Letter From The Farm | Between Hotbeds And The Hungary Gap

By Matthew Hayes

Meet Matthew Hayes, an organic-biodynamic-biointensive farmer originally from the UK, who has lived and farmed in Hungary for the last 25 years. He runs a market garden with his wife Kata in Zsámbok, a village in Pest county to the east of Budapest. In his first Letter From The Farm, Matthew writes about the struggle between light and darkness, the hung(a)ry gap, and lessons in patience.

There is always a tension which starts to grow around this time of year.  We are just past the traditional European festival of Candlemas (the same day as Groundhog Day elsewhere). This marks the time in the year when light begins to show up in the darkness. Days are lengthening, and we begin to cross the critical moment for gardeners of when days reach 11 hours length of daylight, at least around these parts.

But as the struggle between light and darkness shifts positions, we also experience a tension in supplying our consumers.  Winter supplies are dwindling and we are yet far from the first crops, let alone the abundance of the new season.

We manage the gardens with a great team of folk of very mixed ages and backgrounds

Complexity of a small farm

Kata, my wife, works creatively to put together a weekly offering of different standard boxes and a list of seasonally available vegetables and fruit onto our online shop.  There is an important job of communicating with consumers the benefits, and also worthwhile struggles of managing a local food system.  Kata handles the social media, I write a weekly “Farm Post” newsletter.  The efforts of Logan, our long-time, long-legged American friend who both works on the farm and rallies Budapest residents to consider the importance of local food, also helps extend the cultural mix of our farm.  We manage the gardens with a great team of folk of very mixed ages and backgrounds.  This all feeds into the complexity of our small yet diverse farm-cum-market garden 60km east of Budapest.

The economics of our farm depend to a significant extent on the degree to which we can extend the season, especially for our popular green, leafy vegetables and baby salad leaves.  We have a good-sized area of our small market garden under polythene tunnels.  At this time of year I often feel as if I am coaxing, if not outright trying to will on the tender young shoots of spinach, baby salad leaves, corn salad and various oriental greens to put on a growth spurt, in defiance of the cool, dim conditions outside.  This is another time of the year and part of the farm when I’m being schooled in the virtues of good, old-fashioned patience.

The economics of our farm depend to a significant extent on the degree to which we can extend the season

Harnessing the power of hotbeds

One popular job at this time of year is working in the propagation house.  There we are out of the wind and cold, and able to prepare plants for the new season.  My experience is that despite their crusty, apparently pessimistic exterior, most farmers are inwardly quiet optimists.  It comes with the territory after all – the “bewildering sprouting growth” of the new season, early spring born lambs, poring over seed catalogues in contempation of the bountiful crops which are going to overwhelm us in the summer.  Along these kind of lines I always get a big kick out of making hotbeds.

There is a real wonder and joy in being able to harness the power of microbes to produce our own, in-situ energy

Hotbeds are an old art, and like many others in danger of being lost in place of more convenient, efficient, dialled-in, optimised temperature control for our plant raising work.  I get all this, but there is also a real wonder and joy in being able to harness the power of microbes to produce our own, in-situ energy right in the propagation house where you want it.

These last couple of weeks we have been reorganising and reconstructing our plant raising set-up.  We put a second polythene cover over our propagation tunnel at the begining of the year, and have since been installing four platforms to on the one hand provide the base for rolling benches for our seed trays and transplants, and on the other as frames for our hotbeds.

From hauling, mixing and forking in alternate layers of horse manure, straw and cow manure (with strategically placed buckets of hot water) it only took three days to start reaching temperatures of 65°C in the hotbeds.  This heat is then trapped into the beds and released slowly over the next few weeks to heat the tunnel to encourage quick germination.  This  sounds nice, but is not always quite straight-forward, as a series of cloudy days can result in a gradual lowering of temperatures – but there is no doubt that with hotbeds we are able to harvest copious calories of locked-in radiant heat energy.

Erring on the side of recklessness: sowing seeds in earnest

Sowing seeds in earnest

Once we have the hotbeds up and running, we put on the rolling table tops and get to sowing seeds in earnest.  This week peppers, aubergines, lettuces, Swiss chard, onions, spring cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and more lettuce.

There is always the danger at this time of year that the spring turns out to be a late starter and some of these early transplants become log-jammed, waiting for conditions on the ground to be right for planting out, but my experience has mostly been that is it is worth erring on the side of recklessness in this case.  Taking a bit of a risk with early sowings gives the opportunity to have a lucky start to the season.  If you don’t take a chance you may have nothing to plant out when you have the opportunity.

It’s a challenge keeping our consumers well-contented during the “hungry gap”, as the range of available stored vegetables one-by-one drops off

Keeping the customers contented

So while all this is going on in the tunnels, Kata and her team have a job to do keeping our consumers well-fed and well-contented with their weekly vegetable box orders.  For a long time now we have worked with other growers to put together a weekly offering of a range of local, seasonal organic vegetables to complement the produce we grow on our own farm.  During the “hungry gap” this is a challenge, as the range of available stored vegetables one-by-one drops off.

No more Hokkaido squash. End of leeks. How long will the purpled-topped turnips last out? Will we have enough supplies of carrots to get us through to the first of our own crop of the new season?

So, how do we resolve those tensions between light and dark, between scarcity and abundance?  Well, we do and we don’t.  Sometimes you just have to resort to patience, resourcefulness and the cycling of the seasons to move on from and come back to those age-old tensions.

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About Matthew Hayes 3 Articles

Matthew Hayes started farming as an apprentice on Tablehurst Farm in the UK in 1984. He worked on a number of different farms and social farming projects over the subsequent years, until in 1995 he found himself in Hungary with his first wife and then young children. Originally working on composting projects at Gödöllő Agricultural University, he soon got diverted back into growing organic vegetables, and together with colleagues at the university set up the first community support agriculture scheme (CSA) in Hungary in 1998. This project became a student training farm which Matthew managed until 2015. Meanwhile, in 2010 together with friends Matthew set up a small farm/market garden in Zsámbok, a village 60km east of Budapest. This farm became the Zsámboki Biokert. The farm operates as a small commercial market garden and box system supplying local seasonal organic produce to Budapest and the surrounding area. Matthew lives in Zsámbok with his wife, Kata, and two young children, Sára and Jakab. He is on the board of Nyitott Kert Alapítvány (Open Garden Foundation) and a trustee of the Ruskin Mill Land Trust, UK.