During the last two years we have moved to low-till production methods and have reduced our cropping area slightly (from 1.81 to 1.32 acres), but have increased our turnover by over 30%. As well as factors like staff changes, better record-keeping and crop planning, we have been heavily influenced by the new wave of 'young hotshots' (as Eliot Coleman called them at his recent visit). These include:
Video content by JM Fortier, Curtis Stone, Conor Crickmore, Richard Perkins, Singing Frogs Farm
Books by Ben Hartman, JM Fortier, Curtis Stone
Podcasts by Chris Blanchard (Farmer to Farmer)
In this article we discuss some of the improvements these people have inspired.
Machinery & equipment
We sold our MF35 tractor, and have bought a few new hand-tools, including a tilther, broadforks and a Terrateck rake. The move away from tractor cultivations has been very significant. It has led to much greater flexibility when organising our days and taken away dependency on certain machines / personnel, which can cause bottlenecks when problems occur or people are off work. We have been much less in thrall to the weather too. Instead of waiting for the right conditions for tractor cultivations we are able to get on with tasks with hand-tools virtually any day of the week.
Having said that, we have missed being able to flail crops and paths / verges, so we are now looking at a walk-behind BCS (again following JM Fortier).
We are also looking into ideas for some small electric tools similar to the Tilther as we feel the BCS equipment is expensive and difficult to get into some spaces of our farm. We feel a small flail mower attachment ( 15 inch) for a battery operated tool would be a big asset to small scale growers, especially undercover and interested in finding ways to develop such a tool.
We now use solenoid timers across our rotation, mostly with semi-permanent outdoor sprinklers (i.e. moved once and left in place for the whole season), and a mix of sprinklers and drip-tape in the tunnels. Our propagation area is also now automated with mist sprinklers, allowing different settings on different benches. These improvements have saved an enormous amount of time (several hours every week).
Organisation & efficiency
The biggest change has been moving to narrower standardised beds – we've narrowed our bed widths to 30” with 18” paths with most of our beds 50' long. We started out marking our beds with wooden stakes but switched to mypex strips with spray-paint. Standardised beds have made crop planning and record-keeping much easier, as well as predicting availability for our customers.
There have been other efficiency improvements, like:
better communication: we now use walkie-talkies which have saved us a huge amount of time
mixed lettuce sowing, leading to more efficient block harvesting of lettuce, so volumes and re-growth are more predictable
moving our tool shed to a more central part of the site
wheeled trolleys in our packing room (quicker & easier moving of produce)
simpler fold-over bags (rather than strip-sealed) for bagged produce, which has increased our bagging rate by 1.5
More and quicker bed turnovers
Ultimately all of the above improvements have manifested themselves in how many crops we have been able to grow. All the efficiencies and time savings in irrigation and packing have given us more bed prep / planting / sowing time. That means more crops in the ground. Getting on with hand-tools has meant turning over and re-planting / sowing beds any day of the week – although a flail mower and tilther or power harrow would in some situations speed bed prep up even more.
Overall our average number of crops per bed per season (across the whole site, both indoor and outdoor production) has increased from less than 1.5 to 2.2. There's scope to increase this even more.
It's striking that so many of our influences are coming out of N America. We've found that some aspects of their business or production models are not directly translatable to the UK, and it would be good for us UK growers to explore these a bit more. For example:
Climate – especially in relation to crop covers and structures. We've found fleeces and meshes to often be problematic with our lower light levels and higher humidity. We are also not convinced by the various caterpillar tunnel designs out there, mostly in terms of how windy we are here – we have come up with our own more robust movable tunnel design
Inputs – some of the hotshots (e.g. Neversink and Curtis Stone) favour low-bulk bought-in fertilisers instead of higher-bulk homemade or municipal composts, something many of us UK growers would not favour (in terms of ghost acres)
Access to tools – many of the tools used in N America are only available to import at a very high cost. We need some manufacturers over here, or some more coordinated tool hacking amongst us growers – e.g. to replicate the tilther or Neversink flame weeder. We have made some tools ourselves, bought a bespoke broadfork (with 6 tines, a better fit for 30” beds), and Terrateck in France have some very useful kit
Markets – on the one hand, real organic growers in the US are threatened by non-soil-based dilution of organic standards and, in general, trade in a lower-price food culture than even we have here in the UK. On the other hand, many of the hotshot growers appear to operate in highly lucrative pockets of market demand that feel a long way from the reality here in the UK
Product presentation – there's a strong focus in N America on washing and spinning leaves and herbs so that the final product is relatively dry. We have not found spinning to be necessary when selling our leaves but it would be good to learn more on why this is a recurring method and if there are benefits to preparing greens in this way.