Like many small businesses, Gourmet Leaves salad farm has had a tumultuous year. Thanks to Covid, they have had to change their business model five times and work flat out to keep their farm afloat. But somehow they have survived. Here Kate Monk looks back with pride on a year of extraordinary challenges and tentatively forward to their plans for 2021.
Running our family lettuce farm this year has been like a rollercoaster and it is only now, in hindsight, that I realise how much energy, effort, stress and emotion has been poured into making it work. We did it, we survived as a family and a business, and we managed to provide a healthy meal to thousands of local people in their time of need.
Whether it be through the rapidly created salad box home delivery, or through one of the many hundreds of meals that were donated by The Allotment Club (now Okehampton Community Kitchen) using our produce; we are incredibly proud of the achievements of this year and extremely grateful to the community for supporting us through thick and thin.
Our business plan has changed five times through the year, with each change in guidelines and with ever moving goal posts. Originally, we had intended to offer a service through the second lockdown, but it has luckily fallen in November which is the one month of the year that we tend to shut down anyway as the demand for salad vanishes.
Unlike at the beginning of this year with two large polytunnels brimming with a lovely lettuce crop and no one to sell it to, we are in a much better position. We have a small crop in one tunnel, which we are hoping will be ready for Christmas. But due to the extra heating and lighting costs in winter, we decided that it would be unwise to grow much more than that as we couldn’t guarantee we wouldn’t find ourselves in lockdown again.
So we apologise to all of our regular customers over the few months that Gourmet Leaves is off the shelves.
An aphid attack
Growing anything at this time of year is a real challenge even without a global pandemic. There are so many things that can rob a farm of a crop. We are currently experiencing an aphid attack, something that we would expect to see in June to August but have luckily escaped until now. It has been such a mild and damp autumn that they are blooming, so all of our energy is currently focussed on saving the crop from them. We choose not to spray anything nasty onto our leaves as we ourselves are the biggest consumer of our leaves. Instead we opt for an organic soap and some good old-fashioned paint brushes to clean them off each leaf. It is very laborious. In previous years we would relocate a few ladybirds from our vineyard to feast in the tunnels before returning to the vines, but it is the wrong time of year for this now.
I am now being asked quite regularly what our plans for Christmas and next year are. We have had plans but they are having to adapt and change so regularly that we just don’t know for next year. Growing lettuce has been our niche for almost a decade now, but without the pubs and cafes, we just can’t sell the amount that we used to.
A courier, home delivery service for salad boxes and an online shop is our top priority, but we are very much at the mercy of the government’s Kickstart scheme
We do not have the time or capacity to do it alone thanks to our own family commitments and the care needs of our extended family. Creating employment for young people is really important to us and we have a job ready to go for a Kickstarter, which will help make the salad box project happen. We hope this will then lead onto a permanent role once the new venture is well established.
Sadly, we (and many other businesses) are yet to hear back if the scheme is going ahead which means we cannot commit to anything yet. But we are hopeful for movement in the coming months.
Although we are growing less lettuce, this last year has given us a rare opportunity to experiment with growing a whole variety of other crops. Some were incredibly successful and we intend to increase these next season, and some were utter failures. For example, we grew some beautiful, enormous cabbages, the majority of which were thoroughly enjoyed by a healthy population of caterpillars. We sold the unaffected few and made an income of around £9 for all that work. Needless to say, cabbages did not make it to the shortlist!
Support our farm shops
If you have been enjoying locally grown celery, kale and tomatoes then it may well have come from our farm. We will be offering a much larger variety in the spring. Most of the produce will be sold through our local farm shops. They have done such an amazing job of keeping up with demand, changing their businesses to fit into the new market and I know that they are all ready to take on anything. For now, we will be signposting all enquiries to the farm shops until such a point that we have some farm help and we can start selling directly again.
If you would like something special for Christmas, don’t visit the supermarkets. Visit your local farm shop and enjoy a much healthier, fresher and tastier item that has been grown locally by passionate people. It may cost a few pence more, but that money will stay within our community and will not only support the farm shop, but the hundreds of small-scale growers who rely on the farm shops as an outlet for their produce.