A day in the life of an organic vegetable farmer

_JCA4604 copyBy Alasdair Smithson

One of the great things about organic farming is that no two days are the same, which makes it a good profession for those of us who like variety and thinking on our feet.

It’s also a job where you have to develop new skills and learn how to be thrifty. Farming is dependent on the weather, so jobs that may have been planned for a particular day often have to be rescheduled due to factors such as heavy rain or baking heat.

7am

We had heavy showers overnight, which has loosened the soil, making it easier to weed and sow seeds. As it’s a chilly morning, we’re starting the day by clearing a couple of old beds of pak choy that were harvested earlier in the week. The growing system on this farm is a no-dig, raised bed one, which means all the weeding is done by hand and by using hand-held hoes.

It’s a good way to warm up and as we pull the weeds out of the ground we fill the wheelbarrow and take the weeds to the compost pile. Turning the compost piles is a job for another day, but when the piles have broken down and matured they will be returned to the vegetable beds, thus closing the fertility loop and putting organic matter back into the soil. The earthworms will convert the organic matter into humus, which provides food for the crops.

10am

The cleared vegetable bed is ready for us to plant the next crop into. As pak choy belongs to the Brassica family, we are planting a member of a different vegetable family. By keeping our crops rotated we prevent build-up in the soil of pests and diseases, which are common in monoculture farming systems. Coriander is a great crop for the cooler months of the subtropics and is what we sow into the empty beds. The sowing of the organic seed is all done by hand into shallow lines scored in the soil and then covered up with a couple of centimetres of soil.

12pm

It’s time to turn on the pump that takes water via our spring-fed dam to the newly planted crop. Call it Murphy’s Law but the pump doesn’t start and I have to spend the next hour working through a process of elimination to solve the problem.

1pm

After a bite to eat I walk through the coriander crop checking for the first signs of their needing a feed or weed and for any emerging pest and disease problems. I’m also looking at what will be ready to harvest for next week’s home delivery boxes. There is a bit of damage in the cavolo nero kale, caused by the caterpillar of the cabbage white moth, and a few spots of mildew appearing on the tomato leaves.

2pm

Time to get a bug and mildew spray out and pick 60 cos lettuce for an early morning delivery to a local cafe.

The spray I use is a mixture of neem and eco-oil, which the caterpillars ingest from the crop. This disrupts their endocrine system, which causes them to die and therefore breaks their lifecycle and prevents them from emerging into butterflies. The butterflies would subsequently lay more eggs that turn into caterpillars, which would then eat more of our kale leaves.

3pm

I also put an ecocarb® spray out onto the tomato plants, which will slow down the spread of the mildew across the leaves. Although the crops are looking super healthy and the soil is biologically rich and high in minerals and trace elements, it’s inevitable in organic farming there will be some pests and diseases to manage – especially in the subtropics, where the weather can be extreme.

The natural sprays we use on the crops are all non-synthetic and come from other plant forms. They are not broad spectrum, so therefore don’t have a negative impact on our beneficial insects. These products, along with the organic seed we use, aren’t cheap though. Coupled with the high labour cost of hand-weeding – rather than spraying herbicides on our weeds – hand seeding, harvesting and making our own compost, the cost of the food we produce is higher than that of our conventional counterparts. Conventional properties are often large-scale, monoculture farms that are heavily reliant on fossil fuels and synthetic fertilisers and in my opinion produce tasteless, low-nutrient-content food.

4pm

Time to complete the business side of things. Back to the office to check emails, return phone calls, record the day’s farm activities in our log to comply with our organic certification requirements, pay bills and wages, apologise to patient creditors, chase up monies from debtors and plan cash flow and crop schedules.

6pm

Dinner time!

All in a typical 11-hour day of an organic farmer.

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