Tag Archives: Agriculture

May Diary 2017

Even here in Somerset, land of marshes and muddy festivals, there’s been no proper rain for weeks, only an occasional condensation like a wet mist.  It’s been relentlessly dry, and now a chilly breeze batters the valiant peas clinging to their frames.

The soil of our resilience allotment, overused and drained of nutrients by the last gardeners, has turned to rubble where we’ve dug it; concrete elsewhere.  We’re holding the rest of our seedlings at home still, where they can have more water, but they’ll have to go out soon.  The dark line to the right in the picture below is a compost-filled trench ready to receive peas.

soil like rubble
soil like rubble

The leaf mould mulch has run out now; we don’t want to use straw in case it combines with the clay to make bricks!  We’re building temporary raised beds, using the wood from the neighbour’s old shed.  These are getting filled with free manure and topped with a thin layer of bought compost.  In the winter, when the soil is soft again, we’ll dismantle the beds and dig this in; now, we’ll raise a catch crop in them.

Disposable raised beds
Disposable raised beds on the leaf mould mulch, showing cardboard weed suppressant

I don’t see much hope for the remaining seed potatoes, though.  I’ll probably put them out in the lower quarter to break up the soil there, but I doubt we’ll get much from them.  We’re relying on courgettes and squashes to fill in the bare patches.

The allotment is hard work, but so was the resilience garden until it was established.

Spring flowers in the Resilience Garden
Spring flowers in the Resilience Garden

The techniques we are exploring in the allotment can be adapted to reclaim post-industrial landscapes.  I’m impressed with the mulching properties of packaging card. Once the rainwater distribution system – which we can top up from the communal water trough – is in place, and the perennial weeds conquered, we’ll have the basis of a low-maintenance, high yield system.

Just in time, as the next project is on the horizon – the Resilience Field!

Weeding the new hedge

Above is the hedge…there wasn’t time to weed the ground first, so the deep rooted perennials, able to access buried moisture, threaten to overwhelm the thin young trees.  This is the worst section, being weeded by hand.  Once it’s clear, we’ll lay a cardboard sheet mulch around the saplings and cover this with soil, now easily accessible as the field has been ploughed.  The trees will be able to defend themselves in a few years, especially if we import wild garlic as ground cover.

Writing ‘Recipes for Resilience’, I learned how crucial grains were for survival in the seasonal North.  The dry weather isn’t doing British grain farmers any favours; does anyone else worry about poor harvests?  Everyone eats bread, cakes, pies…how many of you bother to find out where the flour comes from?

It’ll take you ten minutes to vote in June.  Instead of banging on about it, use the time to write yourself a shopping list.  Can you order any of it online from suppliers who buy British?  Is there a farm shop nearby, a food market?  Put Facebook down for a few minutes and have a look around.  Read the Hemp Twine Project to see how much difference buying local can make!

“Farmers go bankrupt in the midst of thousands of potential customers for their produce” from ‘The Resilience Handbook – how to survive in the 21st century’.

Then what will you eat?

 

Why do you need the Resilience Handbook?

The answer is in the subtitle – ‘How to survive in the 21st century’.

Even in a quiet little island like Britain, there are more episodes of ferocious weather now than we were used to in the last century. Flooding is a growing problem. What can you do about it?

Read the Emergency Planning section of the book, keep it handy to consult if you suddenly have to evacuate your house. It’ll tell you what to do, remind you to turn off your utilities, how to pack a grab bag.

Contents of a typical grab bag
Contents of a typical grab bag

You may not be directly affected by flooding, but the damage to the economy is shared by all. What can you do to help the long-term situation?

Rain comes from the sky, but flooding happens on land. Meetings of experts discuss useful management strategies, but the people responsible for the land have to implement them, Most of these are farmers, already struggling to make a living.

If they were able to sell to you, the consumer, without having to be routed through a supermarket chain…they’d have more money. Enough, perhaps, to consider engaging with flood relief; to invest in growing willow, in reforesting the hillsides.

Learn to make willow fencing!
Learn to make willow fencing!

The Resilience Handbook outlines a number of practical steps you can take to support community resilience at every level. It’s a call to action, not an invitation to more debate. Read through it, then keep it to hand as a reference book. Much of what it says won’t be clear to you until you begin to fulfill the set tasks.

Ignore the sneering quitters who tell you your personal buying choices mean nothing in the bigger picture. Supermarkets didn’t spring out of thin air. They evolved as a response to these choices. You can choose to return to a more resilient, locally based economy. Both processes are achieved one piece of shopping at a time.

