Home & Shop Companion #0016
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
Traditionally here in Britain, the month of May offered a lightening of the farmers’ workload, with all the spring sown crops in the ground, ewes and young lambs out on the spring grass and the cattle yards empty after they had been turned out to charge about for a mad half hour before settling down to eat. Of course, that was not, and is not true for every farm, there being many cow herds that are still calving, and for those who grow vegetables, either on field scale or in market gardens, May is a busy month.
In my field vegetable patch, some parsnips are finally through, but still scarcely any beetroot despite having watered the rows. Today I had Lucy pull the saddle back harrows down the potato ridges. For my few rows I usually use chain harrows because they live at the field, but they only just tickle the tops of the ridges, whereas the saddle back harrows are much more effective. Otherwise it has been the garden that has needed most attention. We have had two nights with frost this week and because I had not expected the first one, it knocked back the early potatoes, but they will recover. Now we are past the cold spell, I planted out the larger zucchini plants and have started hardening off the pumpkins and the outdoor tomatoes, which are getting tight in their pots. Overall, the vegetable garden is looking better; the only remnants of last year’s vegetables were a few leeks that were sown over a year ago, but as they were sending up flower stalks, I dug them out. About three quarters of the garden is now sown or planted, the rest having been worked to a rough seedbed for the weeds can germinate in readiness for whizzing round with the hoe while they are small.
Earlier in the week I sowed another succession of lettuce, rocket and radish, something which I often forget to do, and the carrots. May seems late to sow carrots, but they do like the warmer weather for germination. In the garden the soil is heavier than ideal for carrots, so I make shallow trenches which I line with sand, and sow into that. Before we bought the field, to make the best use of the space in the garden, I started sowing of carrots in double rows three inches apart, and have three of these double rows in a bed. This allows me to get a lot of carrots under a very fine net to stop the carrot fly, which is a perpetual problem. In the field patch, which is lighter land, I usually sow a couple of rows too, but because I don’t want to invest in lots of netting, I use a variety called resistafly, which as its name suggests, is resistant to the fly. It doesn’t taste as good as some other varieties, which is one reason I like to grow a nicer variety at home, and it also means that we don’t have so far to go to pick them if we haven’t thought ahead about what we are having for our evening meal.
With the spring rush of outside work behind me, which has coincided with a slowdown in the workshop while I am varnishing a viola, this is the first time I have been able to catch up with other things. Like many small businesses, farms included, when there is a spare moment, I have been doing my accounts. I had left it for two months, but it didn’t take long because our outgoings since March have been minimal, with the family income since the lockdown also being reduced. This is not a complaint; it is just the reality, one reality, there being many others in a similar situation and many much worse off. At least here in Britain, although the politicians were catastrophically slow to understand the threat of the virus and incompetently slow to take preventative measures, since March the Government has been paying 80% of employees’ wages for anyone unable to work, with a similar scheme for the self-employed. While it lasts, it is keeping businesses afloat in readiness for working again and providing families with some income. Nonetheless, there are increasing numbers of people relying on food banks, demonstrating just how many live on the edge, only just able to survive in good times and unable to build reserves of money, food, and health to get them through the tough times. But it is not just people in poverty that are facing difficulties; even in a rich country like Britain, not many people have savings and the costs of living, particularly for young people, are onerous. If we ever thought that our economic system was fit for purpose, fair, let alone compassionate, or even efficient when we include the effect it has on the environment, the present crisis confounds that belief.
The shame is we could do so much better, but it would have been so much easier to reshape the system when things were on more of an even keel. As a society, we are acting like the farmer who only ever mends his fences after the animals have got out, so we face twice the number of problems and have to tackle them all at once. At least we now know that the fence is broken, and perhaps, rather than running around like a hamster on a treadmill, we might sit down and think. After all, as humans, our superpower has never been to run fast to catch prey or run away from predators, our real strength is in thinking things through, planning and cooperating with each other. Present circumstances are forcing many of us to start that process, at least on a domestic level and with our businesses, but we are also going to need to work differently within our communities.
That reminds me of a conversation during the tour of Amish businesses the day before the 2011 Horse Progress Days. At one farm, standing outside the entrance to an old stone barn, an Amish man, I guess in his mid-fifties, told us how he was part of a group of experienced farmers who had come together to help younger farmers in the community. He told us how they would talk through problems and offer advice, and then he paused for a moment, as an understanding and accepting smile spread across his face, and confessed that although he had joined in so he could help others, he felt that he had gained more from this experience than he had contributed.
With best wishes from over the pond,
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.