The Straw Cottage

eco-accommodation and growing experiments on a small scale


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The good old days?

The second speaker up on arable farm day at ORFC14 was Henry Edmunds, a Wiltshire organic farmer. Henry is an advocate of rotational ley farming – pretty much how farming was pre WW2 when grass and grazing animals improved soil ready for combinable crops later in the rotation. Over the last 60 years arable farms have become dependent on machinery and chemicals, creating a clinical environment. Grazed animals, on the other hand, build high organic matter in the soil – holding and providing more plant available nutrients. Henry showed amazing photo after photo of flowers, birds, butterflies and other insects on his farm to illustrate the biodiversity his farming methods encouraged.

Henry employs 15 staff on his 2,500 acre holding. I know that is a much higher employment rate than on most large modern farms. A quick online search found a report from the UK Food Group stating that there was roughly 1 person employed per 210 hectares (520 acres) of arable crops in 1993. On that basis Henry would employ 5 people (probably less now as employment rates have continued to decline in the last 20 years), so he is doing at least three times better than the UK average.

The same report stated that in 1950, 1 person was employed per 31 hectares (77 acres) so back then Henry’s farm would have provided a livelihood for 32 people. Agricultural work in 1950 was physically very demanding and I wouldn’t recommend a return to the past in that way – there’s nothing wrong with appropriate machinery making physical tasks easier. But 32 clever human brains working to improve natural and agricultural biodiversity – now that would be interesting work.


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Happy New Year

2014 resolution number 1 – start blogging – been meaning to for a few years now! Just get on with it woman!!

First one about growing potatoes – been drafting it (and the accompanying report) for weeks so might be too long winded. Resolution number 2 – try to be quick and brief 🙂

Growing potatoes Potato notes 2013

I grow early or “new” potatoes because they are very popular with my family. Nothing surpasses the taste of a freshly dug new potato. Also, from an organic growing point of view, you can get a decent crop of early potatoes before the arrival of blight.

Summer 2012 was very wet – perfect conditions for the spread of blight. I was able to save my crop by simply cutting off the tops of the potatoes at the first sign of blight. As the crop below ground was fairly well developed by then we could just dig them up as required and they were as fresh and tasty as usual. Commercial potato growers spray their crops many times through the growing season to keep blight infections at bay. As I refuse to use any chemical intervention, I could lose my entire crop if I were to grow main crop varieties in a blight year (although a lady staying in the straw bale holiday cabin told me how a man on her allotment could manage to grow a potatoes despite blight by covering them in some fine green mesh he recycled from a building sites – I’ve made a note to try this next year!).

Summer 2013 was sunny and dry and I grew good yields of new potatoes. The report above (click next to title) gives a lot more detail. Here is a summary

  • New potatoes are easy to grow in the UK
  • I can grow higher yields in my garden than is possible on a farm scale
  • I can achieve those higher yields without machines. Fuel or chemicals
  • Potatoes have a high yield of calories per m2- This was useful historically when calories were in short supply and may be useful if we have food security issues in the future – or for fattening livestock.
  • Potatoes have a high GI but this can be moderated when eaten with fat and salad or vegetables.
  • 2014 to do list – try more early varieties, save own seed, follow with another crop, try a blight resistant main crop.