Going Organic! What Organic Means 4 Months On
Behaviourist and broadcaster, Jez Rose, blogs about the process of achieving Soil Association Organic Certification for his Cambridgeshire farm and home to The Good Life Project.
It’s hard to believe that its been almost 4 months since the inspector from the Soil Association visited us to make his initial inspection and help guide us to achieving certified organic status. So much has happened in that time that it seems so much longer – I had to check the date twice and rummage in my paperwork to find the confirmation letter as I didn’t trust the calendar!
We’ve made so much progress with the development of the farm that I’m sure Mike (the inspector) wouldn’t recognise the place – when he visited the site was technically a building site.
But it’s not just about our progress, having started with a bare patch of land, the impact of Spring was remarkable on the large bare patches of grass and soil. The blank, baron raised beds are now full of life, bursting with potato crops, shallots and garlic, peas, clover, cucumber, tomatoes, parsnips, lettuce, kale, asparagus and the fruits have suddenly sprung into action: strawberries, raspberry, blackberry, tayberry and apples – from bare roots, crowns, plugs and tiny seeds, we’re enjoying every day the beauty and magnitude of nature.
In the short time since we began this journey, I’ve converted a few others to try organic, met with a fair few other organic farmers, answered questions from other people interested in learning more about what organic farming is, isn’t and to allay fears of complexity and have begun to better understand the important role organisations like the Soil Association really play.
In order for the certification process to be measured and quantified, the Soil Association ask for records to be kept of what you buy, what you plant and what you do to the soil. I can’t speak for other organic organisations, however, I suspect it’s a similar process and it makes sense to me: anyone could in theory say that they were farming organically and, for example, be buying in compost from a source that wasn’t organic. Anyone questioning our process can see from invoices and calculations where we source everything from and where it is used. Some people have raised concerns about the paperwork and record keeping but it’s essentially really simple. I don’t always have time to complete the paperwork or to sit down and add to the forms, so I simply make a note in my phone or in the notebook I keep in the greenhouse when I thin the lettuce, or sow new seeds, for example. Then at the weekend or when I’ve got a few minutes, I collate all of that in the formal paperwork and the job is done. However, the requirement to keep records has provided a level of interest I didn’t ever imagine I could get from gardening.
Aside from the usual things gardeners and farmers often talk about such as a calmness, feeling at one with nature, escape, tranquility etc, there’s something about keeping records of what you do and tracking the growth of the various things you plant, that is quite addictive. It draws you in and far from stripping the fun out of it, actually enhances the feeling of a real sense of achievement. Now, I might just be speaking for me but when I sowed my parsnips, which I’d never done in my life, I didn’t understand the terminology on the packet. So I thought I’d sow half the seeds deep and half of them shallow, marked the two drills and effectively set up my own experiment to see which would grow best. Without the requirement to maintain records, I’m confident that I wouldn’t be nearly as interested in the detail of what is growing, how well or why, nor that I’d be as fascinated by nature – it’s too easy to simple throw on some fertiliser, pesticide and fungicide. With organic growing, the sense of pride in knowing that you’re growing the most natural food possible is surpassed only by the rich understanding you gain of just how important soil is for the health of everything that goes in it and indeed for our health, too. Take this for example: there’s a bacterium in soil called Mycobacterium vaccae, which has been shown to have antidepressant-like properties, enhancing levels of serotonin in the brain. The results are so significant in control studies that scientific trials are now being undertaken to better understand this important advance in our understanding. This may well be the scientific, underlying reason – or cause – for gardeners citing why being in the garden makes them feel less stressed and happier. Other studies and community group programmes have demonstrated how gardening has been beneficial in those with mental health issues and learning difficulties and it appears that it may well be a little more than just the activity but the physical contact with soil itself that is the behavioural, health and wellbeing marker.
I guess we have a lot to thank the Soil Association for because without their campaigning, regulation and education, we certainly wouldn’t be aiming to be an organic site; I doubt very much that I’d be as interested in growing food produce as I am (or nearly as successful with it) and a whole area of scientific understanding wouldn’t have crept into The Good Life Project. We’re now encouraging workplaces and individuals to have physical contact with soil, achieved by planting their own desktop herb gardens.
It’s been far from easy, however, not wanting to put anyone off, that’s simply because we started from scratch and did a lot in a very short space of time: we planted 8 new apple trees in the orchard, made and filled 9 raised vegetable beds, ordered an eye-watering amount of seeds and plants, filled the greenhouse, potted over 30 herbs… we had a lot of space to fill! It’s beginning to feel now like things are much more established – a lot of the really hard work; the construction, the filling of empty beds (they take SO much soil! Massively underestimated that!) and planting is all over. Keeping on top of weeds and watering is part of the joy – on really dry days it can take 3 hours to water the farm but, again, that’s because everything is new, tender and recently planted. I’ve now installed an irrigation system into the vegetable garden, which was, in classic Heath Robinson style, created from odd lengths of pipe donated by my parents-in-law, left at their new house by the previous owner.
One Sunday my Father came to visit, who has always taken the subject of lawns very seriously. His lawn is lush and a sacrosanct place worthy of any RHS prize for lawns, if one existed. Hours upon hours were spent carefully mowing and conditioning it to premier football pitch standards. When I got a new puppy who dug a hole in the lawn the size of an Olympic swimming pool, it was a difficult few weeks to live at home. As he walked around the house, he spotted daisies, clover and some weeds in the lawn and was horrified: “you’ll need to kill those off”, he said with authority. I explained the importance of clover on biodiversity, soil health and how much the bees loved it, providing an important early pollen source. I also explained how, while I’d hand dig the weeds out over several weekends, as long as I aerated the lawn and provided some rich compost, it would sort itself out: nature knows what it is doing and I’d much rather a natural, balanced and real lawn and environment, rather than one that requires constant maintenance because of its unnatural, chemically-generated existence.
So there you go – in just 4 short months we’ve gone from bare patch of land to feeling very confident about doing things organically. We’ve a long way to go yet – the certification process is 2 years in total but we’ve a lot more to do and a lot of plans to fulfil. I’m sure we’ll soon get in the rhythm and being organic will soon become second nature, without having to think too much about it. It already feels the right thing to be doing.
Jez Rose is a behaviourist, broadcaster and the Faculty Lead of The Good Life Project. A recipeint of the Beverly Hills Book Award, he is recording his experiences of setting up an organic farm on his blog.