Guy’s news: Holey pak choi

On his small two-acre farm in southern Uganda, Charles grows bananas, papaya, coffee, pineapples and a range of vegetables, as well as fodder for his two beloved cows. He worked at Riverford as part of his training in sustainable agriculture – and during my return visit to his farm, he described how he made his own insecticide treatment with homegrown tobacco, ash and soap. Despite being plant-based and homemade, this treatment was regarded as a last resort and a failure of his management on the rare occasions he used it. His success in
food production relied on guarding the ecological stability of his holding. I have never met a farmer in the ‘developed’ world who combined Charles’s practical knowledge of plants, animals, composting, pests and soil with such ecological (philosophical?) understanding of how they all interact. The subtlety and sophistication of his approach made UK farming look primitive and ignorant.

More biological treatments for plant diseases are becoming commercially available. We can now control the soil-borne disease Sclerotinia using Contans, a natural soil fungus; aphids by introducing parasitic wasps and ladybirds; caterpillars using the soil-dwelling bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis; and slugs using nematodes (roundworms) or iron phosphate. These welcome advances are far less damaging to the soil and the wider environment than their non-organic alternatives – but in my more philosophical moments, I remember Charles’s logic that they should be the last resort, not regularly relied upon to support an ecologically unstable system. We stopped spraying with soap 15 years ago when we understood that it killed the aphids’ predators as well as the aphids, and we have fewer aphid outbreaks today as a result. Human nature seems to make it very hard to resist using power – even before we understand its impact.

You may have had some holey, but otherwise perfect, pak choi in your boxes recently. The holes are caused by hungry sawfly larvae. We could have treated them with Spinosad (an extract from a soil bacteria), but were reluctant because it would kill all insects, including bees. Waiting for balance rather than charging in at the first sign of trouble sometimes requires a tolerance of imperfection more common in Uganda than the UK – but hopefully you will understand.

Guy Singh-Watson

12 responses to “Guy’s news: Holey pak choi

  1. Thank you Guy! Raw wisdom thrown together with wonderful fresh veg, what more do we need?

  2. A particularly interesting blog. Weighing up the pros and cons and keeping the growing environment in balance is clearly essential. Thank you for explaining it all so well.

  3. Totally agree with Trina and Sally. And of course if we kill insects then birds go hungry – it upsets me that sparrows are so rare that I get as excited over seeing any as I used to over swallows and other migrants.

    • Hi Dee, you will be happy to hear there is a very large, healthy sparrow population here at the farm who enjoy a varied diet of bugs and insects. They are amazing at helping us keep down pests to a manageable level, whilst also being such a delight to watch. They are also rather cheeky -even hopping into the office to say hello when its quiet!

  4. Just keep them coming Guy. I was never in doubt that purchasing from Riverford was one of the best decisions I ever made; and so informative as well.

  5. I do not mind how long it takes as long as you use safe stuff! I am going to Australia for 6 weeks I wonder what they use?

  6. This is a great blog. Nature is such a beautiful thing and has its own balance. We need to bring the natural balance back and stop thriving for perfectly shaped veg and fruit. Thank you for sharing this.

  7. An excellent blog. I would much rather imperfect food produced with minimum harm, than ‘perfect’ food produced with harmful sprays. So often we do not understand the repercussion of the insecticides etc. that we use, a little humility is a good thing. We are not perfect, why should we expect perfection in our food? Bring on the holes, the dirt and odd shaped vegetables; this is what I trust.
    Thank you for thinking not just of the humans but other creatures with whom we share this world.

  8. No problem with your holey pal choi, Guy. I’ve happily accepted eating fruit and veg with a few holes and marks for some time now. When I worked on an apple orchard 40 years ago which sprayed extensively to produce blemish free fruit, I was advised to search out the less than perfect and told “if it’s good enough for the insects to eat, it’ll be good enough for us!”

  9. Never mind the holes, the insects have to eat too. Hope Charles moves Ugandan farming towards the organic way and we can learn from his successes and failures. Thanks for delicious food for us and for our daughter via her recipe boxes.

  10. I see a little bit of insect damage as a sign of quality ie unlikely to be sprayed. Mould and rot are the only things I can’t tolerate!! As regards other ‘wildlife’ I grow quite a few blueberries and raspberries in my garden in the summer, of which the birds generally help themselves to about 10-15%. I don’t really mind as I’m sure they earn it by eating bugs and slugs that would also take a share!.

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