Yes we can!

IMG_20200204_132102

I know many people find the fact that their Google searches are converted into saleable data is both sinister and oppressive. However it’s not that clever, and occasionally I’m alerted to scientific papers and farming news that’s ten times as incriminating of the sources as it might be of interest to the the readers. Here’s me – a declared opponent of intensive agribusiness – suddenly shown a paper by Bayer, presumably on the strength of my previous searches, that expresses far better than I ever could the perilous course that the industry has set itself upon.  What follows is a direct quotation; the entire article is available on this link

“As a cover crop, the phacelia is doing its job – preventing leaching of nitrogen and soil erosion, but allowing the black-grass to flush through,” says farms manager Andy Blant.

“As a way of attracting wildlife, particularly bees, the phacelia is exceeding all our expectations,” says Mr Blant. “Planted at the end of April, by July it was in full flower.”

Phacelia requires little management. “We don’t let it flower for too long as it self-seeds,” explains Mr Blant. “We apply glyphosate whilst it is flowering so as not to kill the beneficial insects and bees then mow it down once it has senesced ready for early ploughing for the autumn. It can also be used as a green mulch throughout autumn, before ploughing in winter in preparation for early spring drilling.”

(My emphasis) The problem, Mr Blant, is that it’s becoming clear that while glyphosate doesn’t actually kill bees on contact, its much publicised harmlessness to animals rests on the fact that it kills plants by disrupting an enzyme that is crucial to the development of essential proteins, and which isn’t found in anything other than plants…… they say. But recent (2018) research cited in this Guardian article claims that the enzyme is destructive of bacteria found in bee gut biome and that although glyphosate doesn’t kill the bees directly they die as a result of infections caused by the gut disruption.

So this panglossian puff piece for Bayer actually says that they are deliberately growing a crop known to be attractive to bees  – not for the bees of course because they don’t actually want their phacelia plants to set seed – but as a green manure and cover crop – and then spraying it with a substance now known to be toxic to bees while promoting their product which is already under scrutiny for its persistence in the soil and its carcinogenic properties. If this isn’t an example of greenwashing I’d like to know what is!

I could go on in this vein with a dozen articles, but really I don’t need to. I think we’re increasingly ‘getting it’ when it comes to the global crises of runaway climate change and species extinction – or perhaps I should call it global species senescence to make it sound nicer. The opposing sides battle it out in a heavyweight punch up, freely making up statistics without providing any corroborating sources. Farmers v vegans makes fun copy.  I remember James Belsey, a great Bristol journalist who made ‘local’ a real and honourable territory, saying to me once – “you’ve got to remember that most journalists are bone idle.  If you want to get your project into the paper you need to write the copy yourself and hand it to them – they’ll print it!”  I was involved in setting up a charity at the time and so I did – and they did.

And now we’ve reached a genuine crisis on a number of fronts; obviously climate and ecology but also population, migration, famine and economics too. On television a few nights ago I saw a hydroponics project in Singapore – fabulous and much needed in a country that imports the vast majority of its food.  The person running this operation said – probably correctly – that the output was 15 times greater than the same area given over to conventional cultivation. That’s terrific but, me being a promiscuous reader,  I recalled some figures quoted by Ken Thompson in “The Sceptical Gardener” which were almost exactly the same for the humble allotment. What this means of course is that there’s always more than one way to skin a cat – or  peel a carrot if you prefer.

All too often the media portray the crisis we’re facing as a choice between two alternatives – universal veganism versus  universal factory farming; technological carbon capture or the end of private cars and general misery. Intensive agriculture or starvation. But the crisis can’t be reduced to a binary either-or choice. Any informed debate about our future path as a viable species needs good data, honesty about outcomes and a forensic approach to any ideas being promoted – not least by huge vested interests.

If it’s even possible that a part of the answer to the challenge of food production could be to provide many more allotmenteering opportunities around our towns and cities, the payback could well be far wider than just organic lettuces. Exercise and improved mental health are all a part of the overall allotment picture, not to mention less car-borne shopping trips and a vastly improved national diet. So yes to (not too many) industrial hydroponic farms, vertical farms with all their efficiencies locally situated to cut down on the carbon.  Yes even to processed industrial gloop – although I probably won’t be an early adopter.  We need to become ideological tarts – it’s a crisis – and there’s no time for anyone to pursue their narrow dream of purity. I’ve been reading Simon Fairlie’s brilliant book “Meat – a benign extravagance” and if you’ve got some time and a tenner you couldn’t do better than to read it as well.  It’s densely argued, full of statistics and examines a large number of alternative strategies for feeding ourselves without dogmatic attachment to any of them. The other book I’d recommend, not least because many of its ideas seem to be finding their way into post brexit subsidy legislation is Dieter Helm’s “Green and prosperous land”.

