Veg News 24th Feb
From now until May we will begin to talk about the Hungry Gap! As the days lengthen (and eventually get warmer), brassicas that have been overwintered will begin to bolt as they decide it is time to flower. At the same time, crops kept in storage since last year (e.g. beetroot, celeriac, swede etc.) either run out, or cease to store quite so well. Meanwhile, the weather in the field is not warm enough for the new spring crops to kick on. This perfect storm adds up to give us the Hungry Gap, the end of which will be heralded by the first UK broad beans, sorrel and rhubarb in the spring.
Growers in the North are certainly entering this phase… kale from northern climes finished a few weeks ago, our supply of savoys from Royal Oak near Ormskirk is ending, and brussels sprouts will not be far behind. The good news is that there are crops (and regions) that help us plug the gap. Tundra cabbages (savoy-like, ideal for a winter salad) and January Kings (somewhere between a savoy and a white cabbage) are still going strong from Royal Oak. The same is true of the sprout/kale cross: flower sprouts. Then there is Francis Sampson in Cornwall. Tucked away near the coast close to St Austell, the mild microclimate he experiences means he is able to keep us topped up with cauliflowers and kale – hopefully well into March.
From Europe, lemons, aubergines and peppers all offer good value. Taste-wise, Ramiro peppers, grapefruits, Moroccan clementines and Hass avocadoes are all worthy of a mention.
Last Modified - 24th February 2015
First Floor Refurb Summer/Autumn 2014 - Trading as Normal!
As you'll probably notice when you’re shopping or even just passing by, we are undertaking a large scale refurbishment of the first floor of the building.
Work commenced mid-August and with a short delay to the original schedule, will now finish in late December. We hope that the impact on customers will be minimal – the shop shouldn't be affected and we are working with a local co-operative architects and a building firm who both really understand how little disruption we want to trading.
Despite the challenge of operating with very little office or staff space for 4 months, we are VERY excited about this project!
Keen to keep our focus on the basics of running the shop, we have always avoided taking on too many extra projects in one go. Since buying the building in 2002 we’ve been concentrating on improving the trading space, plus buying land to reduce the distance between field and fork, and then getting a decent form of energy established for the growers. Now we have saved up the cash to make much needed improvements to the fabric of the building itself.
The refurb is happening in order to do various things:
1) Increase food production space to increase our offer of good value, fresher, more affordable Unicorn-made meals to sell at the deli counter.
2) Improve our ‘thermal envelope’ - we inherited a building that is cold, leaky and pretty shoddy upstairs - it’s time to improve this. So, we’re rebuilding the walls to include loads of insulation, getting new windows, replacing the roof, and finishing the whole thing off on the outside with sustainable Scottish larch.
3) Renew our hot water and heating system, to make the best use of the existing solar panels.
4) Make the space a better space to work and meet in. Check out the facebook album too see photos of the upstairs as it has been for the past 8 years. We need a space where we can all meet every week (there are nearly 60 of us now) to efficiently communicate as a worker co-op, plus decent offices to do our accounts, order our stock, meet suppliers, and do the strategic planning needed for our business. We look forward to doing these things minus the gloves and hats we usually wear half of the year!
5) When it’s all done, the building should look better from the outside too, making a big lego brick of concrete a little less imposing and nicer to look at for everyone.
We’ll keep customers updated here, in the shop and on our facebook page, especially if any significant disruptions to trading are expected (we hope not!). Bear with us and hopefully the next 4 months will fly by!
Photos of refurb
Last Modified - 11th December 2014
Co-op Members being farmers for a day
Unicorn co-op members have been up at Glazebury helping out the fantastic tenant farmers on our land, Moss Brook Growers. Here's what we've been up to recently. Check out our facebook album for photos.
Mijke (August 2014)
When I went to Moss Brook on hot summers day a few weeks ago, I had this romantic picture in my head of harvesting crops, arms laden with bounty, chewing on straw etc. but it was REALLY HARD WORK.
I spent most of the day digging docks, beautiful rooty, back breaking weeds. I understand most of the guys' time on the land has been spent getting rid of these creatures to make the land ready for growing - respect.
At the end of the day I got to plant baby squashes on the two seated tractor that makes the little trenches in the ground and then covers it again once you've put the plant in (see pic). Can't wait to see the fruits in the shop later in the year.
PS. Thanks for the farmer's tan!
Frith (August 2014)
My day started with a chat about how things were going in general. I was interested to see the farm crop plans, laid out in blocks, then split into lines, three rows of crop within each. I enquired if the recent dry weather has caused problems but thankfully due to the irrigation system only one young crop of leeks were lost.
Rob outlined the day's activities, all 'maintenance'. If you ask people what a veg farmer does I think most would initially think of either planting or harvesting. In reality it is the day to day care of both crops and land which takes the most time.
I spent the morning hand hoeing round broccoli plants. An effective way to keep them weed free without pesticides. It was hard work (I have a blister to prove it!) but it is essential to keep on top of weeds.
