Down on the farm

The rain was falling. Fat, heavy droplets hit the ground, sending the earth flying into the air. We all head for cover: me, the farmer, the students and the chickens. It seems that no one is a fan of heavy rain.

Peering out at the downpour from the welcome cover of their chicken house, the chickens seem rather blasé about having to share their home with a bunch of humans. I for one, was grateful to them.

Sheltering from the rain

Sheltering from the rain

I am visiting Orchard Organic Farm, a few miles outside Newton Abbot, down here in Devon. As part of my quest to understand more about the food we eat, I have taken the opportunity to visit Jerry Saunders on his farm, to find out more about what goes in to running a successful organic farm. And I am not alone. I have tagged along with a group of students from South Devon College, who are visiting the farm as part of their animal science course, which has allowed me an excellent opportunity to spend several hours touring the farm and listening to Jerry explain all about the work he and his team do.

The farm covers approximately 100 acres and is home to 5,000 chickens, a small herd of cows and several orchards. Because this is an organic farm, the way in which the farm is managed is dictated both by strict regulations set down by the Soil Association and by the need to manage the available land in a sustainable way. This involves running a three-year programme for each of the fields:

  1. Year one – two mobile hen houses are placed on a field
  2. Year two – the hen houses are removed and the field is sown with crops: a mixture of spring corn, clover and chicory
  3. Year three – once the spring corn has been harvested, the cows go to work on the remaining crops, getting the field ready for the return of the hen houses the following year
Hen house

One of the hen houses

This process allows the available land time to recover whilst also making the most of the free resources that are in plentiful supply to a chicken farmer. Yep, you get a lot of chicken crap, and it turns out that it can be usefully used to fertilise the ground for the sowing of the crops the following year.

And what does all of this endeavour deliver? A whole heap of eggs. If my slightly soggy notes from the day are correct (did I mention the rain?), then the farm turns out somewhere in the region of 30,000 eggs every week. Here are just a few of them…

EggsA large number of the eggs from Orchard Organic Farm are provided to Riverford for their extremely popular veg boxes. If you are a Riverford customer, have a look inside your egg box; you may have just enjoyed some Orchard Organic eggs. Last year, as part of the Devon A-Z, they even popped up in some pancakes I was cooking.

I learnt a great deal from my morning on the farm. It did not take long for me to realise that, even as someone who is taking an interest in where his food comes from, I am still very disconnected from the source of my eggs or my chicken or any of the products that were once walking around a farm field. Having farmers like Jerry, who are willing to spend their time talking to people about the farm and their practices, is really beneficial in allowing us consumers to understand more about what our food actually is and where it comes from.

I know that this is something that people are often keen not to think about, but knowledge allows us to make better choices. And whilst we may still not always make the best choice, we can at least be reassured that we understand what the choices are. Take eggs as an example. Do you know the difference between an organic egg, a free range egg and an egg laid in an enriched cage? Did the hens that laid that egg have their beaks trimmed? And, if they did, do you know why this practice is needed on some farms? Do you know how long the hens lay for, and what happens to them after they stop laying? I certainly didn’t; in fact, these are all things that I didn’t really realise were even questions that I wanted to know the answer to. And I will be returning to these sorts of questions in future posts, as I continue to explore my relationship with the things I am eating.

But don’t let all of that head-scratching questioning make you think that it isn’t also good fun down on the farm. Even in the rain. As well as the cows we visited and the hens we talked to and the fields we wandered through, we also got to visit the egg packing plant. Partly run in the time-honoured tradition of having actual people put eggs into boxes, it is also home to the most Wallace and Gromit-alike machine I have ever seen. There is a video of the cool suction cup machine picking up eggs on the farm’s You Tube channel.

If you would like to spend some time with the chickens yourself, then this weekend Orchard Organic Farm is participating in the nationwide Open Farm Sunday event, running a farm walk at noon where you can meet the animals, pick up some eggs and, more importantly, find out more about how farming works. If you are not in Devon, then there are lots of events happening all around the country and you can find a farm closer to you on the Open Farm Sunday website.

It even looks as though it might not be raining on Sunday!