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During what turned out to be the warmest September on record, the Better Food Shed (BFS) team took a trip to one of our longest-serving suppliers: Ripple Farm Organics, a Soil Association certified 14 acre site in Crundale Kent, nestled between Ashford and Canterbury. They were welcomed with a lunch of freshly harvested sweetcorn before touring the farm.
Here BFS operations manager Mathew recounts what he discovered about wildlife-friendly farming, the importance of green manures and how much the weather and our changing climate dictates what happens on the farm and in turn, what ends up in your veg bag!
Martin has farmed at Ripple for thirty years, so he knows a thing or two about growing food sustainably.
The farm is split over three sites in the Stour Valley, with the North Downs rising up behind it and offering some shelter– though it can mean that weather can change with little warning. On the day we visited it had rained heavily the night before and rained on and off throughout the morning yet the soil was already dry.
We managed to dodge any showers while we were with Martin, but he could not harvest any potatoes that day because of the rain. He set his team to hand weeding instead, which this season has been a constant job. The damp warm weather has really meant the weeds grow quickly – however, many crops have also done well. It has definitely been a ‘better’ summer on Martin’s land than when there was a drought last year. Cool, damp conditions have kept the fly beetle away meaning leafy greens such as kale and chard have been flourishing.
The Better Food Shed plays a pivotal role in Martin's distribution, purchasing 50% of his produce annually. The rest he sells direct at farmers markets in Kent and at Growing Communities Farmers' Market (in Stoke Newington), and to his own veg box scheme.
Thanks to the support of our GC and BFS customers, the farm is able to sustain between 10-15 employees throughout the year.
Martin showed us the difference in growth between lettuces that were planted a week apart and we couldn't help but notice the 'weeds' flourishing too. Martin was having to spend many of his team’s hours weeding by hand or with ‘finger weeder’ machines where possible. This is an unavoidable job for farmers like ours, who don't use toxic herbicides to kill off the weeds.
Despite the fact that Martin and his team are spending a lot of the season weeding, there is an appreciation of their benefits too. Between much of his crops and along the edges of his fields there was an abundance of wildflowers and ‘weeds’ such as amaranth that are beneficial to the soil, birds, bees and other pollinators.
Martin also highlighted the impact of a small pond on biodiversity, and encourages anyone to build one - big or small. He said this had made more of an impact on the biodiversity on this part of his farm than anything else. Martin and his wife Sarah have cameras set up to watch the variety of animals that pass by or stop to drink at it. You can see their wildlife updates here.
The most striking thing I learned on our visit was that Martin currently has two-thirds of his land under green manure. Green manure are plants grown to improve the soil quality. As Danny said to me on the day, organic farming prioritizes feeding the land and soil rather than feeding the plant.
Martin plants rye grass, Italian rye grass and clover. He will cut this and then leave it as mulch or dig it into the soil. After this, a new crop can be planted and use the nutrients they have passed on to the soil.
Green manures work but fixing nitrogen in the soil, by covering bare soil to prevent nutrients from leaking, and by breaking up the soil with their root structures. They are natural weed suppressants. Generally, after a patch of land at Ripple has green manure on for 6 months, Martin will then plant brassicas, such as kale, to make first use of the nutrient rich soil.
After harvesting this he will move onto crops that do not require such nutrient dense soil, such as potatoes. It's remarkable how much of Martin's land is dedicated to nurturing the soil, in stark contrast to non-organic farms that rely heavily on chemical fertilizers.
The next field we passed through was full of crops that the Better Food Shed will see through the Autumn. We saw broccoli and flower sprouts growing and then a lot of many varieties of squash. Spaghetti, red kuri, crown prince, cannonball, and a few butternut (which generally prefer hotter climates) were all growing abundantly. As I write this Martin has added spaghetti squash onto our produce list, we can all look forward to the other squash coming through as the autumn progresses.
Our journey concluded with a visit to Martin's potato fields. A blight-resistant variety, Red Rudolph, thrived alongside pink fir plants which had sadly succumbed to blight. This year, Martin's potato crop exceeded expectations and he was grateful we were able to sell so many each week. One of the great things about working so closely with our farmers is we're able to minimise on farm food waste by adapting our orders. There isn't this flexibility in the supermarket-led system.
So, with a van laden with potatoes destined for our London customers, we bid farewell to Ripple Farm Organics.
By supporting farms like Ripple, we not only get to enjoy fresh, delicious produce but also foster a healthier planet and a more resilient food system for the future.
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