What are we learning?
The last few weeks have been a roller coaster of changes and emotions. It's been a big learning process and I'd like to make some observations.
We’ve always know that the job we do is important. We are pioneers, we are bucking the trend, we are asking difficult questions, we are dealing with complex systems on a daily basis, are doing what very few people have the courage or skills to do. How so? Well, the number of young people leaving school or university and choosing to go into farming or specifically horticulture is miniscule. Work is hard, wages are low and hours are long. Growing 20-30 varieties of crops successfully in the face of soil, climate, water, market related challenges requires lots of decisions and being flexible. The government approach to farmers is generally ‘get big or get out’. We think differently. We believe small and agoecological is beautiful, functional, efficient and rational.
Trying to identify our weakest link in creating a profitable farm enterprise is not always easy. Is it our irrigation systems, our harvesting, our packing, our distribution, our use of labour, the soil, the weather, pest, disease, the acreage of land, access to funds? Making wise decisions take experience and a willingness to take risks and learn quickly.
The outbreak of the CV19 virus has added another very significant dimension to how we operate and we’ve learnt a lot from it. We used to operate quite an unusual system in that we harvested veg into crates, took them to Wensum Sports Centre and our members arrived and weighed out the correct portions of veg into bags and took them home. This created an enjoyable social atmosphere, gave members a chance to meet each other and meet the growers and it didn’t involve too much time by our team packing bags for people. Our farm has always been a very social space. Very different to a typical image of industrial farming where one person spends hours alone at the wheel of a tractor traversing huge fields. Our farm is compact and personal, there are multiple jobs so boredom is unlikely and we encourage volunteers which creates a close knit community.
All that has been challenged by the pandemic. We now have a team of about 7 packers who pack all 140 shares – this Thursday they did it in 1 hour 15 mins. Cycle couriers Zedify deliver most of the shares. We’ve implemented a limit on numbers at the farm as well as introduced social distancing and strict sanitation rules.
We’ve learnt a lot in the last 3 or 4 weeks. That we have an amazingly supportive community who really value what we do. That locally produced food with a reliable delivery service can be very precious to people in times of crisis and hopefully beyond. That focused, meaningful work outside can be very therapeutic for people. That we can change the way we do things quite quickly with a dedicated team and good will. That cooperation within our organisation and between other organisations is far more helpful than competing. That the centralised political structures were not adequately prepared for something like this and have taken a long time to respond – both in terms of providing PPE and also acknowledging the very important work we are doing. That being small and local makes us incredibly flexible and able to pivot. That being a key worker brings a lot of reward and also responsibility and an awareness that it shouldn’t take a crisis for food production to be given such a high value in society. That what we are doing encapsulates the solution to so many of the problems brought by modern society and also crises like this pandemic.
It seems like the pandemic will be affecting us for many months to come and the memories of suffering and trauma, especially for some, will endure for a life time. But we’re also determined to take the opportunities that this crisis has thrown up to improve the service we offer our members and to try and make the world a better place.
Thanks for coming on the journey with us.
Farm manager and grower