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Farming for Townies - Winter

PUBLISHED: 11:20 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 February 2013

At this time of year, most of the cattle - except for the Gloucester - are coming in for the winter

At this time of year, most of the cattle - except for the Gloucester - are coming in for the winter

It's time to put the cows to bed for the winter, but grain shortages and rising prices will make life difficult for some Gloucestershire farmers says Hilary Chester-Master

In November, we aim to finish the field crop and garden plantings of the year. Last on our list on the farm are the winter beans, which do better if not planted too early in the autumn. We are reducing the area for 2008 as this year's harvest was not good - all stalk and no pod. (Most probably due to wet weather, says John). Not only was there very little sun, but the near-constant wet reduced the insect life, so little pollination took place.

In the smaller-scale vegetable garden, we also plant our winter beans, garlic and onions. This year, we are trying sweet peas too. Opinion seems to be divided as to the best time to plant them, so we are experimenting. Maybe there will be some to sell next year. This year they were late and sad. But our vegetables in general have been fine.

We are harvesting like mad. Yesterday, I counted 43 of our own vegetables in the farm shop on one day. And the cooks are happy (always a good thing) with so much to choose from for the lunch menu. Our raspberries have been fantastic this summer and autumn: sweet, prolific and long lasting, which means a shop freezer full of summer tastes in winter.

The tunnel plastic covers need washing, the sheds need tidying, and the planning needs to start for next year's rotation, like growers the world over.

Changing clocks mean shorter days and, on the majority of farms, a change in routine. Most of our cows - except for the Gloucesters - are now coming in for the winter, tucked up in the sheds with full rations. This has not been a good year for farmers, particularly in some parts of Gloucestershire. Although our harvest was not good, we have been much more fortunate than some of our poor fellow farmers, especially in the Tewkesbury area. We managed to dodge the rain enough to make some good silage.

Having a heap of lovely silage is a good way to start the winter: good for the cows and good for the budget. We won't have to buy in extra food, we hope, as any concentrate will be extremely expensive, particularly in a year of grain shortages (and organic even more so).

Our dairy cows have calved and are now into winter-milking production. We have a mixed herd of 25 Shorthorns and Friesians, with approximately 14 milking once a day. As I write this, I am crossing my fingers: this week we are practising making semi-skimmed milk and our own cream for the first time, to sell in the shop. The milk produced by each cow is quite variable. Some give up to 25 litres on a good day; some give only six. The Shorthorns - as was expected - give far less, a reflection of the genetics of the breed. When fed more, Shorthorns tend to give a little more milk; after that, they just start to get fat.

Friesians have a much higher potential, and the more food we feed them, the more milk they give. It will be very interesting to see what our Shorthorn-cross-Friesian calves do in the future. We are in conversation with one of the only other farmers we know with organic dairy Shorthorns about swapping bulls in a couple of years' time. This is to make sure Maestro, our Shorthorn bull, does not father his own grandchildren. (If you see what I mean.)

In November, we have a routine dairy hygiene inspection, checking up on our housing, animals and milking facilities. This is done by the Food Standards Agency and is rigorous.

Our pigs, which have moved to a new area of the farm, eat a bit more in the colder weather to keep themselves warm. Their grazing is monitored closely in the winter; we give them much bigger areas as they turn over the ground faster when it is softer. Our table birds are ready now. They need more food, more gas to keep them warm and, all in all, seem to be very happy. Quite right too, as their lives are so short...

Many farmers will be selling fat-stock - ready-to-eat animals in layman's terms - and stores not ready to eat yet animals that need fattening up by someone else -at this time. This is so they don't take up valuable grazing over the winter, or extra food. Our system is more geared to slow-finishing, particularly in relation to the sheep. We have no pressure on our grazing land, and our soil is quite free-draining, so we can sell our animals beneficially later in the year.

It is well known that there are fewer and fewer skilled craftsmen left in the world of agriculture, and those that there are might be over the age of 60. This is also true in the area of growing. Growers, a term used to describe men and women who know how to grow vegetables and fruit as a profession, are particularly thin on the ground. How many small commercial holdings do you know of? The work is hard and repetitive; the hours are long; and the profit often uncertain. More people need to learn the skills of growing on a small commercial level, for how else are we going to deliver all the local food people are asking for?

With this in mind, a year ago a couple of other local growers and I began discussions about setting up an apprenticeship scheme in conjunction with the Soil Association and Elm Farm Research Association. About a year on, the pilot scheme was launched here at Abbey Home Farm, with the Soil Association now at the helm. One of our full-time gardeners, Becca, will be our first apprentice. As well as being part of our paid vegetable growing team here at The Organic Farm Shop, she will attend 16 modules over the two years of 'growing theory' given by the pick of UK organic growers. Apprentices can be anyone from a school-leaver who loves growing vegetables to a university graduate or ex-city person. We hope there will be a lot of applicants as the scheme develops, for only when more people learn to grow food on a human scale will there be enough local food for us all.

On that subject, it is interesting to note that an advertisement in two local newspapers did not find anyone with experience in dairy processing. And it's not just in Gloucestershire. An acquaintance of mine, who is a master butcher in a well-known London store, says he is working 12-hour days, seven days a week at the moment, because he cannot find good butchers to help. This is the age of sitting behind a computer. It is to be hoped the demand for quality local food will open up the doors for food craftsmen and women to be seen as fashionable again. That is all very well, I hear you say; but what about the true cost of not only production but also of processing, if people are going to earn a good enough wage to want to do it?

Therein lies the problem. Comments gratefully received.


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