Farm Crops: Flowers, Fruit and Vegetables
From modest origins in the suburban market garden, fruit and vegetable crops have moved into the big field and today are the subject of a highly capitalised industry. However, market gardens and pick-your-own farms make a good living as well.
Growing fruit and vegetables is difficult, particularly with the need to cater for the most demanding and fickle of customers. The produce must be fresh, regular in shape, blemish-free, colourful and clean; the buyer looks for an appetising appearance, and for many people the taste or food value is of incidental importance. This curious state of affairs makes life difficult for the grower. Food value and taste are relatively easy to achieve, for these qualities are largely intrinsic to the crop, but maintaining a high standard of appearance demands a special combination of hard work and technical ingenuity.
First and foremost the soil has to be in ideal condition: cultivated to just the right depth and consistency, maintained at the correct level of fertility and moisture, by irrigation if necessary, and kept free of weeds and pests. In most cases the plants need to be carefully established at regular intervals, either by precision planting machinery or by subsequent thinning out. They must be protected from birds and other animals, sprayed against insect and fungal attack, and shielded from extreme weather. The harvest is usually an operation of some delicacy for most of the crops are easily damaged by rough handling; in some cases — strawberries for example — hand labour is the only practical method. The crop has then to be cleaned, graded, packed, and if necessary, stored under controlled conditions before despatch to the market or processing plant.
The expense of all this is such that there must be a good reason to choose horticulture in favour of conventional arable farming. Traditionally the main factor was proximity to an urban market, coupled with high land values which encourage intensive cropping of valuable produce. This was the origin of the market garden where a wide variety of crops were produced to spread the workload and the risk, and reduce the danger of flooding the market and so lowering the price.
The relatively small area occupied by each crop encouraged the individual attention which distinguishes the gardener from the arable farmer, and indeed the whole enterprise was but a larger, commercialised version of the private kitchen gardens which fed the rural population. Market gardening still flourishes, but it is now an intensive, highly capitalised industry.
In rural areas the decision to grow certain vegetables and fruit usually depends on the climate and soil, giving the local grower an advantage over the suburban market gardener who normally has to provide these conditions artificially. Examples include open air tomato growing on Jersey, in competition with the glasshouse produce of the mainland, and the crops of leeks and onions from the rich fenland peat soils of Cambridgeshire.
The drawback of rural horticulture — its possible remoteness from a major outlet — is turned to advantage by supplying a number of markets simultaneously, so allowing a grower to specialise in the crops best suited to the locality. Cauliflowers, for example, prefer a cool, damp climate, but will not tolerate frost; their cultivation is a speciality of mild coastal regions. The growers enjoy the advantages of specialisation and cooperative marketing, while wide distribution removes the danger of a local glut.
A feature common to nearly all these rural enterprises is their relatively large scale. A traditional market gardener employs small plots suited to manual labour, but the adoption of mechanical and chemical systems of weed and pest control has made this unnecessary. And the economics of investment in machinery and materials improve as the scale of the operation increases, so there is every encouragement to use larger units.
The right conditions
Thorough cultivation is essential for most vegetable crops, and the seedbed is prepared with unusual care using mainly traditional methods: the soil is turned over by a plough, broken down with a heavy cultivator, and crumbled to a fine texture using harrows and rollers.
Planting is complicated by the need for careful spacing and the fact that many crops, for example leeks and Brussels sprouts, are transplanted at seedling stage, having been raised under glass. Traditionally the spacing problem is solved by hand thinning, but large-scale growers rely on precision seed drills to place seed at regular intervals Small seeds, such as lettuce, are often pelletised to ensure consistent handling by the machinery. The transplanting of fragile seedlings is difficult to mechanise and automatic transplanters are expensive. For those who cannot justify the cost, it is a job for human fingers, and only the ultimate value of the crop makes such a labour-intensive operation worthwhile.
Regular spacing of plants is important to encourage even development and the mechanisation of subsequent field operations. Many vegetables are planted in single or double rows so machinery can pass up and down to remove weeds without causing damage to young plants.
The technique of inter-row cultivation was once the principal means of weed control on every farm, but in recent years it has been all but abandoned in arable fields in favour of a carefully planned spraying programme. A similar approach is being adopted increasingly by the large-scale vegetable and fruit growers who are finding the purchase and application of specialised herbicides a cheap option compared to repeated time — and fuel consuming — cultivations.
This development, coupled with the well-established use of chemicals to maintain the flawless appearance demanded by the average consumer, has made the simple spraying rig essential equipment. Skill in the laboratory is beginning to supersede skill in the field, and large scale growers now rely heavily on the expert knowledge of trained specialists. Many use the Ministry advisory service and the information from chemical companies. Increasingly, however, expertise is provided by the buyer of the produce: the canning factory or frozen food company.
Today convenience food packagers are the main customers of big vegetable growers. Their requirements are precise and mistakes cannot be remedied; thus it is normal for the crops to be grown under contract so the customer can check and advise on every stage from seedbed preparation to harvest. Many companies even dictate the day-to-day management of the crop. They also provide the materials and specialised machinery essential for consistent large-scale production. In many cases the big processors rent land from an arable farmer for the season and do the whole job themselves. The advantage is that a field previously under wheat or barley, for example, is free of problems specific to the vegetable crop, and at the expiry of the contract the land is generally in better condition for the arable farmer. By taking advantage of this system he is able to concentrate on the cereals for which he is best equipped, without incurring the risk of disease build-up that is so often associated with continuous cropping.
In contrast to the high technology of the big contract is the current interest in pick-your-own farming where conventional harvesting is unnecessary, so avoiding the expense of hiring labour or specialised machinery. The waste of eaten, overlooked or rejected produce is easily outweighed by these savings. The problem is unpredictability: the crop may be ripe, but if there are no customers due to bad weather, poor advertising, or even a road closed for the weekend, it will rot on the stem. Despite this, pick-your-own is increasingly popular as a business and an entertaining way to buy food. It has led to a revival of small-scale fruit and vegetable growing throughout the country, with the emphasis on such crops as strawberries, raspberries and corn-on-the-cob which are normally expensive to harvest and difficult to package. Organic husbandry enthusiasts find the system an excellent way to advertise their activities, while avoiding direct competition with the glossier, cheaper products of agrochemistry.
The result is a gratifying exception to the general trend towards larger and larger units. While small farms everywhere are being amalgamated into big farms, many small fruit and vegetable growers have preserved their identity by selling their produce direct to an appreciative public. It is a precarious living, subject to changing fashion, but that is one of the hazards of catering for the most demanding and fickle of customers.
Flowers and bulbs
This industry began around Spalding in the 19th century. Much of the flower crop is forced under glass for sale early in the season when prices are high. By the time the outdoor plants flower the market price for cut blooms is low, and field crops grown for their bulbs are often picked before the flowering process has taken too much out of the bulb. The blooms are simply discarded, for their market value does not justify the packing and transport costs. The price rises again by the end of the season, to the advantage of growers in north-east Scotland. Bulbs are also grown in Kent, the west country, the Isles of Scilly and Jersey where they bloom early in the mild climate.