Although the sun is finally starting to shine, and the countryside around us is stirring into life, it might surprise you to know that the next two months are actually some of the least productive when it comes to growing organic vegetables. Ladies and gents, welcome to the so-called “hungry gap”!
If you are a UK veg box grower, it’s fair to say the next month or so can be a little frustrating. It’s not that we’re not busy: with the soil finally drying out, I’ve been getting out early to plough the ground in readiness for the first crops in a desperate bid to catch up on our cropping plans, and the whole team has been busy propagating plants for the coming months ahead. We’ve already sown thousands of individual seeds into modules since January, ready for transplanting out into the fields or polytunnels once the seedlings are strong enough and the soil has warmed up. By the end of the year we’ll have sown many hundreds of thousands of seeds to ensure we have a non-stop supply of delicious organic vegetables for your boxes: 100,000 carrots; 30,000 parsnips; 30,000 brassicas (think caulis, calabrese, and cabbage); 100,000 leeks; 6,000 lettuce. That’s not to mention the beans, peas, onions, squash, courgettes, and so on! But all this work is in preparation for your boxes later this year.
Unfortunately, the months between January and May (or even later if you grow in our more northerly climes!) represent a time when productivity is at its lowest in the UK. That’s why it’s often referred to as the “hungry gap”. Not only is it too cold for most crops to actually grow out in the fields, but supplies of many of the staples crops (which us growers will have stored since harvest last year) are either starting to dwindle or are reaching the end of their shelf lives. It’s a time of year when most British growers have a very limited range of produce to offer – unless, of course, they are relying on fossil-fuel guzzling lights and heating to maintain productivity in their acres of greenhouses. Not very organic, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Of course, the average supermarket shopper won’t really notice the “hungry gap” in the UK fields. Thanks to air freight, most crop varieties are now available on the supermarket shelves all year. As well as the environmental cost of flying in out-of-season crops, many of the veg you’ll find on their shelves have been bred to be either indestructible during transport or to remain visibly ‘ripe’ for longer, at the expense of taste and nutritional quality, among other things.
Many supermarkets will also still be offering a bewildering array of ‘organic’ produce, too. I use the term ‘organic’ in quotes because while I am all for supporting sustainable farming practices in developing countries, I vigorously question whether something that’s been air-freighted half way around the world from growers in more sunny climes simply to ensure a year-round supply can really be labeled as “organic” any more. But that’s another discussion.
According to the Soil Association’s latest Organic Market Report, supermarket shoppers are increasingly making an effort to buy organic. We need to remember that everyone is on a journey. Once you’ve been bitten by the organic bug, you soon learn about issues such as food miles and the benefits of buying local, seasonal produce. In time, today’s organic supermarket shoppers will hopefully buy their first box and never look back. It’s why local organic box scheme customers continue to grow in numbers, increasing by 11% last year. People are finally waking up to the real cost of intensively grown food, and we should do all we can to help them on their way.
Back to the hungry gap. While many of you would no doubt be prepared to swallow the “seasonal sword” and dine on kale and purple sprouting broccoli and kale and leeks and more kale grown at Westmill, our priority is to provide you with the best tasting, most flavoursome veg we can, and to provide sufficient variety in your boxes to keep you happy! So at this time of year our approach is one of compromise and cooperation. While the core staple crops in your boxes will have come from our fields, as the hungry gap begins to bite and our supplies run down, we’ll increasingly be looking to source a wider range of veg from outside our fields, collaborating and making deals with other small organic growers in more favourable parts of the UK to get what we need now, and hopefully returning the favour later in the year when our fields are bountiful once again.
It really won’t be long: May is when the first of this year’s sowings at Westmill will start making a (tasty) appearance in your boxes. With literally thousands of spring onions, lettuce, chard, tomatoes, peppers, spinach, carrots (and much more!) having successfully germinated, I can promise you that 2014 is looking pretty tasty indeed.