The Building Blocks of Growing for Health

The Building Blocks of Growing for Health – 40 Years of Organic Growing in the Aeron Valley, Wales

Anne Evans has lived and worked at Blaencamel Farm in the Aeron Valley for 40 years, growing and selling organic vegetables with her partner Peter Seggar. Anne ran the farm herself from 1985 -2005 and latterly she has concentrated on the farm’s greenhouse production and plant raising. She has acquired experience in all aspects of the organic supply chain; from her own successful on-farm shop, supermarkets to farmers’ markets, and now under Covid restrictions, on-line supply.

Anne and Peter have been Soil Association organic growers since 1974, and for twenty of those years, Anne was a member of the Soil Association Horticulture Standards Committee.

Blaencamel is in the Aeron Valley, 6 miles from Cardigan Bay in South West Wales.

The farm is Grade 4 soil, and very stony. Vegetables are produced year round from 1.5 acres of greenhouses and approximately 12 acres of field crops.

Our greenhouse production was expanded hugely 10 years ago when we began planning for climate change.  The greenhouses allow us to extend the growing season so that we have year round production of vegetables.

Fertility

The fertility to grow the crops is based on 2 things:

Rotation:  Fields are put into grass/clover or red clover leys for 3 years before they produce vegetables, and then they each produce vegetables for 3 years in their own rotation.

We no longer have sheep on the farm, so we are entering a new phase of management of grass and green manures.

CompostFor 20 years we have been using the Controlled Microbial Composting system.  This is an aerobic method of making compost involving windrows, covers and a turner.

We are looking for a particular C:N balance which is suitable for horticultural crops.

The ingredients for our compost are vegetable waste including crop residues, cut clover, wood chip (which is a by product of the management of our extensive hedgerows) wool, historically, but this will change, and a small % of stable manure from a local cob stable.

Rotation and compost are the foundation of the farm’s health. 

The compost feeds the soil,  not through NPK as such but by an inoculation of micro organisms which in the soil can breed up.  

We do not know what they all are, there are millions of them and they all have a function.  From our point of view, the more of them the better, and from as wide a range as possible.  But the key is that they should come from good aerobic compost.

The micro organisms work together to feed an environment which protects health.  We have thought for some time that this is analogous to human health and the role of the gut biome, an area of interest which is now receiving serious scientific attention.

Crop health

This is based on the above, ie the farm’s health.  We are aiming for vitality.

At its most basic, I am looking for crops with:

– good plant structure

– intense flavour

– vibrant colour

Do these come from the variety?  Or from the farming system?  We feel that they come from both to some extent.

Varieties

We grow a wide range of crops, 50 or so, and within some types more than 1 variety.

– we include vegetables from open pollinated and heirloom seed.  These are probably inherently good for vitality, but they are not always commercially brilliant.  Some, especially tomatoes (eg Black Russian) have such an incredible flavour that they are worth the effort in growing them.

– we also grow hybrids.  These give us commercial reliability in terms of timing, predictability and yield.

We do note that our growing system seems to add vitality to what you might term normal varieties.  When customers are impressed with the flavour of something we have grown, the first thing they ask is what the variety is, as though this is bound to be the answer. 

An example would be Elsanta strawberries, which until recently was the variety we grew in our greenhouses.  This is a commercial variety commonly sold in supermarkets, from non-organic systems, and which frankly are underwhelming in flavour.  Yet this same variety, grown in Blaencamel’s greenhouses, have a huge reputation locally for their flavour.  

Another example are our carrots.  These are grown from non organic seed.  ‘Why?’ you might ask.  The answer is that we had several crop failures following very wet weather, with the carrots ‘kippering’ and we resorted to a conventional F1 seed which could tolerate these conditions.  Yet our carrots are well known for their intense flavour (and also vibrant colour and long shelf life).

We are of course talking about flavonoids and carotenoids.  

The choice of varieties is complex; variety can definitely influence flavour, but it does not determine it.

As a side issue, we also grow some flowers.  Again, as for example with sweet peas, what is noticeable is the vibrancy of their colour and intensity of fragrance.  And also a long vase life.

Unusual varieties

Another side note.  We also like to search out experimental crops to try for the first time.  These could be based on our travels, or reading, or responding to suggestions from chefs or requests from customers.

Recent examples are;

– Various types of heirloom tomatoes, as we sell a mixed selection of these.  ‘Ageing hippies’ in California provide a good source of seed.

– Agretti, or Salsola, a samphire-like green vegetable found growing wild on the coastal plain of northern Italy but which thrives in our greenhouses and which our customers love.

– Other popular Italian greens, like chicories, which suit early greenhouse production.

– Japanese turnip, deliciously sweet, and recommended by an Australian master chef.

– Red carrots, responding to a heartfelt request from a Pakistani customer who longed for the carrots of her homeland.

These vegetables, new to us, often have something to offer by way of flavour or colour early in the season and which meet our customers’ needs.

Harvest

Moving on to harvest, this introduces another aspect of growing for health.  

-the time and method of harvest is often intuitive and governed by weather for outside crops and observation generally.

-the speed of distribution is relevant, and in our case supplying more local markets primarily for reasons of sustainability has the side effect of improving quality.

Studies have shown that the use of good compost promotes post-harvest quality.  Indeed, this was the very reason we were introduced to CMC composting.  Feedback from our customers tells us that our vegetables have a very good shelf life. (See also early work showing crystallisation photos.)

Conclusion

The government’s message of recommending that everyone should eat at least 5 portions of vegetables per day is clearly very important but is an absolutely basic minimum; a first step which should not end there.

We need to look at the whole food chain process, so that the way that those five a day are grown becomes relevant for health. The challenge is how to get this understood and promoted. 

Any ideas? Do get in touch: secretary@wholehealthag.org

Anne

See Anne speaking at the recent Wales Real Food and Farming Conference in our session ‘Managing Health From Farm to Fork’

About the author: Anne Evans runs Blaencamel Organic Farm, Lampeter, Ceredigion, growing and selling organic vegetables with her partner Peter Seggar. Their produce can bought from the on-farm shop and at local farmers’ markets. Full details can be found on their facebook page.

 

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