After a quick lunch Rob walked me round the rest of the land. Celery, leeks, squash and beetroot all looking great. It was also lovely to see a row of tree protectors containing rosemary plants, recently planted. In between the rosemary plants hazel trees are due to be planted. They will provide a much needed windbreak and further habitat for the land's nature.
Next I moved on to the never ending task of 'Docking'. Digging out countless dock plants. It sounds simple enough but it can be really tricky to cleanly get ever last root out. If even the smallest piece is left the plant with quickly spring back.
I left the day with a sense of pride that I had in some small way helped some little plants to grow big and strong. To quote Rob ' It's like being a parent and a doctor'!
Donna (August 2014)
Rob picked us volunteers up from Unicorn car park at 7am for an early start. On the way Rob pointed out the location and told us a bit about Moss Brook farm and its evolution over the past 5 years. Upon arrival we were shown around the farm and given more information. The barn itself has a solar panelled roof and a resident swift family nested inside. One of the biggest expenses at the beginning has been the pipe leading down to an underground reservoir below the farm which is used for irrigation of the land (cool!).
I was informed about crop rotation and the need for letting one field rest every year. The resting field is covered with clover which naturally puts nitrogen back into the soil. The soil itself at the farm has Grade 1 peat content, making it perfect for growing organic veg.
Shortly after being given an abundance of interesting info we got stuck into the work. In the morning I harvested Spinach heading for Unicorn and Manchester Veg People. Spinach stalks are edible and according to one farmer, delicious in a spinach curry :) The spinach was then weighed and bagged before its final journey.
When all the veg was weighed and bagged we moved onto clearing dockweed. Aaaggghhhh! Dockweed is a pervasive weed that absorbs nutrients from the soil; each plant has 6000 seeds and is one of an organic farmers nightmares. They have to be carefully dug out of the ground, then taken off site and burnt. It’s back breaking work and needs constant weeding to prevent them from spreading and absorbing the vital nutrients in the soil.
In the afternoon we planted 9,600 vegetables, two types of kale and two types of broccoli. Yummy!
After my day on the farm I came away having even more respect for organic farmers and the hard work that goes into providing people with an abundance of gorgeous organic produce. I found working with Moss Brook growers an inspirational experience.
Laura (June 2014)
My second time at the farm began with a little introduction about the farm and how it operates.
Moss Brook Growers maintain a healthy soil by rotating their crops and planting, among other things, white clover. They have also created a beautiful wildflower bed, a delicious and colourful feast to increase biodiversity.
I was devastated to see many of the broccolis we planted on my previous trip, had been eaten by slugs. We pretty much hoed and dug out docks all day. It was a hot-sunny day... which believe me... it’s not something you want when working at the farm.
I'm absolutely amazed for the love and passion these growers put in. Hats off to them for all the patience, perseverance and hard work.
Debbie (June 2014)
I hadn’t been up to the land for almost a year and the difference was amazing. I hadn’t yet seen the borehole and irrigation system, the wildflower corner or the 60 solar panels on the barn. Plus the hundreds of metres of hedging plants that were put in a couple of years ago have turned into beautiful mixed native hedge, that looks like it’s been there for decades!
Rob showed us round and summarised what they’ve been up to, then it was straight into some hoeing of the broccoli crop. Really hard work, you have to put your back into it especially as this was the part of the land damaged by United Utilities when they laid a huge water main under one of the fields. Mixing up the subsoil with the topsoil plus all the machinery moving around on it has caused compaction of the soil, so it’s really hard to work. I had no idea how different layers of the soil worked, but Rob explained that diluting the rich, living topsoil with the clay subsoil had a massive impact and you can also really see how it affects crop growth (you can tell just by looking at the crops where the pipe is laid).
Our other main task for the day was getting rid of any flowering dock plants so that Rob could mow the next day. They’d had a tractor out of use for 10 days (being fixed) so mowing had been delayed and some had gone to seed – a disaster with docks because they’re such a pest. They have to be collected and burned offsite because their seeds are so resilliant!
The whole time we were working we were surrounded by wheeling lapwings, one of my favourite birds. They have two breeding pairs on the site and others around – definitely something to celebrate as lapwings have been declining in the UK since the 1920’s because of changes in farming practices.
It was eye-opening working with Moss Brook for just a few hours and seeing just how hard farming is. I thought working in the shop was tiring but this was on another level.
More info here
Last Modified - 4th November 2014
Grow a Grocery
We think there’s room for a Unicorn-type store in every city, and perhaps more besides. We have no plans to expand outside the one shop, so we’ve put together a guide intended to help facilitate the emergence of new stores run on similar lines.
Starting a new business is a daunting process. The guide is based on the model Unicorn has tried & tested since 1996, and walks potential grocers through all areas of the business, in the hope that it will make starting a new shop an easier process and help existing shops improve and/or expand.
Read the guide here
Last Modified - 10th October 2013