Monday, 26 September 2011

A slow start this morning after a big day yesterday. It was our first go at entering the Lowaters Nursery (Garden Beauty) 5-a-side football tournament followed by a night out at a local charity ball. Considering I was still up after 10.30 and the fluid intake was above average my head feels fine unfortunately the rest of my body has let me down.

The only way I could make it into the team was to play in goal as we had plenty of volunteers to play on the pitch but I underestimated the effort involved in repeatedly lying horizontal between a couple of posts. Actually the lying horizontal bit was ok it was the getting down and back up again that did me in. My thighs are very stiff and sore, I’ve got carpet burns and bruises on knees, elbows and hips and one wrist doesn’t work anymore. I was like the six-million-dollar-man in the first game, if anyone remembers that far back, everything I did was in slow motion but unfortunately the shots weren’t. A pint of Guinness and a sausage and bacon roll put that right and things did improve in the later games, in fact much to our surprise we won with a 100% record through the whole day. We had one or two very useful players but the thing that swung it was the team work, if we used everyone together it worked fantastically well most of the time and the occasional cock-ups were soon forgotten. It was a perfect sunny autumn day for it and Lowaters did a great job organising it and raising valuable funds for the Greenfingers charity, so well done them. I had hoped a bit of jigging about in the evening would help stretch things out but I fear the only thing really stretched was the waistband. Hopefully things generally will have loosened up a bit by tomorrow and I can start moving around again without quite as many old person’s moans and groans.

2012 is creeping up very quickly and I saw this week that they have already announced the Great Britain sailing team. I don’t know much about sailing but I hear that Ben Ainsley has made it into his fourth Olympics which is a great achievement especially when you think of all the time he spends cooking and hosting Ready Steady Cook.

Back on the nursery, the herbaceous bulbs have just arrived so that means another last few days potting and we will be done for 2012. All the seasonal helpers have gone back to college or other jobs now and we are back to our core backbone of hardworking regulars. That must mean those days are returning when we treasure every penny that comes in and dread each that slips out as the cash-flow issues build through winter until the spring income starts again in a few months time. At least we can see how much better the nursery, stock and business look at this point in comparison to other recent years, real progress and excitement for the coming seasons.

Hopefully the wind keeps the turbines turning over the next few months which should give us a handy boost to the autumn and winter income, it is not quite like printing money but it does provide a regular bonus. On top of that we will have a whole winters benefit of the extra house insulation we put in last winter which will save several more hundreds of pounds. Slowly, slowly catchee monkey.

Eco News

I went to a PLATO Sustain conference last week which was very good but rather disappointingly attended, lots of up to date sustainability info and I learnt a bit about effective business governance. Sounds very dull but was actually quite inspiring. One thing an effective company board can do is take a step back from the everyday fire-fighting that tends to dominate general management in challenging times and take a look at longer term strategy. This can cut back on the fire-fighting which is an obvious immediate bonus and also identify opportunities or approaching challenges in the coming years, sustainability being one of those. Then the very next day we had a sustainability issue reappear in conversation with our plant health inspector. This is something we have started addressing quietly ourselves over the last couple of years and may become a much bigger issue in the coming years for the whole horticultural industry. The advantages of local purchasing of stock is likely to become more obvious as transport costs (in £’s as well as carbon) continue to escalate. But there may be a more urgent issue that could create a real strategic challenge for plant growers and retailers and that is the increasing spread of non-native pests and diseases. One pest we have had come onto the quarantined part of our nursery on imported cuttings is the tobacco whitefly. It is known to carry 152 seriously harmful plant viruses that can devastate commercial food crops and is already seriously affecting production abroad of all sorts of crops. At present it is a notifiable disease in the UK and is being stopped from spreading by effective monitoring and control by importing nurseries (us) and the plant inspectorate. Although this has worked so far there is the possibility that regular offenders (propagation nurseries abroad) could be banned from sending stock to the UK. This could produce sudden serious loss of supply and shortages and in the future could result in a lot more restrictions of plant movements between countries and even within countries. In the longer term there are even fears of plant movement restrictions within the UK, resulting effectively in forced local growing and purchasing. Something to think about for all you buyers and growers out there.

Have a good week, from all at Kirton Farm Nurseries

Monday, 19 September 2011

Very autumnal at the moment, sun, wind, rain, then no wind and that’s just in the last couple of hours. Naturally the morning that we had a few visitors on the nursery this week was the time when there was no turbine movement at all.