It’s not just about food and its effect on the landscape. Every time you wash your clothes carefully, so that they last longer, you’re doing your bit for a sustainable community. Less waste means less landfill space. A culture where clothes are respected and cared for encourages a market for quality products. Well made clothes can be repaired or altered by local businesses, not thrown away.

local craft shop
Shops like this often take in sewing jobs

Every little helps, as they say. With the Resilience Handbook you can keep track of your efforts, see how tiny changes lead to bigger ones, learn what really is important and know that you’re doing as much as you can to secure it.

Resilience in Iceland

My trip to Iceland was a journey through the island’s past. I was well acquainted with the Sagas, set in the period just after Settlement, from about 900 to 1050 AD, which described a prosperous landscape. I knew that deforestation quickly became a problem and Icelanders avoided the fate of their relatives in Greenland by a very small margin.*

One of my first stops was the Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik. This museum has been built over an excavated longhouse from the Saga days. Its inhabitants enjoyed Iron Age luxury in their spacious ‘hvoll’ surrounded by natural abundance.

Following the prosperity of the early days came the Little Ice Age which began in the 1300s and lasted nearly six centuries. The trees cut for firewood, building and smelting iron didn’t grow back. The topsoil was lost and barley cultivation ceased. The fjords filled with ice; the fishing boats rotted on the strand with no wood for repairs.

There wasn’t even enough firewood to boil seawater for salt, essential for preserving food through the long winters. Luckily cows were able to survive, presumably living on seaweed and lichens like the people, and there was plenty of whey left over from butter making. The Icelanders expanded traditional techniques of preserving meat in lactic acid.

There was no clay for making pots, no iron to repair pans. People used the volcanic springs to steam food wrapped in cloth, dug pits in hot sand. Icelandic cuisine became desperately inventive.

The climate change was compounded by hostile political conditions and by the Black Death in 1402. The population fell from 60,000 to 20,000. Then there was the Skaftáreldar eruption in 1783, which poisoned large areas of grassland.

As Europe began to prosper again, there was a market for the fine woollen goods from Iceland – the sheep had survived too, and just as well as there were no fibre crops for cloth or ropes. Finally permitted to prosper from their own trade, the Icelanders invested in boats. Their fishing fleet was revived; technology trickled in from the Industrial Revolution.

Then electricity was invented! Icelanders swiftly caught on to the potential of renewable and volcanic energies. Huge greenhouses now provide all the vegetables they need for domestic consumption, and extensive reforestation is progressing. Recycling is taken seriously. So is trashing the countryside with off road vehicles.

You’ll find a great respect for the land among Icelanders. It nearly killed them. If you visit this paragon of resilience, don’t pretend you know what you’re doing. Hire locals to show you around, especially in winter!

 

*There’s a poignant description of the fate of one group of Greenland Vikings in ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond.  This is one of the recommended books in the Resilience Handbook…reading is a good activity in the winter!

There’s still time to order a signed copy of the Resilience Handbook before Xmas – email me after you’ve placed your order if you want it signed to another name!

June Diary 2016

I expected June to be a quieter month than it usually is for me, as I’m not going to the Glastonbury Festival for the first time in many years. There’s no going against the rhythm of the seasons though, and events conspired to make this month every bit as hectic as before!

I’ve been working hard on my next book, about food and resilience…this involves a lot of experimental cooking and field studies. We finally got an allotment garden for our project; it’s quite overgrown. Although late in the season, we’ve managed to plant out the last of our seedlings, and there are quite a few food plants there already which only need the undergrowth cleared away.

Linda hoeing our new growing space
Linda hoeing our new growing space

It was the Green Scythe Fair on 12th June, which is an annual fixture for me. Strolling among the colourful stalls is like visting a future where everything has worked out fine. People gather around to admire the latest electric car on display, discuss the merits of the various tools offered for sale, consider hand made clothes or choose a pair of angora rabbits to breed for wool. The faint tap of peening scythes underscores the murmer of conversation. A woman plays her fiddle while children dance; other youngsters make nests from the cut grass.

A tremendous selection of local delicacies are to be sampled here, from crystallised flowers to venison steaks.

sea buckthorn juice stall
A stall selling juice made from sea buckthorn

You can get anything you can think of to do with honey, including a hive of bees. All the brand names, the shiny labels, are absent though. The cafe heats its water by wood-fired rocket stoves; the electrical power is from storage batteries recharged by renewables, including the lights and entertainment at night.

In the Craft area, one can see blacksmiths, stone masons and thatchers at work. There’s a stall selling hemp twine, another with leather pouches. A man haggles for an enamel basin, a woman picks a new copper kettle. The plough horses watch curiously as you pass by; yesterday they were demonstrating techniques for a land workers’ training session.

