Hannah McCollum, Founder at ChicP, spends a Wonderful Week at Flourish Produce, a 32 acre farm in Cambridgeshire that grows organic vegetables, fruit, flowers and herbs.
During this week I could not have imagined how much I would learn in such a short space of time and how much I enjoyed being outside all day, in the soil with such a wonderful group of people. The time and physical work that goes into producing organic vegetables is just astronomical.
It is so important that we all appreciate the value of quality, home grown food and the people that put their livelihoods into it.
Below is a small insight into the daily tasks required, rolling out of bed at 6.40 in the barn to attend the 7am daily meeting downstairs (very ideal) and ending the day at 3pm, sometimes 4pm if it was chore day, often to finish the afternoon with cooking, a walk and catching up with all things ChicP!
I hope you enjoy this little journal.
After a good nights sleep in the barn and having been shown round by Calixta who runs the farm on Sunday evening, I was prepared for our first meeting and looking forward to what the day had in store.
There were around 15 of us; chefs, catering company founders, French girls gaining work experience for their agricultural degrees, people learning about how to be organic farmers, restaurateurs, ex-lawyers, an ex-computer science graduate and many more. A fascinating group who I thoroughly enjoyed being with, learning just as much from them as I was learning in the fields.
Monday is harvest day. Our first job from 7am-9am was harvesting fennel, chard and celeriac. You’re taught how to do this on the job and everyone gets straight to work, forking their vegetables out the ground carefully and filling the crates until we have collected the amount needed. The soil is so fertile, rich and full of worms, showing just how healthy and rich in nutrients it is.
I was amazed at how beautiful these vegetables are. One of my favourites to harvest was the celeriac. They varied in sizes and yet we could sell both the very small and the large ones which I loved. They had these lovely lush green sprouting leaves and huge dangling roots, full of character - both the leaves and the roots were kept so that the chefs/end suppliers could use them. I learnt that a wonderful recipe is celeriac roots fried in butter; I’ve just tried it and they’re absolutely delicious.
Most of the farm’s produce is grown for restaurants in London. The fields were abundant in unique, interesting vegetables and herbs as well as the usual daily grocery choices. Chefs in some of London’s top restaurants love to use a wide range of vegetables and herbs for their seasonal dishes, so this suits them well.
After the 9am coffee break, some of us were sent to the pack house to pack and prepare the vegetables for the vegetable boxes. I learnt of new varieties of beetroots and cabbage and enjoyed an insight into how the system works preparing boxes ready for delivery.
This was followed by a good hour of weeding in the poly tunnel where there were many different lettuce types growing. Some of the boys who had planted the lettuces a few months ago couldn’t believe how beautiful the poly was; the lettuces fully grown in all their shapes, sizes and colours was inspiring. The weeds in here were tiny, it was a very fiddly job which certainly made you notice your back and knees. A lot of the leaves under the lettuces seem to rot first so it was good to get rid of these as well.
12pm is lunch time – one person cooks lunch each day and I felt very lucky to have so many great chefs in the group! Throughout the week we had wonderful varieties of dishes of warming vegetable and pulses, often spoilt for choice. Usually with a soup and sometimes even homemade sourdough to top things off!
1-3pm: The last stint of the day, hoeing! We walked to the outer fields where the spinach and rocket were growing. Hoeing (A hoe) is an ancient and versatile agricultural and horticultural wooden stick - with a small metal hook at the end, used to shape soil, remove weeds, clear soil, and harvest root crops.
We then covered the crops back with the fleecing that protects them from the colder, wetter weather.
7am - We hoed and weeded the plant bed next to the polytunnel ready for new seeds that will be planted the next week. It’s amazing how a whole area can be transformed so quickly with just 4-5 people. Weeding by swapping from your knees to your feet is a good way to make sure you mix things up to save your back
10am: A fun and different activity on the tractor planting special Troy and Shakespeare garlic followed by Japanese onions. Calixta, the farm’s owner, was driving the tractor while Laura and I sat on a trailer with a conveyor belt type planting machine that sat between the tractor and driver. This was a unique planting process, and felt so satisfying that it was being done so naturally, without the use of fertilisers. Also great fun having chats on the trailer while concentrating extremely hard to make sure only one garlic/onion goes up the conveyor belt at a time!
