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Hello , I am Paul , founder of Waterland Organics. For over 20 years now I have been growing organically in the Cambridgeshire Fens .  The journey has been long but has not finished . Hopefully , this blog will give you an insight into what do and the place where we do it ; It's grimness and its equisite beauty

By pauljonathan, May 2 2016 01:42PM

I have had a couple of interviews lately about organic farming and this makes you sit down and think a bit about what we are actually doing on the farm now and also about how we used to farm , before we were organic . Normally ,this time of year my head is filled with the sowing and planting programme , how much compost we have left , how much space is left on the propagation benches and how to make the money eke out until the new crops come in . So these interviews give me a chance to step back and think . I was surprised to see the result of one . They had interviewed chemical and organic farmers and one of the conclusions they had come up with was that organic farmers use more chemicals than they let on . This seem to be based on some comments by a chemical farmer who said organic farmers use sprays with lots of heavy metals in them and they are not as chemical free as they (we) make out .

When it comes to chemical use , I generally get through about two litres of organically certified seaweed solution on 5 hectares of fruit and vegetables per annum , which is the equivalent of spreading four pints of milk evenly over seven football pitches ; for this pollution , dear reader, I can but apologise deeply . When it comes to fertiliser use , the Environment Agency recently did a spot check on my land to see if I was within the legal limit of Nitrogen application . I am allowed up to 170kg of Nitrogen per Hectare , I had only an average of 7kg per Ha. Lucky escape there then .


Going back to the interview , I did try to explain that I, like all organic farmers , rely on the biological cycles within the soil and the environment . This view I have was recently reinforced when watching 'The Real Dirt on Farmer John' , a film about a farmer from a conventional background who went organic. In this film he shows how hard his first year was ; the high levels pests of pest and disease being a prominent feature . Now his farm is productive and a lot less troubled by either . This , he puts down to his biodynamic practices but I would say it was also due to nature readjusting itself on his farm .


It put me in mind of an old friend , Reink Noodhouse , who used to work part time on the farm I was in my first years of organicness and he had this phrase ; 'Organic Farming is nature growing at it's own pace' . The more I think about this , the more I realise how true it is and actually how simple organic farming really is . After the severe intervention chemical farmers use , nature needs time to readjust and this will not happen quickly . I would say that my farm is still adjusting after twenty five years .


Things have seemed to have changed from the soil up . We have more earthworms . I remember some of the changes the land went through when I was converting my first field to organic. The first piece I converted was half a field . I remember about three years in I ploughed the whole field together ( the non organic and the organic side ). On the organic side the field soon filled up with worm casts.On the non organic side their was nothing, just a desert of soil deadness. Heaven knows what on a microscopic level is happening to soil flora and fauna , it must be only good things ; many are linked with increased plant disease resistance and more efficient nutrient uptake. We have more ground beetles , lacewings , ladybirds and hoverflies and as a consequence have less aphids . We have more blackbirds , sparrows , starlings , great tits , blue tits , pied wagtails , skylarks , grey partridge and turtle doves . Because of this , we have less cabbage white caterpillar damage and less white fly . We have more field mice but also more little owls and kestrels nesting on the farm . We also have more frequent visits by buzzards , marsh harriers and we may even have a nesting barn owl . We have many less rabbits but more stoats , weasels , badgers and foxes . Nature is coming back into balance on our farm and my job , as an organic farmer is to provide a place suitable for it to happen ; I am here to give nature a nudge in the right direction ; not hit it hard over the head with a big stick .


Some things are not in balance ; deer, crows and pigeons are a constant menace but with there large ranging abilities and much of the surrounding farmland totally out of balance, it would take more than my 25 hectares to get them in balance .


Organic Farming doesn't always make for a pristine looking farm , there will always be weedy patches but then nature is a bit rough round the edges too. In fact , so am I .


By pauljonathan, Dec 16 2014 04:13PM

2014 has been an amazing but true , this year we have not used the field irrigator once . The money and time this has saved is significant . That said we still have to pay for the licence . We have had other set backs though ; most notably Doreen breaking her arm in two places while playing with her horse, being a significant one . Luckily , our superb friends from Cambridge Cropshare and box scheme customers rallied round and stopped a set back becoming a disaster . Some discovered sublime tractor driving skills whilst others gave us amazing support helping us pick our blackcurrant and redcurrant orders . Many others pitched in as well, old friends and new . Some pitching in at short notice to plant during short weather windows .


As for the Cropsharers , this year we have undertaken even more cropshare days , for the first time ever we had some cropshare days on weekdays . These were very helpful and seemed to be enjoyed by all . The smaller groups enabling us to undertake some of the more skilful jobs . This year , Cambridge Cropshare has taken a great leap forward ; many have really improved their skill sets and I think as a farm we have made more use of the skills we already have in the group . The prevalence of engineers has up until this year been a wasted resource . This year vast improvements were made to the polytunnels strength , this is all down to them .Other projects are in the pipeline but we need to work out which one to focus on . Three of us undertook a three day First Aid at Work course run at the Wildlife Trust in Cambourne . This rugged outdoor themed course was really useful but luckily , as yet we have not had to use our newly honed skills . The cropshare group has always had its fair share of doctors , (the number is growing all the time), but only one doctor with medical training !

