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A year on Kirkstall Valley’s community led farm – and how you can get involved

Volunteer Keith Hodgson writes about his experience at community run Kirkstall Valley Farm, which is part of a growing network of community supported agricultural schemes (CSAs) throughout the UK.

The farm is part of the vision for Kirkstall Valley Development Trust; their aims are to develop a community based network offering support, engagement, learning and community wellbeing in Kirkstall and the surrounding areas.

In addition there are plans to hold workshops, forest schools, social events and to continue the successful summer school which ran throughout August 2020 for local parents and children; we hope to repeat this sort of activity during 2021.

Local residents who do not have outside space of their own will have the opportunity to be in the fresh air, get exercise and become involved with growing and harvesting.

There will be weekly vegetable boxes supplied to subscribers from mid-2021, which will be freshly harvested and collected on site.

Land preparation is well under way to get things moving forward into 2021.

We are following a vision, however as with this sort of project they always develop along the way, nevertheless sustainability, locally grown fresh vegetables with a low-carbon footprint and zero miles are our key aims.

This all began for me in September 2019 with a chance encounter with farm leader Roger Plumtree; this opened an opportunity to do a ‘few’ hours with my tractor, a 1959 Fordson Dexta. Little did I know how this would develop.

I describe the Dexta as work in progress, nevertheless ‘Trevor the Tractor’ went to work breaking ground in November 2019 from very overgrown land (lain fallow for at least three years) to the current condition.

Work has been very intense for the limited number of volunteer members allowed to assist due to Covid19.

Trials and tribulations

The aims for the farm are to be sustainable, grow local produce and zero miles for the vegetable box scheme to be launched in mid 2021, appoint a qualified grower early in 2021 to oversee land and crop growing to organic standards.

The demonstration plot was ploughed in November 2019 as an example for a volunteers’ walk and talk event, this turned into a very wet day nevertheless we had 40 or more attending.

A small demo veg plot was developed in spring and also proved a success supplying produce over summer to our sister organisation (KVDT Unit 11) for the community help scheme providing food boxes to local vulnerable families by a dedicated team of volunteers.

kirkstall valley farm 3
Photo: KVDT

As demand reduced during August it gave us surplus veg to trial a subscription weekly veg box scheme and over a four week period provided 36 boxes; this gives us confidence that 40 weekly boxes can be supplied by midsummer 2021.

In March our 1984 Case 1294 and other implements were purchased from the family of the last farmer, then serviced and new tyres fitted.

The case has worked quite well with the occasional problem but considering it had not been in service for three years it is doing well.

The new Del Morino 185 flail mower arrived in April to keep the headlands and green manures trimmed over the growing season.

During August and September, general works were carried out on the farm and the removal of three commercial polytunnels dismantled and transported to the farm from the Horsforth Campus site; we hope to erect two of these over winter to grow winter salads and in the summer of 2021 tomatoes and other summer tender vegetables and salad crops.

Growing and rotation is being planned currently and seed calculations are done. In October 2020various infrastructure projects are underway including secure storage, composting toilet and extra water pipes.

We await planning consent for the polytunnels and work will continue overwinter 2020/21 on all manner of other projects to get us into a good position for summer 2021.

The farm co-operates with a number of local organisations, community groups and local companies; this diversity will help with sustainability especially in the early years.

KVDT is the parent organisation however we are working independently developing the Kirkstall Valley Farm. The farm lead is also on the KVDT board. Unit 11 community hub at Kirkstall Bridge Retail Park has been very active and a valuable asset providing food boxes and meals during the past months during Covid19.

Reasons to be cheerful

Growing lead Jenny Lawrence provides an update from Kirkstall Valley Farm.

Thinking of ‘reasons to be cheerful’ (as invited by Radio 4), I hope this farm update will show how much can be achieved when a few people work together, and how much we have to look forward to in 2021.

I went away for a cycling break in September and left Rhian and the rest of the volunteers to look after the farm and roll out four weeks worth of veggie boxes as £10 each.

All from the veg grown at the farm on the demonstration plot and in the polytunnel. Altogether around 25 boxes went out of top quality vegetables.

We have continued to support Unit 11 community hub by donating weekly crates of tomatoes and potatoes right through until end of November, as once again food boxes were required to support those isolating during the pandemic.

In October we had a super crop of pumpkins, and sold about a dozen to The Headingley Green Grocer, as well as supplying pumpkins for children to carve as part of their after school activities with Unit 11.

We have been really pleased with the quality of the vegetables, and how remarkably unblemished they have been, like the lovely lettuce out on the demonstration plot.

In October we planted onion sets and garlic cloves for harvest in June next year. We have also grown winter salad leaves from seed and they are now growing in the tunnel, as a follow on from the tomatoes.

We have beds of lettuce, ‘Golden Frills’ a type of mustard, “Saladin’ a curly endive, and some rocket and spinach. These are all growing well, so looking forward to harvesting these from February, and will hopefully find a sales outlet through local cafes or see if there is interest for a weekly salad bag.

We are also growing some herbs, both to create herb beds for harvesting as fresh herbs, and quite possibly to grow as potted herbs.

Here are the raised beds at the end of the tunnels we are going to use for herbs, and a picture of us taking rosemary cuttings the other week.

The main task this year was to get the field areas back into a suitable state for cultivation after three years of being left to run wild. This meant lots of cultivations during the spring and the summer to clear out as much of the perennial weed root as possible.

The green manure mixes were sown in July and August, and we are delighted at how well they are growing. The mixes include a range of clovers, rye grass, and forage radish. This provides a combination of deep-rooting crops to break up the soil profile, as well as enriching the nutrient levels of the soil through the nitrogen fixing clovers, and the biomass of the rapidly growing grasses.

Most of the fields were mown to prevent seeding and to allow self mulching, but we left the stand of phacelia as it flowered so well in September and into October. It was a delight to see the bees working the flowers, right through into the late autumn. Anyhow it is good to see the fields with a winter cover and with a fairly low weed content.

Keith and volunteers, with help from the probation team, have done a fantastic job to install new lengths of water pipe in the top and lower fields.

We will be interviewing for the Grower in early January, so we are on track to launch into full field production for 2021.

Still lots to do of course, ongoing projects include: Building the compound next to the tractorshed, to provide storage, office / meeting space, and a vegetable pick up area.

We now have planning permission for the compound and a generous grant for the works.

We have put in for permitted development rights to erect the two commercial sized polytunnels (from Horsforth), and plan to create a terrace for the tunnels to go on at the same level as the top track… and may need to buy our own JCB.

If there are any JCB drivers out there please get in touch if you could spare us any time.

Do check out our new web site, and sign up as a member to support the farm and stay in touch.

We are planning an AGM for January, exact date to be confirmed, so do hope many of you can be involved as your voice and views are an essential part of the running of the farm.

Sign up and get involved

You can become a member of Kirkstall Valley Farm here.

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