combine (they have harvested chia on their own farm, but it wasn’t organic, hence my above undisputed claim), texted through the ideal settings, and we roared through the standing crop with no problems. I put some hessian down on our ventilated grain store floors (it’s a teeny tiny seed) and piled the chia in about a meter high, blasted it with ambient air for a few days and then sent it off for cleaning.
We are growing some more for Peter this year in the same field as the camelina/lentil crop. The field in question is on a south facing slope (riotous laughter as I mention slope and Suffolk in the same sentence), so if they come on flower at the same time, the blue flowered chia below the yellow flowered camelina means I will have sown a massive Ukrainian flag. I will be charging for photos.
We’ve managed to inter-row all of our crops once, which is all we ever do, apart from the spelt (see above) and all the under-sowing of fertility leys (fallows) has been completed. Although we have had very little rain this spring to date, our crops still seem to be getting some moisture from our clay soils, but the shallowly sown small seeded under-sowings could do with soft, refreshing rain to get them going.
As you know, we organic farmers do a bit of cultivation to mineralize some of the goodness we have built up in our leys and to deal with some weeds. This year all of my spring sown crops were established after a green manure, grazed by sheep over the winter and then with three light and shallow passes with a cultivator we managed to get our crops in with much less soil disturbance than usual. You’d be proud of me.
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