A delicious lunch by Gus, my number one Argentinian buddy! Leek and potato soup with tomato pasta bake, salad and roast pumpkin.
The rest of the afternoon we were weeding the flower beds outside the poly, tidying up the entrances and taking away a lot of nightshade and chickweed that were starting to take over. You can eat chickweed (along with many other weeds) so this is next on the hummus experimenting list!
Today ended with washing down all the blue crates (a different group do this daily) to make sure all the boxes are clean for the next day. The crates are used for various different jobs throughout the day, from storing produce for the veg boxes to holding the weeds.
7am - Harvesting leeks, carrots, onions and celeriac due to lots of veg box orders. The most beautiful sky, feeling very lucky to be out in the fields.
Once harvested, we carry the boxes up to the washing shed. All the mud needs to be washed off the vegetables and tidied up so that they look perfect! The leeks have the tops cut off and then we peel the outer layers. A big job when you have so many leeks.
When harvesting celeriac, carrots, kale, beetroots and collard, we make sure to take off the outer leaves or any that have died. Quality really counts here.
Often there were lots of ‘seconds’; these are vegetables that aren’t good enough for selling. There is certainly a market for these and as discussed on the farm, there is a real difficulty getting rid of them, even food banks turn them down although they’re absolutely fine! We would often collect as much as possible to use for staff meals. The rest would be used for compost or left where they were in the field. This helps the soil’s nutrients for the next planting. It’s a muddy job!
After coffee break, leek & onion preparation - taking the leaves off every leek and onion, wiping each one down with a towel to make sure they were as clean as possible. These are then weighed and tied into bunches.
This is such a laborious job. The amount of care that goes into every vegetable is unbelievable and to think that people think wasting ANY type of food is ok! This kind of work makes you realise this. I believe that every junior school should be able to send their children to a farm for a week to gain first hand experience of the physical work involved and to enable them to understand the farm to fork process. It would be hugely beneficial for all involved.
After lunch, more weeding the beds on the other side of the poly and taking out old flowers for compost ready for planting new flowers. I loved getting stuck into the weeding - each bed had different types of weeds which required different tools to deal with them. It’s also very therapeutic and made fun having lots of people to talk to.
Started by harvesting purple kale, beets and collard – we picked them into bunches in the field ready for the veg boxes.
Breakfast: Leftover quince cake for Matt’s last day! Laura Lee aced it. Pomegranate molasses and dark sugar made it so rich and gooey.
9am: Picking different salad varieties in the poly. The salads look so colourful and delicious, all lined up in their different colours and shapes. We take off any outer leaves that are dead to add to the compost, followed by picking the good leaves which we throw into the bucket – this time until we reached 15kg. We must be very careful not to take out the heart (inner centre of the plant) so that they can grow back again and again.
This was followed by the pack house, preparing carrots by weighing and bunching them. Three of us started putting together the cardboard boxes and then filling them with the different veg, in a very formulaic fashion. They looked beautiful! Again, a huge appreciation for how much time and effort goes into every single vegetable that comes off the farm.
Lunch was a delicious pumpkin soup with chickpeas and a raisin salsa, and a pumpkin, celery and carrot stew with brown rice. All so good and warming.
Nice and early broad forking and weeding the flower bed. I then picked some of the old flowers that still had pretty petals, and prepared them into bunches for dried flower displays/bouquets. There was a huge number of dead flowers that we had to dig up. Once these were piled high we’d take them to the trailer which was used for taking to the compost heap. A good workout of pushing and pulling!
I learnt the difference between nettle and dead nettle, a different type that can be used in tea and has lovely white bulbs underneath the leaf which you can eat straight off the flower. This was done with Ben who works permanently on the farm. I learned a lot about all the different weeds and the various ways you can eat them.
9-12: Back to the weeding bed to finish off. Lots of chats and stories, a flower bed I now feel very attached to!
Laura cooked a delicious lunch of roasted leeks in a strong French dressing and garlic confit; potato gratin and beetroot bourguignon with lentils. Seconds was luckily a common thing here!
The last afternoon: Painting the tractor trailer a bright pink!
Sanding the other trailer so that it could be painted and then the last wash down before chores, including all my waterproof gear that was in need of a good hose down!
I’ll be back.