Visit to Chagfood CSA in Devon

(or “what Joanne did on her holidays…”)

I’m not very good at holidays. That’s to say I spend a lot of my time away thinking about, and planning the future of, The Oak Tree. Last week Richard and I headed to Dartmoor for a week’s holiday. It was lovely, very relaxing and the weather was kind.

Ed Hamer with his fine brassicas

The wonderful Ed Hamer with his fine brassicas. Sorry about the poor quality picture taken on my phone.

Despite being on holiday I couldn’t resist going to see Ed Hamer of Chagfood. Ed kindly showed me round and explained how Chagfood CSA works. As a busy small farmer myself, I insisted on paying Ed what I charge for a half day visit. If you ask to go and see him, please remember that he works very, very hard and doesn’t earn a lot… it is me saying this, not Ed himself, but I do think it is important that we all value our farmers’ time!

Chagfood CSA started about a year before The Oak Tree CSA, indeed I remember being impressed by this article in the Guardian about Ed while starting up the Oak Tree scheme, and I have always been struck by the similarities between Chagfood and The Oak Tree ever since.

What prompted me to want to visit was reading in the excellent Future Farmers II booklet how Chagfood takes on a trainee each year . We’ve wanted to take a trainee on for years, but I just couldn’t figure out how to offer a fair and comfortable experience. Chagfood gets about 30 applicants for it’s trainee scheme each year, and has had really good experiences.

Adorable caravan accommodation for trainees at Chagfood.

Adorable caravan accommodation for trainees at Chagfood.

But I learned a lot more about Chagfood than just their trainee scheme, and my visit has made me really think about our plans for the future here at The Oak Tree.  I’m afraid I was so taken by the equipment and crops that I failed to take any general overview photos – so to get a general idea I suggest you take a look at Ed’s Chagfood Instagram account.

I could write for hours about what I learned, but I’ll resist. Let’s start with the some of the key similarities, and differences, between Chagfood and The Oak Tree:

Similarities

  • Both farms’ veg shares contain only veg grown on the farm.
  • Both farms produces boxes for as much of the year as possible (Chagfood has a scheduled break in the hungry gap, which The Oak Tree doesn’t, but their climate is harsher).
  • The farms are run by not-for-profit social enterprise CICs (Community Interest Companies) with the growers among the Director.
  • Both farms aim to challenge assumptions about modern food production.
  • Neither farm uses any chemicals, but neither is certified organic – our members know how we farm.
  • Both farms have had significant problems with planning permission for much needed buildings.
  • Both farms have enjoyed financial support from the wonderful Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

Differences

  • The Oak Tree membership includes a “compulsory” work commitment on the farm. Chagfood doesn’t, but welcomes help on the farm.
  • The Oak Tree has pigs, chickens and beef cattle, Chagfood has working horses.
  • The Oak Tree is more “theraputic/community” orientated than Chagfood, Chagfood is more focused on veg production (but both farms address both).
  • Chagfood was created on land that had been organic pasture for many years, The Oak Tree on land that had been degraded by Industrial Agriculture for decades.
  • Chagfood doesn’t need to use its irrigation anything like as much as The Oak Tree (our climate is “drier than Jerusalem” according to Anglian Water).
  • The Oak Tree is an island in a wide sea of Industrial Agriculture (though our members are lovely and very supportive!), Chagfood is embedded in a wider supportive community of like minded “alternative” folk
  • The Oak Tree has only a two wheeled tractor, Chagfood has a 4 wheeled tractor.

I’d been wondering whether we should get a 4 wheeled tractor here at The Oak Tree, and my visit to Chagfood has swung it: their crops were impressive and, frankly, more plentiful than ours at The Oak Tree. Admittedly they are growing on a larger area and have more pairs of hands, however I believe that they do more with the time & land they use. Now, we do pretty well here at The Oak Tree, however I believe we could increase our veg crop yields significantly with a four wheeled tractor. I set up The Oak Tree market garden based on this excellent book:


and it has served us well, however we are still struggling to make ends meet, so, in short, we need to produce more to sell without increasing the amount of work (we can’t afford more wages without more income). How does that tie in with our low carbon philosophy? I’m not too worried.We estimate that we sequester between 10 and 100 times more carbon into the soil than we emit through our activities. We’ll use a little more diesel, but we’ll make more compost, etc, and thereby sequester more carbon into the soil.

We certainly do plan to take on a trainee or two in 2017. We need to sort out accommodation and other infrastructure in order to welcome them, which some Oak Tree members have already offered to help with!

A few key practical points which I  know will interest our members!

Their lovely composting toilet. Remember, there are composting loos in our proposed farm community building!

Their lovely composting toilet. Remember, there are composting loos in our proposed farm community building!

A lovely, organised tool wall. We don't have space now... but if we get our building...

A lovely, organised tool wall. We don’t have space now… but if we get our building…

The Chagfood Steerage Hoe (drool...) they had WEED FREE CARROTS with this. Repeat: weed free carrots!!!

The Chagfood Steerage Hoe 4 wheel tractor implement (drool…). They had weed free carrots with this. Repeat: WEED FREE CARROTS!!! (we spend A LOT of time weeding carrots!)

And last but not least, goats from the sister farm, Chagfarm.

And last but not least, goats on their sister farm, Chagfarm.

So, huge thanks to Ed at Chagfood, and here is to the success of the ever expanding Network of CSAs in the UK!

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