I spent last week with my team in the French Vendée, attempting to learn from this year’s mistakes, plan crops for next year, and form some sort of plan to mitigate Brexit risk (29th March happens to be the date our first truck of lettuce will head north to Plymouth via Roscoff). After a wet and cold spring, we had a scorching five-month drought; the old gravel pit that fills with water every winter, which looked huge and unfathomable when I bought the farm, was down to the last few inches when the rain finally arrived last week. We have plans to build a new 50,000m3 reservoir, but €20,000 and four months later the authorities are still deliberating. It will be a miracle if we get enough dry weather to build it (followed by enough wet weather to fill it) before next season.
I am full of admiration for our French workers but, as in the UK, each year it is harder to find people who can ‘cut the mustard’ in the field. Like everywhere else, this is increasing the pressure to mechanise, specialise and simplify cropping to reduce hand work, and to look to Eastern Europe for staff more familiar with working on the land. I must restrain my restless urge to try new crops and new ways of growing them; we need to focus more on how to grow what we are best at, better and with less labour.
When I bought the farm, France’s fledgling organic market was about half the size of the UK’s. Ten years later it is four times the size, and growing at 18% per year. The trend is similar throughout Europe, and indeed most of the developed world, as the UK sinks from being a leader to a laggard. I would never claim that organic farming is the only or a complete solution to the challenges facing food and farming, but its benefits to the soil, wider environment, human health and animal welfare seem unquestioned elsewhere, while viewed with scepticism here. Perhaps it is that largely male, peculiarly British group who consider themselves independent thinkers, too clever to be taken in by the mysticism of it all; “What’s wrong with glyphosate in your bread, anyway?” Or perhaps, having been the first nation to industrialise and need to feed poorly paid urban populations, we are culturally more wedded to cheap food – and more estranged from its production.