The life of a modern market gardener: “I turn up after the kids have gone to school, let the dogs out to chase around until the rabbits disappear, then I look at the damage they’ve done and swear,” said Matthew West. “Then I put the water on, prioritise picking and sowing, and have a pot of coffee with Martin in his polytunnel and talk about rabbits and badgers and caterpillars.” He pondered while cheerfully stamping on a horse fly: “I had no illusions, I knew it would be hard work. But I absolutely love it.”
After four years on the job, Matthew is now producing 600 winter squash, 2,000 cucumbers, a ton of courgettes, and countless beans, peas and lettuce leaves every year as a local organic farmer for Beanies Wholefoods. Fellow farmer Martin Bradshaw sells dozens of biodynamic vegetable boxes each week from his Moss Valley Market Garden, and a few yards away Sheffield Organic Gardeners and Hazelhurst Community Supported Agriculture Co-operative are shipping fruit and veg across the city, all from their idyllic rolling farmland on the edge of southern Sheffield.
“The demand is there now, and growing,” said Huw Evans, who reclaimed the farmland on the 12 acre hillside off Hazelhurst Lane five years ago. Now there are eight people employed on the fields (possibly a few more once a plot is reassigned in the near future) with scores of volunteers helping out.
“We need more volunteers at Hazelhurst CSA,” said Kim Davison, “for sowing, growing and harvesting fun.”
Of course, it really is hard work, everyone said as they basked in the sun on the scheme open day last Sunday. But it’s worth it: the public are demanding locally grown produce, more greengrocers and delicatessens are opening, and Huw admitted it can be hard to keep up with demand: he recently had to turn down an order for potatoes for Sheffield Teaching Hospitals because the Hazelhurst farmers couldn’t (yet) supply 400 kilos a day.
His response has been to build an insulated off-grid barn with rodent-proof climate-controlled fruit and veg stores, designed ready for solar panels to power electric delivery vehicles (once battery and vehicle technology have caught up with his ideas). Hazelhurst is a long term project, Huw said: his fruit trees are approaching commercial cropping levels (he expects 2.5 tons of apples and pears this year, from 30 or more varieties) and hopes the trees will supply his great-grandchildren’s generation.
Huw’s mum, Margaret, added that the French have always supported local market gardeners, and it seems Britain is coming back to the idea too.
“People like to know where their food comes from,” said Kim Davison. “Customers also like to know that they directly employ us, without a chain of less and less money as it goes down to the farm workers.”
On sunny summer’s days, with small children picking their own gooseberries and black, red and white currants, it’s easy to forget the rodent attacks, and the predations of the legendary Hazelhurst mega badger, who ‘eats anything’ and even climbs trees for his organic fruit supply.
Organic growers need to take a balanced view of wildlife: the loan of Heeley City Farm pigs to clear couch grass is one example, the squealing of rabbits trying to roll off a death-dealing weasel is another. “There’s a creative tension between the rabbit population and weasels,” said Huw. The weasels join the farm community when the rabbits are about to overrun the crops, it seems.
Matthew West originally saw the venture as an experiment: could his plot support someone earning a wage? Most of the growers have other work to make ends meet, but by 2015 he, Huw, Kim and Martin all spend the majority of their time working in the fields, which is just how they like it.
“Sheffield needs this kind of thing,” said Matthew, “and it feels to me like there’s scope for a lot more.” The rabbits - and weasels - will be delighted.
Sheffield Organic Growers host their ‘pick your own soft fruit’ days every Saturday from 11am to 4pm until August 8. Visit www.sheffieldorganicgrowers.co.uk for details.