A disappointing labelling issue came up last week when a large supermarket got away with labelling a range of sausages as Hereford sausages despite the fact that they were made with meat from Argentina! Some of the meat was from the breed of cattle called Hereford which were produced in Argentina, hence the allowed description. There are similar issues with things like English butter which can be made of milk from anywhere as long as it is actually turned into butter in England. Tesco’s got caught out too with their latest sausage advert where it appeared that the meat content was from free range pigs when in fact only some of the meat was free range and the rest was from crated pigs, oops. Having dealt with several multiples ourselves I know that however much you want to trust them you just can’t, they will pay lip service to what they think you want to hear and then do whatever they like to make more money. To be fair I have heard much more positive things said about Waitrose but then they are a worker owned business so perhaps the culture is more positive.

Very sad news about the miners in Wales, but the scary thing for me was the reaction of a guest commentator on the BBC who said how shocked he was that anyone was still working in conditions like that. It might not be as common in the UK as it was but all around the world there are miners working in appalling conditions and dying to extract minerals cheaply to make what we consume. The fact that we choose to ignore that and assume everyone works under the same conditions as us is a comforting thought but a long way from reality.

Now the nights are drawing in there is more time to do some star gazing. I can only recognize a very few constellations and at my age I forget any new ones I get shown with a few minutes so it has been great to find the Google Sky app for Caroline’s smart-phone. Once loaded you just hold it up to the sky and it will show you what you are looking at. Brilliant.

Although we are dead keen on keeping things as natural and sustainable as we can that doesn’t mean we don’t use technology to help where we can. We are after all a plant manufacturing unit and have to produce as efficiently as we can to keep our prices as competitive as possible. One of the latest toys we have to help is a rugged handheld mini-computer which will put up with outside nursery use and help us be more efficient in updating our stock info and availability lists. In the past we have had to input updated info manually into the computer system which was always slow and sometimes inaccurate. Over the past 6 months we have been working with a company (Qsys) developing the software to use on the new device and we are now in the last phase of fine tuning this first phase. It works nicely already and has lots of scope for later development (photos, videos, barcode scanning, GPS positioning for batch location are all possibilities). If only nursery work was as well paid as software programming!

Oh yes, there are some yummy plants to buy on the nursery if you want some.

Eco News

Overall it had been a good sustainability week, we generated 2,500 units and we collected a large number of our wooden trays to dry out, clean, repair and get into storage ready for next season. Hopefully we will recover enough trays to get through another season without having to invest in any more trays which is the sort of result we had hoped for when we set off down this particular packaging route. If you have any tray stock ready to be returned then please let us know and we will pop in next time we are in your area. If you are unsure of the balance of trays owed please contact me and I can print off a report and we can sort out things before any shortage bills go out.

Nature notes

There are some great seasonal treats about at the moment, we’ve had some great blackberries and now the apples are coming on stream too. We’ve been through the early Discoveries and now the Worcester’s are in the shops, crisp & delicious, miles better than the foreign stuff in taste and sustainability. For those who struggle with getting through their quota of daily fruit get your storage right. In the past we used to buy fruit and watch it rot in the bowl or just go wrinkly. Pears were always a nightmare, hard for a while, ripe for 30 seconds and rotten minutes later. Then we started keeping apples and pears in the fridge and they are fantastic, keeping crisp & juicy for ages. Look out for some tasty late soft fruit in the shops but keep an eye on where they come from (blueberries this weekend are coming from Argentina!). For a free treat go for a walk in the woods and hoover up the hazelnuts which are now falling. If you’ve got squirrels around you will need to be quick. I’ve picked a good lot up and started working through them even though they are a bit green, the flavour develops as they mature and they keep for months

Have a good week, from all at Kirton Farm Nurseries

Monday, 12 September 2011

Sun is shining and the wind is breezing by, perfect for us. It’s funny how a change in circumstances alters your perception on everyday stuff. I always found windy weather a bit tense making, especially at this time of year when the impending dark winter days loom together with all the associated issues that present themselves at this time of year. The reducing sales and cash-flow panics, short days, colder temps, leaking roofs and still lots to get sorted before Spring sales kick off again in January. The autumn wind blasting by was often the last straw in focusing the tension but now I’m watching out for them with glee, checking on the meter to see how much we might generate. This week has seen a big jump in production with just under 3000 units over 7 days which is nearly half of the months anticipated amount. This is now helping catch up with the shortfall of the first month and the next few days look promising too. At times it was too windy and the turbines production started to fall slightly where the efficiency falls away slightly in the stronger winds. This is a feature of our inshore turbines where they reach peak efficiency at relatively low wind speeds to make the most of the lower speeds experienced inland and that efficiency tails off very slightly at the higher speeds experienced in stormy weather.