The centre piece of the event is the scything. A grand marquee is set up like a scything supermarket, with blades, whetstones, files, all the odds and ends of the craft. You are ‘fitted’ for the right size of handle, consulted about the appropriate blade and shown how to attach it. The complete novice is given a introductory pamphlet, but it’s wise to enrol on one of the day courses. Like any skill, it’s best learned alongside a master.

On the day of the Fair, however, all these craftspeople were out on the long grass in the centre, where the competitions were taking place. There were trophies to be won, reputations to be made! A sudden downpour had flattened much of the grass – how would this affect the form? The skilled scythers – men and women in separate heats – would cut their allotted square down to the length of a well trimmed lawn in only a few minutes. Assistants raked up the fallen grass while the judges inspected the quality of the job and considered points.

After the business of the day was done and the cups awarded, the music and carousing began in earnest. The stalls closed up and stole away; the families left. Only the crafters and campers were left to wind the evening up in traditional style and wobble gently home across the dark, empty fields.

Malta – Transport and Trees

We thought we had come well prepared for the challenge of hiring a car in a strange country after arriving late at night. We’d printed out a full list of Google directions to the hotel at the far end of Malta. Luckily my colleague, Linda Benfield, had also bought a map at Bristol Airport.  It was a very valuable last minute purchase!

The directions relied on street names. We found one later, sixteen feet up a wall in inch high letters, some of which were missing. Navigation was a challenge even with the Marco Polo map. Signage seemed optional, the names of towns changed as you got nearer and EU funding had inspired a proliferation of new roundabouts. There was even an extra tunnel to the ones depicted!

Hedgehog sign
Beware of the hedgehogs!

Being resilient, we had a torch to do map reading with, and made it to the hotel. The ‘Riviera’ sign lights up blue at night and is something of a landmark as you drive the the hairpin bends of Marfa Ridge. There was no need to worry about Reception closing, as a coach full of German tourists had just arrived.

Discovering it only took ten minutes to go from really close to our sought after destination in central Mdina, to being confused on Route One at the northern edge of the island was a revelation, and explained why we spent the first few days visiting sites at random as we stumbled across them. We were simply expecting too much distance.

Malta is a small island with a long history. Everyone knows their way around. If you’re able-bodied, there’s an excellent bus service – without, alas, the iconic yellow buses, which were stood down in 2011. Walking is a good option too. Some of the important Neolithic sites can only be accessed on foot. Remember the summer sun can be merciless in this open landscape; take water and a hat.

Land here has been cultivated for centuries and deforestation is a problem. On their arrival in 1529, the Knights of St John – soon to be the Knights of Malta – reported ‘an island without trees.’

Rural landscapes are divided into tiny vegetable plots, there is neither space nor water for many large trees. Although it was only 20 C in January, the impact of the summer heat was baked into the very stones.

The contrast with Buskett Forest Gardens was startling. Here, we found open water, running streams, cool and damp air. This reforestation project dates back to its use as a hunting preserve by the Knights in the 1600s. It’s now a Natura 2000 site. Native tree species from Malta’s once extensive forests support a variety of rare wildlife, including many migratory birds.

Buskett Forest Gardens, Malta 2016
Open water in the forest

On Sundays, as we discovered, many Maltese families come here for picnics, and the car park becomes very full. We were hoping to find the famous cart tracks and caves, which were surely just at the top of that hill, but couldn’t find the way. Perhaps it was signposted from the other side of the plateau. I recommend hiring a guide!

 

 

 

Now the Carnival is Over…

Crowds gather on the pavements among the chip stalls and candyfloss vendors, along comes the marching band, the radio van, the glittering phalanx of motorcycles decked out in swirls of LEDs.

somerset guy fawkes carnival 1

The sound of music, the river of light reflects on the sky as the waiting pageant powers up along the bypass – and the first great float heaves into view.

carnival floats somerset

Up the narrow High Street they pass – dancing girls and solemn statues, whirling steam punk cogs and horses frozen in mid stride, mighty warriors and young farmers in drag. This is their moment, the pinnacle of preparation!

Who else is crazy enough to hold a Carnival in November? Bracketed by gales and lashing rainstorms, Saturday night was dry but freezing. The huddled spectators make an equal commitment to seeing the event through. Road closures and traffic control mean they cannot easily leave, come wet or cold. You take your chances, and the right equipment – resilience in action!

The Carnival covers several towns, quite far apart. Sometimes, when driving along pitch dark country roads in the hammering rain, one sees the secret movements of these mighty machines. They glide past you in convoy, eerie on running lights alone. A flash of grinning jokers, snarling dragon jaws, giant clocks – they are gone into the night.