The root of the word ‘crisis’ comes from the Greek – to choose.  A crisis can be a healthy moment if it forces us to make fundamental choices about the way forward. But the way forward needs to include everyone. Solutions that throw small scale mixed farms under the technological train can only make things worse. In a crisis, no idea is unworthy of consideration – as I used to preach everyone gets their say but not everyone gets their way. In a crisis the unthinkable needs to be thought, but the destination can’t ever be simple – more profit, more growth or more technology, although some better technology would be a help. A government that can’t feed its people is unworthy to be called a government. Food banks and homelessness are two sorts of famine and both are cause not by the lack of food or the lack of housing but by deliberately allowing them to become unaffordable to poor people. We need clear data and open handed discussion about the alternatives and involving us – the real stakeholders – in the future not just the powerful vested interests.

Blow me – I feel quite excited about it!

 

Muck, but no mystery!

….. and suddenly, at last, the sun shone, the rain stopped and were able to get out on to the allotment.  In spite of the cold wind we took a chance on filling the hotbed, and so we drove over to one of my old parishes to sack up and bring back the first of two car loads of fresh, hot, horse manure. Most gardeners want the well rotted kind but for this purpose we need about twenty bags of strawy stable manure as fresh as possible.  Last year being the first time we’d tried this technique we asked my friend Annie to keep out as much straw as possible, but that proved a bit of a mistake because the bacteria that heat the heap don’t just need nitrogen they need carbon too – and that’s what the straw provides.  The theory is that this mixture will heat the bed quicker and hotter – but we shall see.  Our car is quite small and even with the seats down it’s difficult to get more than 10 full bags in at a time.

So as each bag was tipped into the deep frame – it’s a spade depth below ground level – we trod it firm and watered it.  We continue that process of topping, firming and watering until the heap is around 3 feet deep, and once it’s started to heat up we cover the manure with a home made mixture of topsoil, well rotted compost and horticultural sand.  This not only gives a good well drained bed for sowing, at the end of the season the whole lot of soil, compost, sand and manure go back on to the beds – about a cubic metre of it.  It’s most useful where we’ve terraced the beds, and every year we’re able to raise them a little more. Since our cold frames were stolen the hotbed will take over the work of germinating and bringing on early tender plants.

It’s amazing what a pleasurable experience a few hours of hard physical work can be after months of moping about indoors.  Annie was saying that they’ve been unable to let the horses out even for a taste of grass because the land is so wet.  As we drove across Lansdown on Friday we saw a herd of cows grazing on the few shreds of grass that have survived the wettest winter in memory.  When I mentioned it to Annie she said “he probably ran out of silage – he must have been desperate”. Desperate or not they were back indoors again today but that’s a measure of how hard this winter has hit farmers.

I read a lot about the impact of farming on climate change and so much of it is almost sectarian in its hatred of any opposing opinions. As we were filling the bags today, I was thinking about the way in which these small farms of a few hundred acres are maligned when they’re lumped together with enormous feedlots which really do create problems. Our half ton of manure is produced by horses which aren’t ruminants and don’t make the same methane contribution as cattle do. It’s a rich source of soil nutrients and helps to build up soil structure while it captures carbon in the process.  We use the soil to grow healthy organic food in a completely sustainable way.  After we’re gone the soil will be in a much better state than when we took it on. There’s a kind of virtuous circle going on here.  All our veg trimmings are recycled back into the same ground, and we even use our own urine as a liquid fertilizer.  Good, small scale farming operates the same virtuous circle. Crops are grown, the soil is enriched and the animals are fed.  Our southwest UK climate favours grass above all else, and so dairy and beef farming are the obvious way of using the ground. Grass fed beef – that’s to say beef that’s not been fattened on a high protein diet of expensive soya and grain – is far superior to feedlot beef. Animals that are free to roam in natural herds outside in the fresh air and with the sun on their backs are not, on the face of it, being cruelly treated. Any old-school farmer will tell you that  stressed animals get sick more often and don’t make either good milk or fine tasting beef. The snag, and there’s always a snag, is that we can’t have it both ways. High welfare, grass fed organic beef is bound to cost much more money and for most of us that means eating a good deal less of it.  The same goes for almost any meat, whether chicken, pork or lamb, we simply can’t go on eating it in the quantities and at the price we’ve become used to, if we want to tackle global climate change. As for species extinction the same kind of argument applies.  The price of cheap food is always going to be pollution, widespread use of chemicals, soil erosion animal cruelty and agribusiness. But to blame all forms of farming without discriminating between more and less harmful practices is counterproductive. Just to give one example from coastal restoration, the choughs that are slowly reappearing on the western coasts are doing so because they feed on grubs that feed on cattle dung.  Free ranging cattle on the clifftops have enabled the reappearance of this charming and acrobatic member of the crow family. The dung is dropped by ruminants in small and manageable quantities and is quickly broken down. That’s a far cry from spreading vast volumes of evil smelling anaerobic liquid manure on the land where it quickly runs off and pollutes streams and rivers.

