Farming through a pandemic: lone working
Monday, 4th May 2020 by Sophie Verhagen

Sophie Verhagen, our head grower in Hackney, shares her insights about lockdown life at the GC market gardens at Clissold Park in Stoke Newington and Springfield Park in Clapton.

On the week of 16 March this year’s trainees began their six-month traineeship with us. The weather was beautiful and the site was full of volunteers and visitors. It was a week before lockdown and we had already introduced social distancing and hygiene measures. Over the following days I had almost daily chats with [GC senior manager] Katy about how we could possibly keep the sites open to volunteers and trainees until we came to the conclusion that it simply wasn’t feasible to do so and keep everyone safe. With great regret, we closed the sites to all except myself and patchwork farmers, who use the sites for seed sowing.

Where have all the people gone?

In pre-Covid times I was as much a manager of people as a grower – they make the sites what they are as much as the plants do. I spent much of my days instructing people, checking on work done, guiding and delegating. On the sites, friendships have been formed, lunches shared and connections made amid the greenery surrounding us. I miss all the people who come to the sites and enrich my life in countless ways.

Now, I am first and foremost the grower. Where I used to spend 16-18 hours a week on the sites, I now do around 30 hours, with an additional seven hours generously thrown in by Tom, one of our patchworkers who helps me at Springfield on Mondays. The work is intense and focused and I try not to rush around as I know this is a marathon, not a sprint.

April is always the busiest month of the year, as we have the full flush of our winter salad crops giving us peak harvest and we are also starting to plant out our summer crops. After two long days of physical work on the sites, we then pack our salad at the Old Fire Station on Tuesday evenings, getting it ready to put in the veg bags on Wednesday mornings. The past weeks we’ve been packing over 100kg of salad from our Hackney and Dagenham farms; this keeps a team of eight people busy for at least four hours.

Mindful moments

During the first weeks of working on my own, my body protested loudly at the new sustained demands being placed upon it. However, I am slowly getting stronger and I realise I am noticing more on the sites while I am on my own there. The garlic mustard that is growing alongside the rhubarb, the robin that follows me around as I plant up the beds, the nasturtiums that have self-seeded from last year. I am quicker with decisions as I am more focused. And I’m able to catch up on podcasts such as Farming Today and Farmerama.

I am so very fortunate as in some ways my working week has not changed much – I still go to work, I can still see people at the salad pack and in the office on a Tuesday evening. I just have more work and fewer people to do it alongside me. I feel so lucky to be able to be out in nature with my hands in the soil for several days a week at this time when so many are confined indoors. I really look forward to when we will be able to share those lovely spaces again together.

Author name: 
Sophie Verhagen