Section 7 – Habitat improvement, open days and school visits

Since taking on our growing site, we have sought to improve its biodiversity, as this is so essential to organic production. The three main areas we have looked at are:

(i) hedge-planting
There are lots of good reasons to create a hedge. Hedges act as a windbreak, reducing the wind chill in a field as well as reducing the effects of erosion from wind and rain. They are a home for wildlife, for wildlife’s sake as well as a home for beneficial crop pest predators. They also act as wildlife corridors for bees, birds and mammals.

There were no hedges at all when Unicorn first bought the land in 2008. By the end of winter 2011-12, all 1,880 metres of the boundaries had been planted up with a total of 11,000 plants comprising of a native mixture of 60% hawthorn, 10% blackthorn, 10% dog rose, 10% hazel and 10% field maple.

Our method of planting was not necessarily the quickest, but we felt that it did a thorough job – in particular reducing weed competition in the early stages of the hedge’s life. We dug a trench of a spade’s depth, placed the saplings in position (either in a single or double row, at 6 plants to a metre), replaced the soil, trod it down, pushed bamboo canes right next to each sapling, and then placed a tree guard round each of them. The canes provide support and the tree guards protect the saplings from rabbits, hares, deers. We bought the saplings from Maelor Forest Nurseries and the tree guards and canes from LBS horticulture.

Maelor Forest Nurseries is situated just outside Whitchurch inside the Welsh border. We chose this nursery for the high quality of plants, as well as wanting to buy saplings with an associated Forestry Commision seed zone number. The Forestry Commission has divided up Britain in to seed zones. When we buy a blackthorn seedling from seed zone 302 we know it is produced from seed collected from stock that has adapted over generations to the climatic conditions in an area that roughly covers the North West as well as parts of Yorkshire and North Wales. The saplings come with a farm name as well so we know the exact provenance of the seed that grew our plant. To give one example, if we planted the same species produced from seed derived from the South West of England or even France it may flower earlier and then those flowers may be damaged by frost.

A quicker hedge-planting method is to create a wedge shaped hole in the soil with a spade and just push the sapling into it. We chose the more laborious method because we were concerned about possible smearing in our heavier soil (i.e. making it difficult for the tree roots to grow) and because we thought our method gave a straighter finished line of hedge plants.

Hedge work in future years will involve filling any gaps that emerge with more saplings, and hedge-laying (probably around 8-9 years after first planting). These are a couple of books that we have found helpful for hedges:

(ii) margins & beetle banks
We purposefully leave the field margins next to our hedges (a 2 metre strip from the centre of the hedge, to be exact) uncultivated and not driven over by our tractors. This is part of our Organic Entry Level Scheme agreement. These margins are left to go to flower and seed, in order to benefit natural pest-predators and other wildlife. The only weeds we do try and suppress are docks (which we never allow to seed and, if possible, dig up) and creeping thistle (which we cut down when in flower) – although even creeping thistle is good for pollinating insects and birds.

In between growing blocks, in the middle of fields (i.e. not next to a hedge), we also grow so-called ‘beetle banks’ – wild strips that act as a great habitat for these pest-predators.

(iii) pond work
There are two ponds on our site, one of which is full of water and is flourishing (with lots of damsel and dragonflies on warm summer days), the other of which only puddles up in very wet weather. We are looking to learn about pond management – and in particular find out how to turn the dry pond into a flourishing wet one – so hopefully more detail in this section will follow soon.

Open days

For the first two years of our tenancy we laid on open days for members of the public – for the most part these were Unicorn customers, as not only are they the main buyers of our produce, but it was also a lot easier to organise an open day through Unicorn. The main aspect of our open days is that we do not want anybody travelling up to the site themselves. The access is too difficult to describe easily and, in any case, is dangerous. All of which means we have to hire a coach and pick people up from a designated point – in our case, the obvious choice was to use Unicorn as a pick-up and drop-off point.
The organisation of these open days was not hard, but took a bit of time. The things we did were:

  • pick a day that fitted with our growing schedule and any other commitments we had
  • publicise the event – including pick-up and drop-off point, times (we generally aimed for about 3 hours on site), what people need to bring (i.e. appropriate footwear, waterproofs, food & drink for themselves), what they can expect (e.g. they needed to walk for 15 minutes including over a stile, and no toilets on site!), and contact details
  • book a coach & driver from a hire company
  • prepare talks – we split the visitors into groups and gave talks & tours on different themes (e.g. soil fertility, machinery)
  • go through the open day risk assessment and do a pre-visit assessment on the day or the day before
  • bring provisions – refreshments, spare waterproofs & warm clothing, First Aid kit
  • collect feedback from each visitor at the end of the day

We are not sure whether, or to what extent, we will offer open days in the future. They are incredibly valuable days in terms of building customer loyalty and awareness of vegetable growing, and for these reasons we will try and find a way to keep doing them. The main barrier for us is the cost of hiring a coach. At the last time of enquiring (in 2011), it was c.£250 for a 32 seater, or c.£300 for a 49 seater, which equates to c.£6-8 travel cost per person. We don’t currently feel able to swallow this cost ourselves, and we’re uneasy about charging people this much for a few hours on our farm – although we haven’t put that to the test yet.

School visits

At the time of writing we have only had four school visits, so we are very much beginners at playing host to them. We are aiming to increase to at least 10 visits a year, and looking to get a lot more organised in terms of the subject matters and activities we can offer, and tailoring those to different ages of children. So far our approach has been:

  • work out the logisitics of school visits – transport (schools will organise their own transport), parking etc. (for us, this is a bit tricky, as the safest access to our site involves parking on someone else’s land, requiring their permission, and then a 5 minute walk for the schoolkids, including a stile which takes another 5 minutes to get them all over!)
  • working out (broadly) what talks and activities we can offer
  • get in touch with schools – for us, we have focused mainly (but not exclusively) on primary schools and mainly on very local schools in Warrington or Wigan boroughs. However, we have also had schools from Manchester (i.e. 30 minutes away) express interest. The main challenge we found with this stage was establishing a good contact with the school. Teachers are as busy as veg growers! And difficult to pin down
  • once a school is interested, talk in more detail about what age group, size of group, and what subject areas would work best with their current studies
  • finalise details and prepare talks, provisions, logistics etc

So far we have focused on two subject areas:

  1. organic growing – i.e. all the stages of vegetable growing, the differences between organic and non-organic growing, demonstrating harvesting or machinery
  2. wildlife – including a nature trail, discussion of habitats and relating it back to the organic approach to land management

The Soil Association has some great resources for both primary and secondary schools, some of which we’ve used.

At some point, especially once we start to develop more customised or detailed learning resources, we will start charging for school visits. We understand that c.£4-5 per pupil is an average rate, but we don’t know for sure.

Feedback & recording

Collecting feedback from open days and school visits has been essential to the reports we produce for funders but – as importantly – it enables us to improve what we do. The feedback forms we use (one for open days, one for volunteers, one for school visits) (LINKS to attachments open day, volunteer, school) try to keep it quick and simple for people to fill out (i.e. one page of A4), provide some quantitative data (i.e. tabulated answers) as well as questions that allow more open answers and suggestions. The quantitative information gets inputted into spreadsheets, so that longer-term trends and statistics can be extracted.

The other non-growing records we are keeping are wildlife surveys. So far we have only got some informal flora & fauna surveys done by a trainee ecologist. We are aiming to undertake more specific surveys – for example, around the pond or moth trapping or a bird survey.

Section 6 – Recruitment & Labour