It was a very busy week with plenty of orders whizzing out and several box collections made which was great. I also managed to squeeze in a PLATO Sustain meeting, a trip to Mums, a day at Four Oaks trade show and a morning in Wem (Shropshire) picking up our new hand held rugged computer (like a big smart phone) and learning how to make it fit on our system. I haven’t been to Four Oaks for years and saw lots of interesting stuff. Unfortunately Caroline has confiscated the cheque book so I didn’t come away with anything other than a handful of brochures and a few ideas lined up for next year’s improvements. Philips lighting were showing their range of LED lighting for use in growth rooms which looks promising for the microprop lab, I expect we will get a trial going in there soon to test them out. They can reduce the direct energy cost by 60% and lower the requirements for cooling on top of that (it’s cheaper to heat than cool with air source heat pump systems like ours). If the plants like them it will pay back within 3-4 years. I must admit they look odd as the lighting arrays are made up of a mix of just blue and red lights and look quite dark. They only add white lights (if needed) to help us see what we are doing!

It was noticeable on several stands that sustainability was shooting up the agenda although it is still shocking to see some of the lack of thought and amount of waste created at this sort of event. One example was the lunch boxes delivered to the exhibitors of which there were hundreds. Organised by Four Oaks and sponsored by Horticulture Week, they were corex (corrugated plastic) suitcases holding the sandwich, apple, crisps and possibly a drink. They looked wasteful, dated, out of touch, and dominated the rubbish bins. Luckily I am now so old I can make a fuss without embarrassment, well not to me anyway, so I stirred it up with most of the exhibitors I spoke to and went to the Hort Week stand to see if they had registered what a poorly thought out promotion this was. The two youngsters on the stand had differing views, one asked if they were really that bad and the other hung his head in shame admitting that they had paid for these and perhaps they could have done a better job. There is still a long way to go in this world to get things going in the right direction and it gets a bit scary when horticulture, a fundamentally green industry, still has such a blinkered view. Luckily I do get to hear from some of you about how much you are doing at work and in your own homes to move things forward so well done you lot, keep it up.

Nature notes

House martins still in the nests but feeding well. Although our swallows have gone I still saw lots in Shropshire so it might not be too late.

Have a good week, from all at Kirton Farm Nurseries

Monday, 5 September 2011

September already, how did that happen? I’m not desperately keen on sunshine and heat but it doesn’t feel like summer has happened yet. An unsettled and windy (hurrah) week to come is going to feel autumnal but we could still have a couple of summery weeks yet with a bit of luck. Anyway I’m not too worried now as we had our summer break last Sunday with a lovely day trip to the sunny Isle of Wight. Beer and sandwiches on the beach and slight sun scorch after rashly removing my socks from under my sandals. The beach cleared after a short shower just in time for a quick game of beach cricket where I took the ‘catch of the day’ before retiring hurt with a groin strain after doing the splits trying a bit too hard stretching for a wide ball. I missed our first hockey game yesterday because of that, claiming to have picked up the injury training in preparation for the new season. It’s a good job I only went for the day or I would be in a wheel chair by now.

We are just coming towards to the end of the potting for next spring’s crops, the last compost load comes in on Monday and we just have a few more tunnels to clear to make room for it all. We can then get stuck in to some nursery maintenance to get prepared for the winter. With a bit of luck it won’t be as dramatic as the last two, we are not very good with snow down here and we did loose quite a lot of the less hardy stock in the very cold snaps. With a bit more preparation we will hopefully avoid that level of loss and come into a nice sunny spring with even better stock than ever before. We have got to recover the despatch area, the mess room and the lab very soon as all are leaking badly and internal running water in the winter is no fun when it’s not in the pipes.

One thing that will be interesting to see is the performance of the house heating over an entire autumn and winter. Last year’s insulation efforts (roof, cavity walls and under-floor) and wood burner fitting were only completed in mid December and the reduction in oil consumption was dramatic even for part of the cold season. The oil savings made have already paid back the insulation costs and part of the burner fitting so a whole season’s savings should go even further. If you have not looked at insulating recently, take a look, the benefits to the environment and the annual financial rewards are impressive and in our case the comfort improvement on cold nights is luxurious.

Although we didn’t have a particularly breezy August the figures for the first month of turbine generating look ok. Not earth shattering but a reasonable start. We won’t really know how things look on the production front until we have been going a couple of years as the wind does vary so much. Overall we generated about 2/3rds of the average monthly output needed to reach our estimated annual generation, but our consumption reduced a bit too with a replacement air source heat pump with a more efficient model. If we not had the set up problem with the one turbine which put it out of action for several of the windiest days we would have come very close to a carbon neutral electric supply which had been one of our main targets for the project. The month ended on a whimper with our first nil generation day, but hopefully this week we might see what could be done in a breezier spell.

Nature notes

Swallows have all gone and a lot of the house martins too although there are at least three if not four nests of house martins still with a late second batch of youngsters in residence. Hopefully they haven’t left it too late and they get airborne soon before the cool and wet gets a grip.

Have a good week, from all at Kirton Farm Nurseries