Marcus Wright visited an organic vegetable farm in East Cambridgeshire last November. “I have been trying to eat mainly organic produce for the last year or two”‘ said Marcus when asked why he had decided to visit a farm. ” I get a weekly organic fruit and vegetable delivery from a local box scheme, and I shop at local shops that stock local and organic food, including some meat and fish, but for a while I’ve been wondering about how the food is grown, and wanted to follow up my belief in the organic marketplace with a visit to a real life working farm.”
Marcus and a friend did some research by asking at their local health food shop about where the produce was sourced from. The manager was happy to give them phone numbers of the local farms where the shops produce was bought in from. Marcus also followed this up by looking the website of The Soil Association, which is the UK’s main organic certification body. This site has a very useful section called ‘visiting local organic farms’ and selects from those that is has certified as organic, and those which are happy to have visitors.
Organic farms are fascinating places to visit, and many such farms across the UK welcome visits from interested members of the public and their families. Those that welcome visitors will advertise, either in the local press, or through adverts in local organic or health food shops.
Interested members of the public should call in advance to book their visit, or sign up to a group tour. Bear in mind farms are busy workplaces: some manage a lot of cattle; have lots of machinery (which might need to be put away before members of the public visit due to hazards); or have busy planting and picking seasons when people wandering around asking questions may be more of a hindrance rather than a help.
Eventually Marcus heard of a local farm in his area that welcomed visitors, and working visitors, through a weekly organic farmers market held in Cambridge’s historic central market. ” I bought fresh vegetables from the farmer, and he invited me to come out and spend a day with him, and learn firsthand,” Marcus said.
What To Expect From A Visit
If the farm is a cattle farm, which rears animals for organic meat, then the best time to visit is in the spring or summer, when the animals are outdoors. An organic cattle farmer will want to talk to visitors about the importance of his or her animals feeding on grass and feed that has not been treated with chemicals and pesticides, and that the quality of the land they graze on is of the highest quality.
To be certified as an organic cattle farm, the farm and its surroundings, including any cattle feed that is bought in, will have undergone an extensive series of tests, including soil samples and water testing. This will have probably, but not exclusively, have been carried out by the Soil Association, who are the UK’s main organic certification body. The farmer will be happy to talk about this process, and will usually welcome questions. Further information on all the tests that farms must undergo in order to get the full organic certification is available from the Soil Association.
“We had agreed that I would arrive early, by 8 o’clock,” Marcus said, “but as I drove through the Eastern Fens that morning I realised that a farmers day starts a lot earlier than this!”. This was confirmed when Marcus arrived at the farm, and was directed out to one of the vast fields, where in the distance he could see a few people working near a tractor. “It was cold at that time in the morning, and the field was thick mud, making it difficult to walk” said Marcus, who has an office job in a high tech firm in the city of Cambridge.When he reached the farmer and the other workers, Marcus learnt that they had been hard at work since 6 a.m., pulling up brussels sprout stalks ready for sale at the farmers market on the following sunday.
Marcus spent the next 2 hours in this field, pulling up the stalks by hand, and filling box after box with them. Nothing else would be done to the vegetable – they would be taken back to a barn and stored ready for sale. They had not been treated with any herbicide or pesticide, and would be sold as a whole stalk, with approximately 50 sprouts per stalk. The farmer told Marcus later that the less that was done to the vegetable, in terms of processing or packaging, then this would both keep the workload down for the farmer, and keep the cost down for the consumer.
Questions To Ask During The Visit
Farms that grow vegetables and fruit organically will also have undergone a series of tests in order to achieve organic certification. Take a good look around all the areas of the farm that you visit, including any barns and the farm yard itself, and see if there are any sacks of pesticides and herbicides lying around. The Soil Association allows the use of some strictly controlled organic chemicals, and most farmers will be happy to talk about this.
There is also a period of time, usually around 3 years, during which the land of an organic farm, is undergoing organic conversion, where the soil flushes any pesticides and chemicals out, and is refreshed or renewed by getting some of these toxic chemicals out of its system.
Mucking In: Working On An Organic Farm
It can give a real hands on experience to visit an organic vegetable farm during the planting or picking seasons, and actually muck in and help the farmer planting seeds and crops. Phone in advance to find out when a farmer needs help, and what it would entail. Generally, a pair of wellington boots and a willingness to start early and be out in the fields all day are all that is needed.
Most farmers welcome practical help, and this is a great way to get hands on knowledge of how a farmer works the land, and the seasonality of our food. This is a wonderful experience to help plant and sow the food that will eventually end up on our dinner plates.
At almost all times of the year, there will be jobs to do on a farm, be it sowing, planting, picking, digging, preparing the soil with mulch or manure, or simply mucking out the cow shed. Working on a farm can be a great experience, both in the knowledge of the land and the animals you come into contact with, and the health benefits of such hard work.
Later in the day, after a break for a sandwich and a cup of tea in the farmhouse, Marcus helped by picking red cabbages in another of the farms outlying fields. “This was back breaking work,” reported Marcus afterwards. “You have to be constantly bent down, slicing the cabbage at the bottom of its root, and these things are heavy!” Again, there was minimal processing of the vegetable, perhaps just shedding a few outer leaves (although this was done in the relative comfort of a barn), but it took several hours to get the several hundred cabbages from field to barn.
Other vegetables grown during this early winter season included some late carrots, curly kale, and a particular type of fenland potato. All the essential ingredients to make up an organic christmas dinner, alongside a locally produced organic turkey.
Being Involved With Organic Food By Visiting An Organic Farm
“It was hard work,” said Marcus, tired but exhilarated after his day out on the farm. “I wouldn’t want to swap jobs with the farmer, but I have developed tremendous respect for him. I appreciate being in the fields where the organic vegetables I eat are grown, and to see that they are grown with a maximum of care, both in the lack of chemicals and in the minimum of processing, gives me confidence in the system of organic of organic farming here in the UK definitely reccomend this to anyone who cares about the food they eat, or is just curious about organic farming.”
Marcus was rewarded for his labours by the farmer who gave him a big bag of the days freshly picked vegetables. However, it is of course possible to visit organic farms not simply to work, but to learn about the process, and if you are a regular consumer of organic food, to see where the food that you eat comes from. Many farms will be happy to sell their produce direct to the public, and some organic farms, as well as conventional farms, have now set up shops on the farm, some even with tea rooms, where their produce, as well as some from other local farms and other small producers in the local area, is for sale.
As well as finding out about the intricacies of organic farming, with its emphasis on growing natural goodness, with clean soil and clean water, it is possible to pick food yourself, be it potatoes, winter spinach or chard,or fresh summer fruit, like strawberries, apples or damson plums, or even buy a piece of organic beef or pork, direct from where it was grown or reared.