Mid April Newsletter - Date Related Stuff, Please Read
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Hello everyone

Firstly, I hope you like the new logo. It took months of planning, 30 seconds to realise that all that planning had been a waste of time and about 15 minutes of work on the computer to create it. More about that later.

Beltane BBQ

It's only a week now until our Beltane celebration BBQ on the field - Saturday 30th April starting at 6pm.

Andy Lee has been busy building two BBQ's, one for the meat eaters and one for the vegetarians.

Tickets are £5.50 (£3.50 for five year olds and under) and include a Taylor's Farm burger and sausage, salads and dessert (vegetarian options are also available). Bring your own drinks. There will be games, a quiz and much merriment. We need to know the final numbers for Wednesday 27th April so we can order the right amount of food.

If you have any family or friends you would like to bring along please invite them.

Please let us know if you are coming ASAP.

OnThe Farm

This week I have been taking advantage of this good weather and working ground up ready to plant potatoes and other crops. Due to the warmer weather I have also started to sow some direct seeded crops. We now have garlic, onions, carrots, peas and broad beans all poking their heads out of the ground with spinach, rocket, turnips and radish soon to follow.

We should be starting planting our potatoes this week and we now have five varieties to plant: Maris Bard, Coquine, Sarpo Mira, Robinta and Setanta. We have chosen these varieties primarily for their blight resistance but partly because we have grown some of them before with great success. 

It is always a gamble balancing out the need to get the early potatoes in as soon as possible (Maris Bard) so that we will have potatoes for our first veg boxes and the danger of frost. We want to time things so that when they emerge, the young potato plants don’t get damaged by a late frost. This is always a possibility as our land lies in a dip in the landscape; a frost pocket if you like. 

Potato Chitting Problems

Something evil has been lurking in some of our seed potatoes. 

When we unpacked all of the bags the Sarpo Mira potatoes had a few rotten ones in the sack. We didn’t worry about this at first but over the last few weeks more and more of this particular variety have developed a white fungus. When we reached 50% of the original batch being lost it was time to do something. I wrote to our suppliers, who in turn contacted their suppliers. It turns out that Sarpo Mira needs extra time in the ground for their skins to mature before they are lifted. If this doesn’t occur, they are apparently vulnerable to getting this fungal infection.

Our suppliers have now arranged to send us replacement seed of another blight resistant variety called Setanta.

Making Charcoal

My brother Shane has been making his own charcoal for a few years now. There are many ways to make charcoal but Shane has come up with a method of making small batches of charcoal which he kindly shared with us.

Charcoal is almost pure carbon made by extracting all the water and impurities from wood. This is usually achieved by 'cooking' the wood to the stage where you burn off all the water, tar and other gasses and impurities, then stop the process in its tracks before the carbon begins to burn and turns into ash.
If you get the burning process wrong, you will end up with ash and too small a yield of charcoal. If you stop the burning process too soon, you end up with brown wood. Brown wood still contains some of the tars and impurities so will produce smoke during the cooking process which will taint the food; okay if you want to make kippers but not so good for steak, burgers or sausages. Just a few 'Browns' in your charcoal mix might ruin your BBQ.

One of the major difficulties producing charcoal in big enough quantities to be of use for cooking, is ensuring that all of the wood in the charcoal 'burn' is processed thoroughly and to the same stage. This isn't easy, having a large quantity of wood means that some of it will inevitably burn at different rates.

Let me warn you here that you will be building a large fire and it will get very hot and smoky. Think of safety and don’t light fires next to anything else that could catch light and check your neighbours don’t have their washing out, unless you don’t like them. If you live in a smokeless zone you are going to break the law big time.

The first part of Shane's process is to cut the wood to be as uniform in size as possible. Uniform thickness means that the wood will burn through from the outside to its core at the same rate. Obviously, thinner pieces of wood will have burned through to ash before thicker pieces have burned sufficiently.

Having a mixture of ash and brown wood at the end of the burn would be a poor result. Before starting the process, make sure that your wood is close to hand. Shane has all his wood stacked in a wheelbarrow so he can bring it in close to the fire site and move it rapidly away when he has finished adding it to the fire.
The next part of the process is to find a suitable container in which to make your charcoal.

Shane uses a metal ‘pan’ as shown in the pictures. It is about 18 inches in diameter with a 3 inch ‘lip’ around the outside. This pan serves the purpose of keeping all the wood contained in one area and also makes bagging the charcoal easier when you have finished the process.
Good thick leather gloves are essential.

