Climate change and farming politics - here's to an emboldened new year

Potato harvesting. For the last 19 years we have harvested our potatoes in the first week of October.  We could harvest them earlier, but it would probably be warmer and as we are short of cold store space, they may not store as well; any later and we risk the ground getting too wet.

Of course, this year it rained on 22nd September and then almost every day for the following 3 months. 

We have a small potato lifter which has minimal impact on the soil and using this we did manage to harvest some before the soil just became too wet and the machine would not pass. Given a week’s dry weather, we should be able to lift the remaining acre’s worth to the surface and salvage the ones the slugs have not eaten.

However, spare a thought for the producer I heard about in Yorkshire who still has 15,000 tonnes in the ground!

In a recent article, The Guardian reported: ‘….a shortage of British potatoes because prolonged wet weather has left farmers unable to harvest up to half the annual crop. According to the president of the National Farmers’ Union, Minette Batters, thousands of tonnes of potatoes could be left to rot in the ground because above average rainfall for each of the past five months had left the ground sodden and farmers unable to get harvesting machinery onto the land.

Ms Batters said that only a third of the usual acreage of winter cereals, including wheat and barley, had been planted, the lowest for 20 years. This could result in shortages next year and would mean that the UK would be more dependent on imports.’

Actually, before the constant rain of the last 3 months it was a really good growing season, with favourable weather and most of the crops have been good, dare I say excellent.

To adapt we need to harvest potatoes two weeks earlier and buy a better machine to harvest them quickly.  We have upgraded our cold stores and so now we will be able to put the stored crops in storage that bit earlier.  This will give us the added benefit to establish a good green manure before the end of September.

Main crop carrots never mature until mid-October, so we are rather straddled with that timing and this year it has meant digging all the carrots by hand!   Traditionally carrots are best grown on light, sandy soils, e.g in parts of the Clyst or Culm valley or towards Dawlish.

We still have some over-wintered onions to plant and the winter sown broad beans we have mainly sown by hand, pushing into the holes left when pulling out carrots.

I have reached the fine milestone of being 60. I am still doing some growing but Shillingford Organics is now run by the 8 staff and a great job they are doing.  The crops have been between good and exceptional and we seem to be slowly, yet steadily expanding year by year. Any feedback is always good, but I am hoping this means that you, our customers are happy with what we are doing!

Farming Politics. Greenpeace have really picked up on the disastrous impact growing soya is having on the ecology of the planet.   As a cheap source of protein, it is ideal to feed to livestock.

 In their Christmas message Greenpeace have written:
‘Since 2010, 50 million hectares of forest has been destroyed to grow food crops – an area twice the size of the UK…Unique habitats like the Brazilian Cerrado, the world’s most wildlife-rich savannah, are being destroyed to grow animal feed, which is being fed to factory-farmed chickens in the UK. To break this cycle, we need to start a big debate about our rotten food system’

They urge us all to eat less meat and dairy and to hold supermarkets and big businesses to account. Please watch this 1 ½ minute video. And have a look at this blog with the astounding facts that:

  • farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild.
  • 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals.

In this context the situation with Devon’s agriculture is precarious: 

77% of the farmed area is grassland, c.f. 0.4%  Horticulture.  ‘Devon is home to the largest area/number of: ……crops for stockfeed; maize; cattle (both dairy and beef); breeding pigs; sheep; and total poultry and has:

  • 593,719 cows 33% of SW total cows
  • 1,302,213 sheep 45% of SW total sheep
  •  85,599 pigs 22.1% of SW total pigs
  •  6,105,021 poultry 31.4% of SW total poultry

 Reading this one can only conclude that Devon is NOT set up for the sustainable farming of the future!!

However, it is really important to distinguish between the ecologically disastrous systems for producing cheap meat and ‘organic’ grazing systems.

This is especially true of the ‘mob’ grazing of beef and dairy. Some of the most ecologically rich and diverse land in Devon is managed using very low stocking rates with cattle being totally ‘pasture’ fed

Choosing what to sell on our online shop is a tricky balance when trying to offer a choice of ‘sustainable’ food, sourced as locally as possible.  So, although we focus on vegetables, salad, herbs and fruit; we have opted to offer other organic and local produce, including organic dairy from as local as we can source and now beef from my brother’s farm at West Town, Ide.  To be honest as small producers are pushed out of business, the choice is becoming more and more sparse.

Fundamentally we need far more small and medium scale producers, supplying local food in shorter supply chains.  Growing intensive cereals to grow feed grain cannot be the way forward.   I say this because so much of the best arable land we have is used for this purpose.  It just seems senseless knowing what we do about climate change and the need to reduce meat consumption.

I listened to an interview with Greta Thunberg and her message was to urge us to move out of our ‘comfort zone.’

3 years ago, Greta lived in her shell and suffered from depression, yet by doing something out of the ordinary she created something amazing for herself and millions of others.  

If we extrapolate forward it is not only predictable, but almost certain that we are pushing our planet’s climate towards a tipping point and runaway climate change.*  The current fires in Australia highlight the desperate situation the planet is facing.

Perhaps unlike any previous time it is riskier to do nothing, i.e. to stay in the status quo, rather than to take a ‘risk’ or make a stand for something you are passionate about!  If you are willing to make such a ‘stand’ be sure that your ‘project’ is close to your heart, well-planned and has support, as it is guaranteed to be a bumpy road!

Greta Thunberg’s message was to step outside of our comfort zone and do something out of the ordinary - something extraordinary. I feel heartened when I think of the extraordinary things that have been achieved in the last 12 months and the courage needed. E.g.  Extinction Rebellion, people challenging the norm, standing up to bigotry, making a stand for their beliefs and freedom and living their passion. 

And I know many people that support us as organic veg producers, do it out of a strong conviction.  So many of you are doing great things and I am fortunate to meet so many passionate people with fantastic projects.  My deepest thanks and respect goes to all of you.

I do have this deep sense of foreboding and cynics may say that the millions of us who are deeply concerned about the future are ‘doomsters’ and ‘gloomsters’, but maybe we are just being realistic. 

I wish you an emboldened New Year.  Martyn


*Prof. Tim Lenton of Exeter University says, in an article in the journal Nature, that although there remains great uncertainty, the world may have already crossed a series of climate tipping points and there is an existential threat to civilisation, meaning that we are in a state of planetary emergency. They say the potential damage from the tipping points is so big and the time to act so short that to “err on the side of danger is not a responsible option”.