Home & Shop Companion #0023
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
I started putting out bags of new potatoes for sale at the gate this week. Last year I used the plastic box that I usually keep my account book and receipts in, but it wasn’t ideal, because the bags got damp from the potatoes when the lid was on, and when left slightly open, the rain got in. Then the lid blew off and cracked, so it no longer works for selling potatoes. So a couple of days ago I went to town, where I could have bought another plastic box, but I didn’t, I bought some tongued and grooved boards instead, came home and made a box with legs and a lid. The wood probably cost three times as much as a plastic box, but it is a better solution, it looks better, and it is darker in there to keep the potatoes from going green.
About ten years ago, I grew twice as many potatoes and sold most of them in 20kg sacks off to a greengrocer [vegetable store]. I got less than half the price I get from selling them in small bags at the gate, and for the relatively small quantities I had, it seemed to take as long to harness and unharness the horse as it did to unearth the potatoes, so now I grow half as many and lift them with a fork. It is a constant predicament for the smallholder or farmer, whether to grow enough and have the right equipment to sell on a bigger scale and shift a lot of produce cheaply, or to keep everything small scale and within your own control, or whether to just grow enough for yourself. The last option becomes more attractive as I get older, in part because I spend enough effort in the promotion of my ‘real’ work. The other thing about producing just for your family is that it saves you money at the retail price, because that is what you would otherwise have to pay. And that can mount up; when we kept three pigs each year for example, selling half the meat and keeping half, it saved us about £600 [$1000] each year, excluding labour, compared with buying the equivalent pork and pork products.
This year’s vegetable garden is now contributing to the family table, the early potatoes, planted earlier than the field potatoes, are nearly finished, and we are eating broad beans, salads and zucchini. The pumpkin family of plants and the outdoor tomatoes are not liking the cool weather much, we’ve had continual areas of low pressure since we did the hay, but the tomatoes in the Mediterranean climate of the greenhouse are doing well, about four feet tall with many tomatoes, though still all green. The soft fruit is also producing, though I couldn’t quite believe my eyes on seeing ripe blackcurrants two weeks ago. Usually they ripen in harvest time, late July or August, but the hot dry weather must have brought them on more quickly. Picking the first of them after turning hay, the sunshine bringing out that strong blackcurranty smell, took me straight back to my childhood summers, hiding under the bushes, avoiding the stinging nettles, picking berries into wooden fruit trays lined with newspaper, box after box, which my mum would turn into the yearly supply of jam, or bottle them for blackcurrant crumble, eaten with Jersey clotted cream in the winter.
Back in the present, in the outside world there is a gradual opening of the lockdown here, restaurants and pubs now being allowed to open, and travelling is allowed between some countries without travellers having to go into quarantine. People in the city of Leicester, however, are going into stricter lockdown as there has been a growth in cases there. The pressure for businesses to get back to work has been steadily increasing, and now that many can, they are having to work out how to carry on whilst keeping people apart as much as possible. But there are other businesses that will not return. Even a local dental practise had gone into liquidation, and I expect there will be many others. It makes you realise how many useful businesses were functioning on the very edge, and if we lose too many, our lives will be poorer for it. On the other hand, many village shops and farm shops [stores] have seen a 50 to 100% increase in business as people avoid travelling to bigger centres and mixing with larger gatherings of people. I also heard of a group of farmers producing specialty products who usually sell at markets and fairs, who joined together to start a drive-through facility on an industrial estate. Whether these changes will continue once people feel safer is anyone’s guess, but hopefully the local connections and the quality of produce will remain attractive enough for the small retailers and farm stores to continue and thrive.
On a larger scale, our Government has announced a big investment in infrastructure, to give the economy a kick start, sort of modelled on Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s. The idea is to get the economy moving again, and part of me thinks it is a good idea. But I also have reservations, because rebooting the same old system will just give us yet more pollution, cheap and nasty goods, climate change, disenfranchised minorities, and gross inequalities in income and influence.
For me, any genuine new deal needs new thinking, from the ground up, not just to get money moving, but to solve the problems that the old economy caused in the first place. And the key to that is quality, not quantity, not just trying to squeeze out the maximum profit by using cheap materials, cheap labour and cheap manufacturing, but putting in skill, intelligence, time and effort to produce stuff that will last, that can be fixed or taken apart, melted down or reused when it is worn out.
Luckily [though it is not just luck because many of us have worked and planned for it], those of us on farms, ranches and smallholdings, with small businesses or with small gardens, have the autonomy to choose quality, at least some of the time, which in the end will save time and money, and, like my potato box, give us the satisfaction of having made a good decision.
Take care and stay safe,
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.