A few tantalising breaks in the clouds reveal a sun growing in strength, but with sodden ground nothing has been planted to soak up the rays. To add to our gloom, areas of purple sprouting broccoli are withering, stunted and yellow. Digging up a few plants reveals roots rotting in airless, water-logged soil.
We homo sapiens are incredibly versatile. Given peace, stability and reasonable governance, we manage to grow food in the most extreme circumstances: in deserts, on the sides of mountains, and in the Arctic Circle. I am confident we can adapt to a bit of rain. However, successful agronomy is always based on accumulated experience, and the assumption that the future will be similar to the past. A longer time frame and more objectivity than I can muster are needed to assess whether unusual weather should be attributed to climate change, but perhaps it is time to rethink some of our farming practices.
Based on the last ten years, the biggest challenge we face (in the west at least) is extended periods of heavy rainfall, with consequent problems of water-logging, the inability to plough, plant and weed in critical periods, soil being lost or leached of nutrients, and difficulties in harvesting. Most modern horticultural trends exacerbate the problem: ever larger machines and fields, intensification to squeeze more crops from the same area, and the abandoning of crop rotations which give soil a chance to recover under grass. This ‘progress’ isn’t inevitable; better doesn’t have to mean bigger and more. There are advances in GPS guidance, battery technology, robotics and our understanding of ecology and soil health that could all make a very different type of farming possible.
We are experimenting with permanent raised beds, alley and mixed cropping amongst perennials, low ground-pressure vehicles, and small areas of crops surrounded by buffers of grass. All have the potential to be more resilient, less damaging and even, one day, more profitable than prevailing methods; but inspiring a wider agricultural mindshift will need more investment in machinery and knowledge than a few maverick gardeners and farmers can offer. For now, the sun is beginning to shine. Perhaps by the time this is read we will have started planting.