Many hands make light work

Throwaway builders gloves wash up pretty well

I thought I’d kick off with this photo. Months ago I ordered online what I thought would be a pair of gardening gloves but which turned out to be ten throwaway pairs. They’re not the strongest and because we had so many, we lazily picked out a new pair whenever the ones we’d been wearing got too wet or muddy. However our frugal habits ensured that eventually we landed up with a box of very smelly/muddy gloves; so Madame hand washed them in the usual way, after she’d chucked out the ones with holes in, and we now have eight pairs of clean and dry gloves ready to face the spring rigours. Somehow it felt like a tiny victory.

And while we’re on the subject of downright meanness, she is also darning the Guernsey fisherman’s’ jumper that she bought for me second hand at least ten years ago and which, when it wore out, graduated to the allotment. The neck and cuffs have all but unravelled, leaving me trailing lengths of wool around and so Madame has knitted into them some surplus wool of a quite different colour which makes it look twice as cheerful. I told her I’d wear it with pride, and she said “It’ll make you look like a tramp”. I like things that are repurposed and recycled. Allotments sprout wooden pallets like a rash, and most of the time – after a short spell as a compost bin – they get passed on until they rot . The seat on the left is one of the more creative bits of repurposing I’ve seen on our site. I really like it.

Work on the polytunnel has ground to a halt due to the sub zero temperatures. Today, factoring in the wind chill, it’s down to as low as -10C in some places ; more like -5C here. Yesterday we worked in a mizzle of frozen droplets for a couple of hours, making a start on the polytunnel doors, but by lunchtime we were ready to pack it in. The east winds blow unobstructed across the allotments, it’s by far the most destructive quarter on our site. We put up some precautionary fine mesh windbreaks last year, but reading Patrick Whitefield’s comprehensive “Earth Care Manual” a few weeks ago I noticed his diagrams of the impact of windbreaks and the way in which they need a degree of porosity to avoid swirling air currents. At the moment there are no vulnerable plants in the lee of the windbreaks, but it’s a cautionary tale and we may have to rethink the design when the weather improves. We also mixed up a barrow load of seed compost and brought a couple of bags home ready to start filling the propagators with germinating seedlings. Being completely new to polytunnel growing we’ll be feeling our way this first season as we try to take advantage of an earlier start for our tender plants, so we’re hoping to get a longer season for tomatoes, peppers and aubergines and even some earlier than ever early potatoes and broad beans.

Our tree plantings have been held back because what with covid and the terrible weather in the east of the country, the supplier has emailed to apologise for the delay but assures us that our trees will arrive in time. We certainly hope so. One cautionary tale regarding newly planted cordons – don’t do what we did and forget to loosen the ties. Several of our cordons have been damaged by soft ties that (we now know) have unforgiving wire centres. We’ve removed them all now and I’m pretty sure the bark will soon heal over but in future we’ll use kind and forgiving string which will rot and fall off most seasons. Every cloud – etc – and Madame discovered an overwintering apple tortrix moth chrysalis on one of them. Aren’t microscopes wonderful? and such a help in identifying assorted creepy crawlies. A little bit of research suggests that the best method of control for these kinds of pest is to encourage blue tits and other insectivores to nest nearby. We’ve already seen blackbirds feasting on the slugs that hole up on our wooden edged paths so it looks as if nest boxes and winter feeding could be an investment. We have decided not to make permanent raised beds in the polytunnel because they seem to provide a perfect lurking and breeding space for slugs and snails, so we’re going to build soft edged beds and give them a try. These would have the immediate advantage of allowing us time to watch the way we actually use the tunnel and change the path layout – if necessary – for one that serves us better. That’s the essence of permaculture in a way; spending a lot of time observing and learning what the ground is saying to us.

Back at the Potwell Inn we’ll be cleaning and sterilizing all our root trainers, pots and trays ready for the fray. There’s a real sense of excitement in the air here; all we need is some warmth and sunshine. These last weeks we’ve been reading everything on biointensive growing that we can get our hands on. There are some great books that explain how very small pieces of land can become highly productive. I mentioned Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer’s book “Miraculous Abundance” recently. Initially I wasn’t very enthralled by its rather breathless tone, but I stuck with it and it’s grown on me. For a start they’re ruthlessly honest about their failures as well as successes; but also they reference a number of writers we might never otherwise have known about. It’s not that we want to grow a vast surplus and become market gardeners – our aims are far more modest; simply to feed ourselves well and perhaps share the surplus for for free. We don’t expect to change the world or save the earth by what we achieve but on the other hand, if more and more people adopted a simpler, less impactful way of living and were able to provide at least some of their own food, there would be a great saving in food miles and better than that even, a change in culture. We’re not there yet, though. Yesterday evening we were talking about chickens and I suddenly remembered the taste – yes, in my mind I could actually taste the eggs we used to produce with our small flock of hens. Organic and free range with yolks that sat up golden from the grass and grubs they feasted on in our little orchard. I then spent several hours searching for a local supplier of eggs that might live up to the memory and I couldn’t find one. I could get them delivered from heaven know where but walking to a local shop and buying fine eggs from a local farm seemed vastly more difficult than I’d hoped. A bit more research revealed that the going rate is between £5 and £6 a dozen – at least twice the supermarket price.

