waiting for a break

Looking west at the weather charts, there is no sign of an abatement to the deluge. The Atlantic continues to be a churning morass of weather fronts, depressions and synoptic activity. In Devon we would be looking to spread some muck, plough and perhaps risk some early plantings of potatoes and cabbage this month, but fortunately there is no panic; the later plantings in March often produce better, and sometimes earlier crops anyway.

Further south, on our farm in the French Vendée, the situation is more critical. Even on our sandy, free draining soils it is too wet to do anything with a machine. The lettuce has been planted by hand into seedbeds made in the autumn, but the cabbage plants are stacking up in the yard, waiting for that elusive break in the weather. They will hold for two or three weeks in their tiny cells of compost and peat; indeed a short spell of acclimatisation is no bad thing, softening the shock of moving from a warm glasshouse to standing alone in a windswept field.

When I bought the farm, the prevailing wisdom was that the weather changed south of the Loire but, so far, our fields seem to be catching most of what we get in Devon. The light is better, giving faster and healthier growth, but only if you can get the plants in the ground. Our problem is that the sand lies over heavy, impervious clay and the topography is relatively flat, with the result that the water sits on the clay in a subterranean lake, before draining over it down the slope. We have laid a herringbone network of perforated drains at 10m intervals in a few fields, which greatly helps reactivity but it costs more per hectare than I paid for the farm. Many of our neighbours have used laser-guided earth moving machines to create gentle artificial slopes, which is surprisingly cheap, but my experience of disturbing the soil in this way in Devon is that it can take a decade or more for the soil life to readjust and natural fertility to return. Not so bad if you rely on fertility from a bag, but a disaster for an organic farmer relying on the activity of the soil’s fauna and flora to recycle nutrients.