Another improvement that has been made over the last couple of years is the on farm propagation . The majority of this has been led by Lynn . Under her watchful eye this has improved immeasurably . When we started Cropshare , trays would be sown twice or not at all , trays would be unlabelled , no record would be kept of what had been sown , seed would be wasted , trays would go unwatered . Now , mainly thanks to Lynn , these issues have become a thing of the past .

Also , thanks to Bev and Rob we have planted many trees , something we have wanted to do for a long time . The long term benefits will be huge . Also thanks to Dave for getting us some bees . They generally arrive on the back of his bike trailer . Dave having brought them from Trumpington . The Cropshare marquee has been another significant improvement and Helens work on this was outstanding . No more crowded kitchen on wet days .

It always lifts my heart to see the range of ages of people we get on the farm . We have newly borns up to those whose ages I dare not ask . People come from many nationalities and backgrounds including French , Germans , Spanish , Portuguese , Chinese , Romanian , English, Italian , Scottish , Irish , Welsh ,and Australian to name but a few .

Everyone's help has meant that more food than ever could be donated to Foodcycle .

Our produce is finding an enthusiastic and growing market with plenty of veg find its way into Arjuna Wholefoods.So hopefully even more vegetables will be grown next year and with luck we will be able to take on a part time member of staff to help us with all the harvesting .

See you on the farm soon .


Paul and Doreen .




By pauljonathan, Jan 31 2014 05:17PM

Today .I found myself standing in a mud lined puddle ,contemplating how much more rain has got to fall, before the rain breaches the rubber tops of my wellies and reeks a cold wet Armageddon on the nice warm socks given to me by my two loving daughters for Christmas . ‘Not long.’ Were the words I mumbled out in answer to my internal dialogue . It could be worse but for our local drainage board ; Swaffham Internal Drainage Board , to give it its’ full title . The district this board covers stretches over twelve thousand acres of some of the lowest lying land in the country . The majority of the unpaid members on the board are local farmers , who in theory at least elected to the position by drainage rate paying landowners . In practice this rarely actually happens as the rate payers are generally happy with what the board undertakes and know an election would cost money.

The SIDP (Swaffham Internal Drainage Board) are responsible for the maintenance of drains and ditches within the area . Farm ditches feed into this via other drainage board maintained ditches . The one closest to me is called Hatleys Interline ; named after farmers of that name who once farmed next to us .The course of some of this drain probably follows an old natural stream and in the early nineteenth century would have eventually joined up with a wind powered pump on the edge of the Cam . All the drainage board ditches have names . The main drain in our area is Commissioners Drain that runs from Lode Fen through Swaffham Fen and down to the Pumping station at Upware . Here the water is pumped out of the lower level of the fen into the Cam . From then on it is the Environment Agency’s job to take it out to sea , via Denver Sluice .

For keeping the drains in the district dredged , weeds cut and pumps and machinery maintained I pay just over £10 per acre . Twenty years before , we were paying just under £10 per acre . In the nineties , the Labour Government considered getting rid of the drainage boards in favour of some Environmental Agency management . After a bit of research they realised the existing system worked well and was run very economically . They also realised that if the system was undertaken by government bureaucrats the drainage rates or similar would have to rise considerably . Very wisely they knocked the idea hard on the head , which saved us all from larger bills . Bear in mind that although landowners pay drainage rates directly , if you pay council tax , you too are indirectly paying drainage rates as the District Councils pay it on your behalf. The drainage board are very efficient and cost conscious . Dredging out drains is an expensive operation and to stop flooding it is important that water moves quickly along these drains .Land drains cannot empty water into ditches whose water level is higher than the drains themselves . That is why money is spent every year and keeping the drains clean . I looked at Commissioners Drain the other day and it is very reassuring to see the speed that it is heading out of the district . In fact water moving fast down a drain will silt up less.

Although the Drainage Board works hard to keep the drainage rates down , they are not afraid to spend money to reduce the risk of problems in the future . An example of this was when I was on the board in the nineties was the Stacey Plan . The consulting engineer of the time , Keith Stacey , along with all of us realised that many of the drains were now in the wrong place . The drains had originally and quite sensibly been put through the lowest parts of the fen . These were generally not where the peat land was the deepest . As a consequence as the peat dried and shrunk the main drains ended up being on the higher ground . To get the water to run the right way meant these drains had to be made deeper and deeper and then wider , to stop them caving in . As you cross the bridge just before my farm and look right you will see a good example of the problem . Keith Staceys’ plan sited new drains in the more peaty and lower parts of the district . This has meant that we now have a new set of drains that will be future proof for the best part of a century .The plan was instigated in years of drought and had to be done with minimal increase in the drainage rates , as it was a period of relative recession in the farming industry . It is not often governments look 100 years ahead and am pretty sure if the drainage board system had been disbanded the Stacey Plan would not have happened .