Which brings me to my final point in this post. I was reading a review of the Hervé-Gruyer’s book written by Chris Smaje, author of “A small farm future” – it’s well worth reading his book. He raised a very serious point of criticism of the tendency of some writers on biointensive farming to exaggerate their productivity by failing to mention the “ghost acres” of land providing some of their inputs from off the farm; things like manure and bought-in compost for instance. I don’t think you could fairly make this criticism of the Hervé-Gruyers. But he also went on to ponder whether all this emphasis on local organic food production on small farms wouldn’t provide ideological cover for the well-to-do middle classes while doing nothing to raise food standards and reduce the effects of agribusiness in the ‘real world’. Well yes, I agree that the vast majority of people lack the money and/or the land and skills to move towards the vision as it’s often described. An truly ethical life comes with a high cost overhead and so obviously it’s easier to be comfortable and virtuous than to try it out on benefits. But that doesn’t mean that we should all stop what we’re trying to achieve because it’s not fair. That’s allowing the perfect to drive out the good. Every home grown cabbage makes a tiny dent in a supermarket’s profits; but the production of it engages the grower with the earth, with the prospect of disappointment, and with all the multitude of temptations and decisions that grown up farmers have to deal with every day. Sustainable and healthful food production depends on a market and that market cannot function outside of its ethical framework. Every tiny blow against the more is better philosophy is important; and that applies to consumers as much as it does to producers. We’ll never avert an ecological catastrophe by driving to the farmers market in our SUVs to buy organic asparagus, flown in from Peru.

So if anyone knows a source of great eggs near Bath I’d love to have the address. Meanwhile we’ll be preparing for our best ever season – probably.

Ever seen a cow smile?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI think these must be the happiest cows I’ve ever seen.  I took the photo in May 2010 when I walked 200 miles of the Camino between Le Puy en Velay and Cahors with my son Andrew. Purely by chance we were crossing the Aubrac hills just as the transhumance was going on.  Cattle were being walked back up to the high pastures with real ceremony and all the surounding villages were decked out for a party that seemed to go on for days.  This was “La France profonde” and we were pitching our tiny tent wherever we could because we couldn’t afford even the hostels. But these cattle had just arrived and they were so happy I swear they were smiling. We were too. The local cheese was wonderful and made a change from our terrible diet – we had no means of cooking with us and so we plumbed the depths of cold cassoulet eaten straight out of the tin. Most character forming.

They came to mind today when the (British) government released yet another report on bovine TB suggesting that lax bio-security, inadequate fencing, poor diagnostic tests and excessive movement of cattle between farms was at least as responsible for the spread of the disease as the badger which has taken most of the blame so far. The debate – if you can call it that – has become very polarized between the advocates of culling and those who put the welfare of the badgers at the forefront.

You can’t blame the farmers for wanting to do something about this hideously expensive disease, but they’re between a rock and a hard place. The consumers, the supermarkets and the government have pursued a ruthless policy of “cheap food at any price” and now we see the results. We have an ecological crisis in which we’re losing species at an unprecedented rate.  We have a crisis of obesity caused by junk food.  We have an environmental crisis which is being stoked by our overconsumption of meat. Farmers are stuck in the middle, with pretty well everyone blaming them, rather than the rest of us who made it happen.

Badgers love maize. For us at the Potwell Inn, that means they love our sweetcorn. Every year they drop in once a day during July and August to check how ripe it is and then they calculate when we’re likely to pick it and eat the lot the night before. This season we saved half of ours by netting it, but the badgers had the rest. So that’s why I feel competent to discuss this issue at all. I’ve lived and worked in farming areas for decades and I can see the problem from both sides.  TB isn’t just ’caused’ by a bacteria. We’re surrounded by bacteria and without them life on earth would cease, but the bacteria become a problem when they invade a host that’s stressed and unable to fight them off; and cattle on many farms are really stressed. Intensive farming on the scale we’re seeing it now, produces highly stressed animals that are vulnerable to all manner of diseases including TB. Bio-security is a hopeless attempt to carry on the way we are by locking the stressed animals in sterile prisons. We get the same problem on the allotment.  Plants that are stressed by drought, heat or over/under feeding are the first ones to get attacked by diseases and predators.

One of the contributory factors in this mess is almost certainly the increase in fodder maize.  It’s a very high value food but it’s not the same as grass – especially the old kind of pasture in which ‘weeds’ add to the value rather than having to give supplements.  Badgers love fodder maize and wherever it’s grown the badger populations seem to rise. Isn’t it just posible that the link between badgers and TB isn’t a causal link at all but nothing more than an association.

So if I were a farmer I’d be screaming at the government – “Well want do you want us to do, then?!!” Culling badgers – forgive the pun – isn’t a magic bullet. Vaccination could help, and it would be cheaper and less impacting on an ancient species, but if the underlying engine driving this is government/public encouraged overproduction, then by moving towards a more sustainable regime farmers could make a contribution to ecology, environment change and the national diet all at once. But they do need to make a living.

IMG_0112So back then to Aubrac and those wonderful smiling cows. We didn’t see any rich farmers on the whole walk, but we saw a lot of farms and villages doing their best to preserve a way of life that hasn’t changed in centuries. and so it seems we can have happy cattle and wonderful cheeses, and we can have wonderful meadows too, decked in spring with every kind of orchid and alive with insects.  But if we get rid of the farmers we won’t have any of those things, and if we want them badly enough the change we shall have to embrace will be to live more simply. If we really insist on eating Big Macs and smoked ribs every day for next to nothing, then we can’t expect to have anything except a degraded environment and a legacy of debt to the land that our grandchildren will have to pay.