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We caught up with Alice, head grower at our Dagenham Farm, to find out how the growing season is going over there.
You may have had a tasty bag of Dagenham Salad in your veg bag by now as they've had an abundance of leafy greens so far this year.
But recently Alice and her team have been having a very tough time with floods, pests and disease and have suffered some heavy losses. It may sound a bit biblical, but they really have been battling against the odds to keep those crops growing.
Alice was downhearted as she showed me around the glasshouse where her tomatoes succumbed to blight. The ground got too wet during the heavy rains a few weeks ago and disease set in. She had to remove about a third of them and trim back the rest to keep the blight from spreading. To cover her losses, Alice quickly replanted new tomato seedlings she had in reserve and is busy deploying hundreds of leafy green plug plants.
Alice explains: “The tomatoes are a huge loss but the salad leaves are really our biggest earners, so if I can fill the gaps in tomato yield with more salad leaves, we should be ok financially.”
The slugs and snails have been relentless too, consuming whole beds of salad, squash and brassicas. Even Shelagh's sunflower and dahlias made a very sophisticated supper for some greedy gastropods. As an organic farm, we don't use pesticides to protect our crops. As with weeding, hands do a lot of the hard work rather than chemicals. Ashlea described how they go on regular snail hunts around the site and fill whole buckets up with them. Perhaps we should add escargots to the farmers' market offerings!
In the outdoor veg patches, Alice showed me some more carnage as the birds have really been going for the broccoli, chard and kale this year. “They don't usually eat our crops that much but this year they must be really hungry because whatever we leave uncovered will get stripped clean by the birds.” Alice tells us this is perhaps a sign that another local source of food for the birds has dried up.
Despite these losses, the farm is looking lush and abundant, with an array of leafy greens. Plum, peach and apple trees all over the site are bearing fruit. Tomato, cucumber, French beans and even grapevines are climbing their way upwards. Bees are buzzing everywhere; you can hear the sound of crickets and if you look hard enough you'll spot a few ladybirds dotted around the place.
I met the Kickstart trainees, Rae and Gemma (left and right above, with Ashlea in the middle), both 19 years old and living locally. They were busy planting out new greens when I came to visit: these were to replace the plants that were devoured by their slimy adversaries. They've only been working on the farm for two months but they seem completely at home and very confident with their work.
Thanks to their efforts, the Dagenham Farm produce should pick up again very soon so our veg scheme members can enjoy more lovely Dagenham tomatoes, cucumbers, salad and beans.