And then it’s over. The floats return to their obscure sheds, the costumes are packed away. The coalman is just a coalman again and the tractors return to work. Somerset turns its attention to the next festival on the calendar. The Christmas lights can be safely strung across the streets and the fourth year of our Buy Local for Xmas campaign begins!

buy local for xmas

Support your local crafters – the community needs to encourage their skills. Make your gifts budget count, they’re relying on you!

Willows and Flooding

The Somerset Levels have grown willow since prehistoric times; the remains of a basket were found by the Glastonbury Lake Village. Willow trees are plentiful in marshlands as they can thrive in waterlogged soils. Their long flexible shoots have many uses, including furniture, fencing and fish traps.

Traditional methods of pruning, or pollarding, cut the tree back to its main trunk. A shock of long straight withies springs out from the cut, and can be harvested. The trees are quite tall and have a distinctive knobby shape. Pollarded trees need to be maintained, which is difficult when the trimmings have no value.

Many modern willow beds are coppiced. The growth is cut back, even to ground level, every couple of years. Material which could be used for craft products is burned as biomass fuel. Willow beds established by grant funding have no budget for upkeep.

The Levels grew nearly 40 square kilometres of willow in 1930, but this has declined to a mere 1.4, mainly due to replacing basketry with disposable bags and packaging. Garden furniture is made from imported, oil based plastic and most people would struggle to recognise a fish trap.

Planting willow around the banks of rivers stabilises them, and can be extended into a buffer zone. This would aid the retention of water in a managed flood plain, protecting urban land further downstream. Willow is particularly good at removing toxins from contaminated land. It could be planted straight after a major flood, but it won’t be, as no-one can earn a living from it.

The decline of willow production needs to be reversed by creating a market.

The storms that often accompany flooding have wreaked havoc on garden fencing. Tall solid panels which resist the wind have fallen in heaps. Woven willow fencing allows the light and air through, while affording privacy.

Order some from a local willow craftsperson. It will be more expensive than cheap imported products. If you have a garden and a fence, though, it makes sense to support the farmers upstream who are preventing them flooding. Think about what else you could replace with locally sourced willow.

Alternatively, find a project which needs help with coppicing and negotiate your own materials.  Carymoor Environment Trust in Somerset have a volunteers’ day every Tuesday.

willow crafts

 

The Hemp Twine Project – Introduction

There are just over half a million people in Somerset. Imagine if, just once a year, half of those people bought an item on which a local supplier made fifty pence profit. That would generate an amazing £125,000 for the local economy. More jobs created and investment in local initiatives…..at Community Resilience and Emergency Welfare CIC they have developed this concept into the Hemp Twine Project.

They were looking for an item, not too large or expensive, that always comes in handy and could be fully sourced locally. Although there are a few things made in Somerset, such as lavender oil, they decided to start a new product. This was an educational exercise rather than a commercial venture after all.

Everybody uses string. It’s not on the regular shopping list, but it’s not a luxury item either. It keeps very well, is easy to store and cheap to buy. Most household string is made of oil based plastic or imported cotton. Replacing this in your home with a locally sourced, organically grown, biodegradable string is definitely Good for the Environment.

As well as wool and apples, Somerset can grow large amounts of hemp. This used to be processed into fibre and supplied the local shipyards in the days of sail. Hemp as a material is remarkably resistant to rot, even in challenging salt water conditions, so it was often used in ropes and canvas. Nylon and plastic ousted natural fibres awhile ago, and the industry fell into decline. The soil and weather conditions which favoured hemp production are still in place though, and it is a crop which requires no chemical intervention to thrive.

Today, hemp twine is sold to the home craft market, for use in beadwork or macrame. Sourcing a larger quantity was difficult but, with the aid of the amazing desktop ball of string maker, finally translated into a product at the right price.

old fashioned string winding machine
The old fashioned winding machine is fed from a reel on the right and makes neat balls of twine

If enough people buy hemp twine, the hemp industry could revive faster than it fell. Farmers would be paid well for a low cost crop, a small industrial unit would suffice to process the fibre into twine and local shops would profit from the sales. Spin offs include hemp oil, valuable as a source of Omega-3, hemp cake for cattle and hempcrete for building material. Each of these can underpin another entire small industry.

All that is needed is a market – your one ball of string a year – and the local economy could be richer by a whole new industry! With a steady income from conscious consumerism, businesses can plan ahead. Instead of playing the customer loyalty game with uncaring multinationals, bring it home.

Think what else you could create by buying local.