Last week I spent a contemplative afternoon picking crab apples. The trees, along with medlars, damsons, apples, blackberries and hazelnuts, were planted ten years ago as part of a hedge. Some would call it permaculture, but neglect would be more accurate. I sometimes wish I could disengage the calculator in my head, but, failing to reach Zen oneness with my picking, my mind whirred. Weighing my haul I calculated that the combined yield of appropriately designed mature hedge could hit 50 tonnes per hectare, with not a drop of diesel burnt or pesticide used; all while providing a rich, undisturbed habitat for wildlife, shelter for livestock and enhancing the landscape with genuinely sustainable farming.
So why does the huge majority of such fruit get left to the birds or to rot, while most of our country is condemned to a hedge-less monoculture? The problem is that it can’t be harvested profitably to meet the demands of our current food system. About 25% of the hazelnuts have been devoured by a grub, making them unmarketable; the blackberries carry too many bugs for most people’s (and certainly supermarket) taste; yields, size and ripeness are all too varied for conventional retailers, and too few people eat crab apple jelly, let alone make it. Most significantly, it’s hard to mechanise the harvesting of mixed crops, though given the ingenuity of agricultural engineers, it’s not impossible to envisage.
Across the valley, Andy, our farming co-op member is harvesting potatoes; his biggest crops might yield 50t/ha but with the best will in the world he is killing earthworms, damaging soil structure and burning diesel in the process. Almost all modern farming constitutes a brutish, unsustainable treatment of the land to mollycoddle weak annual crops; organic farming, while less flawed, is far from perfect. Truly sustainable agriculture is possible but will not happen while food is valued so little; just 2-3% of GDP goes to produce it. It will never be achieved through market forces; the changes needed are too radical. Ultimately we need to eat more plants that are happy in the UK (rather than those on the edges of their climatic tolerance, like tomatoes and wheat), and fewer animal products. We need to mimic ecology and use modern technology to make it economically feasible. An ambitious plan, but not impossible. We’re willing to experiment should any agricultural engineers be reading this.
The August rains which ruined many a holiday have got our winter cabbages, leeks, kales, romanesco and calabrese broccoli off to a good start. The prospects for the later winter crops look even better as the slow drop in temperature prepares them for the first frost that typically arrives in early October. Meanwhile, when weather conditions allow, our farming co-op are busy harvesting main crop potatoes and getting them into store. The plants have been defoliated, either naturally through blight attacking the leaves, or through mowing the tops off followed by burning to prevent blight hitting; now we wait three weeks for the tubers to set a firm skin and for any blight spores on the surface to die before harvesting into one ton wooden bins. Few things smell worse than a potato store melting to slime with blight, so it is worth being patient. Initially the store is ventilated with ambient air to dry the tubers and allow any skin damage caused by the harvesting machinery to heal. After two or three weeks the fridges are switched on to bring the temperature down to 3.5°C over a month or so, and thus put the tubers to sleep. Valor, the sleepiest variety, will happily slumber on until next May or even June.
Those August rains were a mixed blessing; good for recently planted hardy winter crops needing to get established, less good for tender salads. Our spinach succumbed first to mildew brought on by the damp and evolution (new mildew strains have overcome the resistance bred into existing varieties), and then to nitrogen deficiency resulting from soluble nutrients being carried down through the soil profile by the rain; spinach is too shallow rooted and quick maturing to reach them. Later sowings are now recovering to some extent but you may have noticed your box greens tending more towards kale and cabbage as we look for substitutes for failing spinach. We are also struggling with a flush of the small leaved, succulent chickweed; it is often a problem in the autumn, establishing an interwoven mat which smothers out all but the most vigorous competition. Sorting the weeds from the crop is slowing the picking of salad leaves and spinach, yet chickweed is much prized in some parts of the world so I hope you will not be too indignant if a few harmless leaves make it through to your bags.