ploughing, perennials + dozing farmers

All farmers love ploughing. Through March and April, every time the weather’s right, we are out there methodically turning the green fields brown; burying the weeds and last year’s crop debris and creating clean seed beds. Turning on the tractor seat to see four unbroken furrows sequentially skimmed, cut, and lifted to lie perfectly inverted with their neighbours, stretching back down the field, is one of the most satisfying tasks imaginable. John Scott, who taught me the skill, claimed to have ploughed every field in the parish with a horse; a dubious assertion but he was certainly a master at his craft.

However much as I enjoy ploughing, it is a recklessly hedonistic pleasure which plagues me with guilt. Organic farming is based on the principle of working in harmony with nature; aiming to grow food with the least disruption to the systems that have supported our planet for millennia. To rely on such a violent (imagine being an earthworm or fragile fungal mycorrhiza) annual event to establish our crops is clearly a contradiction. Life is full of compromises and we try to reduce the damage by ploughing shallowly, and giving the fields long breaks under grass clover leys, but I would dearly love to find a better way.

The most inspiring agriculture I have witnessed was a small farm in Uganda where crops were grown in an apparently chaotic (but actually skilfully managed) mixture, with several canopies and a predominance of perennial crops with much in common with the virgin forest nearby. The result was hugely productive (about twenty times that of the monoculture next door) and the farmer seemed to spend most of the time relaxing under a tree. Might such a system be possible here? Conditions are very different; climate, expensive labour and reliance on machinery etc., but I am confident that Ugandan farmer had more to teach me than I ever had to teach him about how to feed 9 million people without destroying the planet.   

Guy Watson

P.S. It’s business as usual for us over Easter so expect your vegbox delivery on your usual day.