We are approaching the end of our best season yet in the Vendée, thanks to our huge lake; the envy of our parched neighbours. Even so, the heavier clay soils had baked so hard that the plough would skid over the surface and a rotavator shake itself to pieces, so we have had to wait to sow the green manures needed to restore soil nitrogen. After less than an inch of rain in three months, the skies finally opened to soften our parched fields; we can at last sow, but it is now too close to winter for vetches and clovers to establish and fix nitrogen before the spring, so we are sowing quick growing, cold-tolerant rye. This will at least protect the soil from nutrient loss during heavy rains and add organic matter, but next year’s crops may be impacted by the reduced nitrogen in the soil.
Meanwhile, having invested in GPS guidance for our tractors (accurate to within an inch) we are experimenting with crops grown in raised beds so we can create permanent wheel tracks for the tractors. This should reduce the need to plough land after each crop is harvested, so veg roots are never challenged by tractor-compacted soil. The theory is that raised beds will also be better drained through winter and will warm swiftly in spring. Better crops, less diesel, healthier soil and happy earthworms; it all sounds too good to be true and probably is; or just maybe intelligent use of technology will mean real progress.
I arrived back in Devon ahead of the lettuces that had been cut in France only to find the whole lorry rejected by our quality control team. I am, for now, ultimately the boss and could have over-ruled them but after much agonising I had to concede they were right; our pickers had done their best to trim off the mildew so that fewer than 10% had any of the tell-tale white spores on their outer leaves, but in the brief road transit this had risen to 25%. We know from bitter experience that by the time they got to you it would be 50% and by the time you reached into your fridge to make a salad the outer two or three leaves would be turning brown. If only I could persuade you all to love the bitter flavours of the more hardy radicchio and chicory; they love the autumn, whereas lettuces love the spring and summer only.