Another essential part of the process is to build your fire in a sheltered location. A strong side wind will make the fire burn unevenly producing more fire on one side of the pan than the other. Notice in the pictures how the smoke is going straight upwards, there is barely a breath of wind. This is another key part of getting an even burn. Shane usually makes his charcoal in some woodland that is well sheltered. He once gave a demonstration of this technique in an open field where a strong side wind made the fire burn rapidly from one side; result, lots of ash but not much charcoal.

Shane starts of the process by creating a type of fire lighter at the centre of the container. This is made from a hen’s egg sized ‘dollop’ of petroleum jelly enveloped in cotton wool. Petroleum Jelly will not usually burn on its own, but the cotton wool acts as a wick which allows it to burn. As the jelly melts it will give several minutes burn time which is enough to ignite the wood that will placed around it. We use this technique for lighting fires as the cotton wool will ignite easily with a spark and burns cleanly with the petroleum jelly without causing any taint to any smoke it produces.

The fire lighter is placed in the centre of the tin and lit. Wood is built around the fire lighter as a tepee and soon catches light. Once the first few sticks are burning, the process of building the burn starts.
Adding wood to the fire must be done quickly and methodically. Sticks are continually stacked all around the fire at the centre both tightly and evenly. This can be helped by rotating the steel container in the early stages; pretty soon the container will get too hot to be moved by hand.

As the fire in the centre builds up and flames start to emerge, more wood is added around the edges to quench any flaming gaps (this is where wearing good thick leather gloves come in). A second layer is also added so the stack reaches twice the original tepee height.

The building process continues by adding more and more tightly packed wood, each addition trying to quench flames as they emerge from the pile. All the sticks are added vertically keeping gaps to a minimum.

You eventually reach a point where no more wood can be added or your stack will fall over out of control or your gloves will start to combust. I should have mentioned that this is a smelly, choking and dangerous pastime. Keep a bucket of water and mobile phone to hand; the water to try and get things back under control if the fire gets out of hand, the mobile phone to ring the fire brigade if you didn’t follow my earlier advice of building this large fire well away from anything else remotely combustible, like a house, or your car.

The objective in building the fire this way was to achieve an evenly burning stack of wood, all alight to the same degree, all at the same stage of burning.

We are now looking for all the smoke to be gone and the yellow flames to disappear. You should have a big stack of black wood, no flames and no smoke and no white ash showing on the black wood, only it isn’t black wood any more, it’s charcoal. If you still have the odd smoking and flaming stick, flick it out of the pile; whilst this is turning to charcoal, the rest is turning to ash.

Now, stop it burning. How? Put an airtight lid on it. Shane has a steel dome (ex fire pit enclosure) which he places directly over the pile of charcoal. This starves the pile of oxygen and stops the process in its tracks. To help seal it off, he goes around the edge of the dome with a spade sealing it all with a ring of soil. No smoke should be emerging anywhere.

You’re done. Leave it all now to cool for at least four hours. If you have any chapatti flour handy you can always cook a few chapattis on the outside of the steel dome. Don’t lift the lid too early or you risk the charcoal re-igniting.

The charcoal lights very easily now. We held a zippo lighter against a piece for a few seconds, gave it a blow and it was soon glowing red (see the picture below).

When you are sure that the charcoal is completely cold you can store it ready for your next barbeque. Depending on the type of wood you used, it may or may not travel well. Soft woods make a structurally weak charcoal that will easily turn to dust if it is roughly handled.


First Hatchings of Our Own Marsh Daisies

We can now proudly announce that our Marsh Daisies have started to breed. These have hatched from our own eggs, bred by our own stock, on the field, this spring. It’s been a great moment for Graham after loosing all the cockerels that he had last year. You can watch a video of the first hatchings in Graham’s incubator here:

The New Logo

Since we changed our name to Burscough Community Farm we have been in need of a new logo. I have been looking at all sorts of options for a while now but we reached a point where we couldn’t think about it any longer. After a few experiments I decided to come up with something that had a real reference to our landscape and location but still held some of the ‘feel’ that our last logo had.

Ainscough’s Mill dominates the Burscough skyline and can be seen from the field. It may not be the prettiest sight in the area, but it reflects the heritage of this area that we grow food. It occupies a site literally at the crossroads of the Liverpool/Preston railway line and the Leeds to Liverpool canal. Our field provided food to fuel the industrial revolution and Burscough grew because of its transport links to towns and cities in the area.

With this in mind I took my camera down to the field to get a shot of the Mill which I could use as a silhouette outline to form part of the logo. With a telephoto lens, it was possible to bring the Mills outline close enough so I could get sufficient detail to draw out a recognisable outline in Adobe Illustrator. I needed to create the logo in Illustrator so that I could produce a vector image that could be scaled to any size we may need in the future. Yes, the side of a wagon could be a possibility.
As I walked across the field two geese came flying towards me so I managed to get a couple of shots of them. Perhaps they would serve as a reference to our wetland bird population and our support for biodiversity crossed my mind. Outlining them in Illustrator would give another nice silhouette against a bright sky.

