It has been a great year for dandelions; first our dairy pastures turned yellow with their blooms, followed by two weeks when the air was thick with their feathery seeds that settled in felt-like drifts around the farm. It reminded me of the first year Riverford became organic, when it seemed we would be growing only dandelions. Since then they come and go in our pastures without causing any concern and, like our cows, I have come to enjoy eating them.
Last week I was invited by the Sustainable Food Trust to visit HRH’s Highgrove Farm and found myself walking across a pasture with an international accountant from the oil industry. Following a stroke he had bought a neighbouring farm, which just happened to be organic, as a retirement project. Accountants like order; pasture should be grass, preferably in rows. He was bemused by this group of organic farmers’ lackadaisical approach to weeds in our pastures. I hope we convinced him that it was possible to coexist with a few weeds, that farm management was about manipulating an ecological balance rather than imposing absolute control, but he was clearly struggling with the concept; as he himself said, “It isn’t in my training”.
An organic farm is a giant, ongoing experiment. With so many factors varying at once, and a long and indeterminate time frame it is not very scientific but, through observation, the best organic farmers are constantly honing their skills. They develop hypotheses and test them against their experiences in the field, along with the reports of others and a little peer-reviewed science. David Wilson, Prince Charles’s farm manager and our guide to Highgrove is among the best; greatly experienced but extraordinarily humble and, after 25 years at Highgrove, still cherishing every opportunity to learn. My guess is that some of David’s approach will rub off on his dandelion-phobic neighbour, who might even acquire the deeper confidence to be comfortable with a little disorder and, as he walks his fields, accept that he is not in complete control. Shame he will not be using his new skills in the boardrooms of the global corporations that impose their order on our world.