Spring has brought the lettuce farm leaping into action. Actually, that must be an illusion. I'm sure that our neighbouring farmer didn't wake up and think that it was a lovely day and he would plant some lettuces. He has presumably got delivery dates in mind by which he needs to have lettuce ready to harvest for the supermarkets, and has worked backwards from those and calculated that the lettuces need to go in towards the end of the first week of March.
The field next to us was ploughed a few weeks ago, then harrowed to a fairly smooth state, and it was top-dressed with what I took to be fertiliser, though it could have been a herbicide. At the start of the week young men in fleece hats were scrambling around re-installing the irrigation pipes along the edge. At some point when I wasn't here they must have formed the earth into the wide beds they use, and yesterday and today they were out planting lettuces.
A commercial producer like our neighbour doesn't sow seed, but plants out young plug plants that arrive by the crate. I suppose he might raise these himself somewhere else on the lettuce empire, but he probably buys them in from a specialist grower. A lettuce planting machine goes over each bed, mechanically dibbling holes and dropping a plug into each, followed by a couple of young people (they will be Lithuanians or Latvians) whose job is to plant any odd lettuces that have missed their holes or aren't firmed in properly. You couldn't plant up a whole field by hand, or at least if you did each lettuce would cost about as much as a free range chicken. It looks back-breaking work, following the lettuce planting machine, definitely a job for youngsters. Half a day of it would cripple me.
Behind the lettuce planting gang come the fleecers. A tractor with a huge roll of horticultural fleece trundles down each row, the fleece unwinding behind it, so that the lettuces will be protected on cold nights. I rather think that there is even a tiny mini-tractor that turns one row of earth over the edges of the fleece to hold it down, so that all the farm workers have to do is fill any gaps the tractor has missed. Every row of lettuce that's planted during the day is covered over before dusk.
The fleece will also serve to keep the pigeons off. One of the ladies at last week's woodland talk was a farmer, and she was telling me how pigeon damage has got so bad around here that some sowings of oilseed rape have been wrecked, and there has been nothing else to do but plough them back in. Certainly I have noticed an increasing number of bird-scarers of one sort and another in the fields around here, kites and mock hawks fluttering from tall carbon-fibre poles. In past years the lettuce farm haven't bothered fleecing later in the season, but maybe that will change.
You could say that the fleece looks very industrial and unattractive. I suppose it does, though once our hedges leaf up we don't really see it from the garden, and in the right light with wind rippling its surface it can look quite like water. Indeed, we once saw a couple of peeved swans that had apparently crash-landed on it in error, mistaking it for a reservoir. Part of the reality of living next door to a farm is that you have to accept modern commercial farming practices. Fleece is not intrinsically too upsetting, and it is only there for certain times during the year. It's when you move to the country expecting it to be like living in an episode of The Darling Buds of May that you are setting yourself up for disappointment.