A less meat based diet would be better for us.  Farmers could experiment with tree planting their expanses of grass, a technique that looks very promising. The trend for ever larger fields monocropping feed maize could be phased out, as could the relentless removal of hedges to make space for bigger and heavier machinery.  Less could really be more; better for us, better for the wildlife and better for the planet. At the moment it’s the poorest people on the planet who are paying the true cost of cheap food. That could end, but not until we – farmers, growers and consumers alike – are prepared to make some sacrifices ourselves.

 

Oooh you little showoff

IMG_5746.jpg

IMG_5747.jpgWe only clocked the lovely Pyramidal Orchid as we were leaving Dyrham Park this morning.  It was hiding behind a fence on the road out and right next to it was the flowering spike from an Agrimony plant – that photo’s a bit out of focus because I was blocking the exit road and rushed it.  The occupants of the car behind didn’t even pause to look what I’d just been on my knees photographing.

IMG_5740

Here’s a photo of Whitefield Meadow, the object of our attention this morning. It’s a prime example of what can happen on unimproved land  – and if ever there was a revealing oxymoron it’s that one. Here’s another one, the so-called ‘green revolution’ which involved replacing perfectly sustainable agricultural systems with a fatal combination of fertiliser and pesticides.

A few years ago I did a 23 mile walk aross this part of the Cotswolds using public footpaths the vast majority of the time.  One of my companions that day was a retired grain merchant who had  bought and sold grain off the field, while it was still growing, and we fell into a conversation about what constituted good and bad land. In his view he could only give his seal of approval to half a dozen fields, the rest were – frankly – not improved enough. Half a dozen fields in 23 miles! So it depends what you mean by ‘improved’. The temptation to improve yield at the expense of biodiversity is a feature hard wired into our economic system. If the ‘cash value’ of the crop is allowed to dominate all other less tangible but equally significant values then monoculture and biologically barren land is inevitable. It’s all about culture: farming culture but equally the supermarket food culture that’s grown up bringing with it the demand for ever more diversity of choice but ever more uniformity in flavour, texture and appearance plus, of course, the lowest possible price. We quite literally get what we pay for, and we – through successive governments – have poured subsidies into the wrong farming systems. It’s no use blaming farmers or supermarkets or customers for the pickle we’re in, we have seen the enemy and it is us.

Meanwhile on the remaining three percent of proper meadow like Whitefield, we can see what we’ve lost. We didn’t find the longed-for Bee Orchids but we will one day, and in any case who could resist the sight of hundreds of Mabled Whites stuffing themselves silly on Knapweed nectar.  The whole meadow is waiting for its annual cut and, to be honest, parts of it are looking very dry. We spent an hour wandering around and during that hour the whole of the main car park filled up, and yet we were the only people in the meadow for three quarters of the time.  Later we met another solitary orchid hunter but she had not found the elusive plant either. As we move into high summer, many of the plants have lived their entire cycle and can only be identified by their seed heads.  The Yellow Rattle is rattling, The Goats Beard  – Tragopogon pratensis – looked as if it had finished early.  One of the fences was amost lined with Lady’s Bedstraw enough to stuff a paliasse for a fragrant but uncomfortable night.  Maybe a little Fleabane might thicken it up a bit. Cow Parsley and Hogweed both seemed to have run their courses, and were dying back leaving their seeds as the most reliable indicator of species,  but I spotted one plant of Fools Parsley peeping through. My work with the Apiaceae seems to be paying off and Fool’s Parsley is a new one on me.  Three years ago they all looked the same.

The daisy family were at their most perplexing best, and seem to be jealous of the time I’ve given to the umbellifers – I will get there eventually I promise. And the Knapweed – I could go on for ever!

IMG_5742

And then back to the allotment where we harvested the last of the peas with the first of the French beans, a  bunch of carrots, a container’s worth of the Red Duke of York potatoes and some courgettes. Early summer on a plate. I stuffed a chicken with nothing but a lump of butter and a big bunch of Tarragon for stuffing – I even made some gravy but in the end didn’t have any of it because the vegetables, unadorned, were so delicious.  I’ve never been a great fan of courgettes but today I coooked them in the simplest way I could –   finger thick and three inches long straight off the plant and sliced into 1cm rounds rinsed, patted dry and fried in butter. So many vegetables taste so much better straight out of the ground that they don’t need any fancy treatment.

The only fly in the ointment was finding our neighbour (we call him Trigger) inundating his runner beans with some kind of chemical for the second time in a fortnight. Is there some kind of etiquette that calls us to remain silent when a neighbor is spraying his plants at exactly the wrong time, just when the pollinators are at their most active. I felt as if he was killing our bees. If you can actually smell these chemicals they’re already on your allotment, and you have to wonder whether it’s safe to browse your own organic veg and eat them raw. There was a ghastly management phrase that cropped up regularly in meetings in the past – “culture eats strategy for breakfast” . It’s all the more annoying for being true.  Whether it’s Trigger with his allotment, or a grain merchant insisting on 99.9% purity, or a farmer struggling to make a profit it’s all part of the same culture and it needs to change.