by Penny Armstrong -
At the moment we have 32 households on our veg box delivery round and more on the waiting list. Every Friday we travel around Sandness and Walls dropping off boxes at front doors and in sheds ready for our customers to pick up when they get home. A fair quantity also goes into Lerwick to Scoop the wholefood shop, it is a good way to get our produce to people who live in town and can't get a direct delivery.
When we show people around our growing area many of them are astounded by what we grow. Not just the variety, but the quantity of produce too. During the height of the season (April to October) we often work six long days and a little bit less on a Sunday. I guess it shows because we hear many comments about how much work it all takes to get things into the ground and growing well.
What neither our customers or visitors see is the other side of the enterprise. The bit that joins the growing to the delivery; the bit that turns the business of growing into a growing business. Our produce has to become a commodity. It needs to be harvested, trimmed, sometimes cleaned, sorted, weighed, bagged and priced. And boxed.
We harvest and pack on a Thursday. At this time of year we start at 6am, working until we have everything ready to be able to leave at 9am on Friday. Since the end of July it has been somewhere between 1am and 3am before we've finished. There is just so much be picked or dug. Later on in the year we will have less variety and more stored vegetables which makes it easier on us, but less interesting for our customers.
The sweetcorn has just ripened enough for harvest. It is a short lived luxury which we like to deliver as close to harvest as possible, so our customers can experience it at it's maximum sweetness (if they cook it as soon as they can). So this week and next we will pick sweetcorn on the day of delivery too, probably before 7am and add them to the boxes at the last minute.
We start packing the boxes as soon as we have everything bagged and portioned up. Kilos of tatties and carrots, peas and beans, tomatoes and courgettes and lots more. As the season waxes and wanes we are never quite sure how much of anything we'll have until it's harvested and in the packing shed.
Each year different vegetables do well and others not so good. Not for the first time have we found a crop which we rely on producing badly. Weather, water, and our attention (or lack of) all play a role. The early part of the year wasn't so good for brassicas; caulis and broccoli struggled a bit with the dry weather. On top of the fact we'd overlooked the liming of their growing area. Worst still, all the overwintering brassicas missed their planting out deadlines because we were so busy with our Carbon Classroom project.
Then again the kohl rabi (same family) did tremendously well. What do you do with 100s of kohl rabi, all ready at once, when your customers don't know what they are let alone what to do with them? Decisions, decisions. What to put in which box? It's great if we have enough of everything to give some to every customer but if not, who gets what and what did they have last week? Customer A doesn't like veg X, customer B will take veg X , but not veg Z and ten folk don't need salad just now because like us, they have a glut.
We don't want to give customers things they don't like or don't need because we don't want our produce to end up in the compost or worst still, in landfill. So we work hard to make sure the boxes are filled as well as they can be. No doubt we make mistakes. It's all about records. I have lists of who wants what when; what they don't like, when they are away; what they had last time. Even if it is 3am we still fill out the record sheet, then we know who had the sweetcorn this week so those that missed out get it next time.
A lot of the judgement about how much to harvest and what goes in which box is down to instinct. Probably informed by experience, Alan calls it the black art. Whatever it is ,sometimes, we will be staring at the boxes late at night and our brains are threatening meltdown. Although this year has been easier because we have grown more than ever before and for the most part we have enough of everything to go in each box. Except the caulis of course.
If we have harvested enough and we have spare, it goes in our honesty box at our gate. We usually harvest throughout the week to keep that topped up, but we need to be careful not to take too much and leave ourselves short for the deliveries. And so it goes on, the big balancing act and constant questioning.
Each Thursday morning there is a small unspoken panic, as the season progresses and crops decline, that there might not be enough to fill the boxes. Often this is counterbalanced by the excitement of new crops coming ready and the realisation we need not have panicked this time.
By the end of delivery on a Friday we are in a sleep deprived daze and only fit for a recuperative cup of hot chocolate when we get home. Now our WWOOFers are gone for the season we can have a bit of relaxation time. There are no deadlines for meals and we can sit and not talk to anyone if we want to.
Then on Saturday, we'll get up and start all over again, trying to get to grips with this growing thing.