I did have the idea of incorporating the canal somewhere in the logo together with a figure doing some hoeing, both of which I photographed, but my lack of artistic talent when messing with the perspectives made my head hurt.

I did like the simplicity of the Organic Veg Club logo so decided to incorporate some of the elements of that logo into the new one. The green and yellow worked well together and gave a sense of freshness and the countryside, so I put in a yellow sunrise above a green landmass. Green and yellow also used to be the colours of Burscough Football Club's strip when I used to go and see them in the 70's. I drew in 'Burscough' as hand written script like the OVC logo, as I like the handmade, informal feel of it; that kind of describes the farm really. Adding Community Farm in a simple font completed the elements.

After a little playing with the different elements in Illustrator I had the logo completed. I don't think it's the best logo in the world, but it is relevant and unique and I hope it serves us well. Most people seem to like it and I have had the suggestion to incorporate an element of blue sky which I might try if I get the chance.

Germination Trials

Last summer and the beginning this spring, we have had issues germinating some crops in our seed modules. To sort this problem, we decided to run a trial with some none organic John Innes seed compost as a ‘control’. 

We sowed four batches of seeds in two types of compost for the trial. We had two varieties of lettuce, Roxy which was an uncoated seed and Elanda which is a pelleted seed. The pelleted seed has a clay coating which protects the seed and makes it easier to plant. Pelleted seed are relatively expensive at about two pence per seed, but this may be a worthwhile investment if they work well, they certainly speed up sowing a tray of lettuce.

For our trial, we sowed both types of seed in the Moorland Gold compost that we have used for the last two years and the John Innes seed compost. All were taken home to our heated propagators 

Caption: John Innes compost on the left, Moorland Gold on the right. Elanda at the back, Roxy at the front.

The results we got were quite startling. In the John Innes compost we got 100% germination for both types of seeds, but for the Moorland Gold, the pelleted seed yielded 99% germination but the un-pelleted gave us 30-40% germination. These are the kind of poor germination results we have been getting of late. At this point my thoughts were that something within the Moorland Gold was inhibiting germination of the seeds that were coming in direct contact with it. More research needed.

As time has progressed, another part to the story has unfolded. Now a few weeks on from the first image, it is quite apparent that the seedlings in the Moorland Gold compost are ‘romping’ away and are twice the size of the John Innes compost seedlings.

Caption: Moorland Gold on top left and bottom right. Roxy are the red lettuce, Elanda the bright green.

My conclusion at this point is that the Moorland Gold compost is ‘too hot’ in nutrients for germination. One of the features of a seed compost is that it should be low in nutrients. The Moorland Gold clearly isn’t short of nutrients as is proven by the rapid growth of the plants in this compost; too much nitrogen available in the mix I think.

I have now ‘sterilised’ some sand that was a gift from the Ellerbrook (we must have 20-40 tonnes of it lying in the field following the flood). Sterilisation was achieved by ‘cooking’ some batches of sand in a suspended cooking pot over a brazier. The process is designed to kill off any weed seeds that may be lurking in the mix. We have enough Himalayan Balsam growing on the field without raising our own.

I have now been mixing this sterilised sand in with our compost to dilute its nutrient content and improve the drainage of the mix, another desirable quality of good sowing compost.

Results will be announced in a future email.

Lancashire County Council Award

We have recently had some great backing from Lancashire County Council in the form of County Councillor Cynthia Dereli's Local Members Grant fund from which we received just short of £400.00 We used this money to purchase some black mypex ground cover, blue water piping, market stall clips and green net windbreak material.

The first items are for the market garden. We use the mypex to cover empty growing beds, exclude light and kill weeds. The water piping will be cut into suitable lengths to make cloche support hoops for our insect crop protection netting and the big market stall clips will hold the netting in place on the hoops. I saw this system in use at Glebelands Market Garden in Sale

The green netting is to provide a wind break around the new bee enclosure whilst the hedge is being established.

A big thank you goes out to Clr. Dereli and Lancashire County Council for backing our project by approving this award.

I think that's enough for this week. Thanks for your time if you have made it this far, I hope it has been worth your while. I only ever manage to write a small proportion of what is going on at the farm 

We look forward to seeing you if you can make it down anytime.

Many thanks

Neil Hickson
Copyright © 2016 Burscough Community Farm CIC, All rights reserved.

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