Spend ten minutes with John Davenport and you’ll go home and plant radishes in your window box. His enthusiasm is infectious as he shows you around his twenty five acres at Flights Orchard Farm, Little Marcle. Like his father and grandfather, he grows a wide range of salads and vegetables. With that kind of deep-rooted knowledge, there are no complicated planting plans. John knows exactly what is going where as it’s all in his head. Having converted to organic farming in 1985, soil fertility is crucial. He operates a strict four year rotation – clover, brassicas, non brassicas and then potatoes.
The nature of the work means that it’s very labour intensive. Seeds for leeks, brassicas and spring cabbage are all planted by hand and then germination is started off in the ‘hot box’ – a large, heated cupboard that also operates as a hand-warmer. ‘Moving seed trays around is a great way of defrosting frozen fingers,’ says John. 60,000 leeks have been planted this year. Apart from fighting assorted flies and beetles, weeds are the biggest pests. Much of the weeding has to be done by hand. For the first time, this year black plastic sheets have been laid in the poly tunnels around the plants to prevent the weed growth which has proved successful. A number of salads are grown such as Little Gem and Red Patavia. It’s important to offer a choice as the season goes on. Machines can only lift small leaves so John grows larger ones. Salad bags are all picked and mixed by hand so they contain a much greater variety than those for sale in the supermarket. Whether it’s weeding or watering, there is always something to do and, along with full-timer Steve and occasional help from John’s eighty year old mother Nora, every day is busy.
Any rain hitting poly tunnels drains to the pool at the bottom of the field. This water is then used on the crops so the pool acts like a giant water butt as well as a wildlife haven to frogs and newts. John has noticed more weather extremes during the thirty years he’s been in business. The rain of 2012 brought him to the brink of bankruptcy whereas in 1995 the ground was so dry that any harvesting by machine was impossible. He bought forks from Countrywide and vegetables were dug up by hand. Even with his extensive experience, John is always keen to learn. He’s taking part in a European experimental scheme with Universities in Spain and Greece. The research is all about the right amount of water being in the right place, ensuring that every drop is used properly. At Little Marcle Farm, cucumbers are monitored and, depending on the temperature, if the crop is considered to be stressed, a solar panel triggers an alarm on John’s mobile phone. He then heads to the polytunnel to do a spot of watering!
As well as supplying wholesalers, crops are sold on site at Little Marcle Farm Shop or through their box scheme that delivers on Thursdays around Ledbury, Ross, Colwall and further afield. With a lifetime weeding and digging, John notes, ‘You never hurt your back by bending, it’s the lifting that does the damage.’ With that cautionary tale, he heads off to his regular appointment with the chiropractor.
For further information about the Little Marcle Farm Box Scheme contact firstname.lastname@example.org or tel: 07970 296153
Photos by Ed Mustafic.