Organic cycles

This article was published in 2016, in Newsletter 128.

One thing organic farming has taught me is how important cycles are: the earth cycling around the sun, soil nutrient cycles, crop rotation cycles and now, I am proud to say, bicycles.

The main reason I went into organic farming was that it was more sustainable than the average, chemical-reliant type of farming, but I soon realised that this was only one spoke in the wheel. Although my vegetable production was ecologically responsible, the way my fruit and vegetable bags were transported to customers could be much improved. It didn’t take long in a place so bike-friendly as Cambridge to get inspiration on how to do this.

I started playing with the idea of delivering my fruit and vegetables by bike to the good people of Cambridge the best part of 20 years ago. It was too much for me to do myself, growing and harvesting is tiring enough without then having to load our produce onto a bike trailer and tow it to the four corners of Cambridge. I had discussions with various cycling enthusiasts but it proved difficult to find anyone with enough time and energy to commit to regular, reliable deliveries. So I reluctantly put the idea to the back of my mind and plodded on. Happily, with the coming of Outspoken Delivery the original idea stood a chance of becoming a reality. Outspoken’s riders now transport our veg bags all over Cambridge. It’s great, it shows people just how appropriate cycle transport is in Cambridge plus our delivery van no longer adds to traffic chaos around the city.

Paul and Doreen Robinson farm at Waterland Organics, a 26-hectare (65-acre) organic holding near Lode, and have run a vegetable box scheme for over 20 years.
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Our bike deliveries are only one part of how bikes affect our farm. I have lived and worked on farms most of my life and up until the early eighties it was very common for farm workers to arrive at work on a bike. As farms have become much bigger, and less numerous, cycling has become a very rare form of transport for the average farm worker. However on our farm it is still very common. Thanks to our sister organisation Cambridge CropShare many of the volunteers who work (or should that be play) on the farm arrive by bike. Cambridge CropShare organise ‘be an organic farmer for a day’ sessions and there is always a guided cycle ride to the farm for participants, with bike rendezvous points along the route so as many people as possible can join in. The route starts at the Green Dragon pub and goes along the river and across Stourbridge Common and Ditton Meadows. The latter part of the route is a little less pleasant; however, the group is always safe, and hopefully soon the planned cycle path between Stow cum Quy and Lode will make a big difference. All abilities of cyclists join the group, from hyper-fit Cambridge rowing blues to fairweather cyclists who really enjoy the confidence gained by cycling with other people. We have one regular attendee who uses the ride to litter pick, arriving with a basket full of abandoned items, and our bee hives house swarms which have travelled from Cambridge to the farm by bike trailer. The most intrepid riders we have welcomed were a couple who stopped off to work with us for the day as part of a cycle tour that had started in Berlin and was ending in Dublin.

Niamh O’Mahony, a regular farm cyclist, is one of many who enjoy the ride from Cambridge and back almost as much as the farming: ‘on my ride to the farm I have seen so much; kestrels, buzzards, egrets and herons, but the best bit is the well-earned tea and yummy treats when you arrive!’ It doesn’t matter where you have come from, there is always time for a cup of tea before we get down to serious farm work.

At the end of the day the gang of cyclists ride back with haversacks and panniers bulging with fruit and vegetables harvested that day. Once a bike trailer was so laden with apples that I wondered whether it would make it back to Trumpington; I am pleased to report that the cyclist and harvest made it home safely. Sometimes running repairs are needed and we try to keep our puncture kits and a couple of spare inner tubes at the ready.

There are even more bikes in our plans for the farm’s future. Inspired by the farm workers of old, we are looking at adapting bikes to transport our harvested crops around the farm so that we rely less on our diesel-hungry tractor. We are also playing with the idea of making a bicycle hoe that will cultivate down the rows of vegetables -I’ll keep you updated with our progress!

Paul Robinson

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