We have cabbage plants ready and waiting for a break in the weather, with lettuce due next week. The ground is too wet and with the outlook unsettled we must be patient and be sure to take our chances when they come. Purple sprouting broccoli is finally getting going in volume, but we are still suffering from last summer when the deluge leached out nutrients and stopped the plants growing the large frame that is needed to support a good crop. Even the rye, which we sow as a green manure in the autumn, is half the expected size.
Most of our agricultural crops are highly bred annuals, bred to grow, flower and seed quickly; in a ‘normal’ year they can be extraordinarily productive. However, yield is not everything. As our climate becomes less predictable and energy scarcer, perhaps we should be looking to more resilient crops, reducing the need to plough and create new seed beds each year. When my father took on Riverford in 1951, a good part of the farm was cider orchard, with sheep grazing the pasture underneath; an integrated system of two perennial crops. Each farm had its own press and it was reckoned that cider would pay the rent.
Walking around the farm, I am struck by how resilient perennial plants are in this dreadful year, especially the natives that are happy in our cool and damp climate. Temperate agriculture is 99% dependent on annual crops (sown and harvested in the same year and not regenerating from roots). In nature, annuals are relatively rare, thriving on disturbed ground where they grow and bear seed quickly before being forced out by perennials, which take their time and prefer more stable conditions. An oak tree may take 20 years to produce acorns but is still producing them 200 years later. The result is that as farmers, we are constantly creating the instability that favours our annual crops; ploughing is costly in energy, CO2 emissions from oxidation of soil organic matter, erosion and loss of biodiversity. I would dearly love to ditch the plough, grow perennials and create stability but we would all have to live on hazelnuts, lamb and rhubarb washed down with cider; it could be worse.
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