‘What about the water after you have pumped it out of your district?’ You may ask . Well , at Upware there is a bunded wash area that can take most of it , for a time anyway . Further down in the Fen there is the Bedford wash . An area of land twenty one miles long and around half a mile wide , that starts at Erith and goes as far as Denver Sluice . On the west side there is the Old Bedford River, dug in the 1630’s and on the east side there is the New Bedford River ,which was dug out in the early 1650’s . This was dug after the Duke of Bedford got the approval of Oliver Cromwell , a man who twenty odd years had gained much fenland support for his attack on fenland drainage schemes . (It is ironic that many of the forefathers of the people on the drainage boards would have been against the draining of the fens , as it meant the loss of common ground for grazing and meres to wildfowl in) . The twenty mile long 100 feet wide cut, was undertaken by Scottish prisoners of war(captured after The Battle of Dunbar) , of which a forefather of mine was one along with Dutch sailors captured in naval battles(The First Anglo Dutch War) . There was also many workers from the lowlands of Europe who probably supplied much of the practical know how .Not many locals took part as they were against any drainage works , in fact many (known as Fen Tigers)did much to destroy any drainage schemes. This feat was undertaken in under three years with no mechanical diggers , abysmal living conditions and a poor diet .Many died and Fenlandl legend says they were just buried in the banks . When you hear about flooding at Welney or at Beddinghams Drove and the Anchor pub ; it is because these roads are in the wash between the two Bedford rivers .The are designed to flood . You may think that this water has just come from the fens but no ; much of it has come from the East Midlands and is stored on the wash land until it can be pumped or let out into the sea itself .

As I finish this blog Led Zeps ‘When the levee breaks’ has just come on on Spotify . Do you know something , not round here will the levee break ; At least not the bits looked after by the drainage board .



By pauljonathan, Oct 11 2013 01:36PM

Well , as I look out of my rain lashed window and have my ears assaulted by the sound of the wind howling out of my wood burning stove , I think I can say without fear of contradiction that the best days of summer are behind us . At night, with the farm house surrounded by total darkness, it does not take much imagination to believe you are a ship on the sea ; that is apart from the lack of up and down movement . In fact the whole yearly cycle of providing vegetables for the box scheme does have many nautical themes running through it . Harvesting things in the summer is like short boat trips in the harbour . Produce is picked and immediately delivered .It doesn’t matter if you have run out of stuff as you will soon be tied up again on the quayside and it wont take long to replenish supplies . Whereas the produce harvested now and put in store for winter , is a bit like loading the hold of a ship before taking on a long ocean voyage . You hope there is enough put by to see you to the other side of winter.

As I sat there among the bags of onions and potatoes and bins full of squashes , I could picture in my mind’s eye the slow but perceptible shrinkage in the piles of produce that will occur as we head through the winter and towards the spring . Then we hit the doldrums of the hungry gap when there is a dearth of everything . Scraping by until the weather changes and we reach the land of plenty yet again . So now we have left the shelter of the harbour and are heading once more into the great unknown . This is a time time brace yourselves and pull your oilskins on .

Bon Voyage !

Paul.



By pauljonathan, Aug 22 2013 09:24PM

Earlier on this week I was like a bear with a sore head . It was sunny , the ground was dryer than the Gobi Desert and I had just got back from my summer holidays (a weekend in Norfolk , if you must know). Hundreds of things needed to be done at once and every time I sat down for lunch the phone would ring . Again and AGAIN and AGAIN ! All this and getting reacquainted with what stung hands felt like and trying to get used to horseflies buzzing around my head and my arms getting rescratched to bits by the underside of the courgette leaves ; the thought of having to irrigate the rapidly desiccating crops that surrounded my tortured body was just about as much as my tortured humour could bear . The priming of the irrigation pump alone requires a handle to be pumped up and down up and down over 256 hand crunching , back breaking times . All this and the horse flies buzzing around your head and the mosquitos feeding off you arms . Before this pipes have to be moved, irrigator reel unwound etc etc etc . Then when you do get it going you have to chase potential diesel thieves away from your irrigation pump with a stick . Every time you hear a strange noise or see a strange car I rush to a vantage point to see if anyone is attempting to filch my diesel again . Irrigation messes with my head , my muscles and my wallet . Putting water on is not fun .

So now it has rained . I spent a glorious morning harvesting courgettes while rain dripped down my back and water ran down my face . No , really I loved it . I remember thinking , this is why I farm , I love being outside , not in the sun but in the rain . SO , I now , once more walk with a spring in my step and sing jolly tunes , the red mist has cleared from my eyes , I can see clearly now the rain has come .



By pauljonathan, Jul 25 2013 10:24PM

Here are a couple of pictures of the kit we use to irrigate the crops . The blue thing is a pump , based on an old combine engine , the red thing is a reel irrigator that reels itself in using water pressure and the nozzley thing is the thing the water sprays out from. Now the rains have come it has saved a lot of work .....and diesel.

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