A Necessary Obsession (Bridport Times, August 2018)

We write monthly for the magazine Bridport Times. To see this article as originally published, view the pages on Issue.

The weather is a British obsession. “Oh isn’t this rain terrible?” “It’s so cold!” “Could you believe the wind this morning? Blew my washing all over the garden”… But even more than that, it is a farmer’s obsession.

For winter crops we want late summer rain to allow early cultivation after harvest, and dry to kill the weeds before we sow seeds; we don’t want saturated or cold soil over the winter but we do want some sharp cold to kill some of the bugs. We want a warm moist early season to get a good leafy growth on the wheat then dry and breezy air to allow our grain to finish maturing and harvest well, followed by rain to soften the stubble fields again. When hay-making, we want a stretch of sun to ensure that it is a high quality product, then we want rain to help the grass grow. For out-wintered cattle and sheep we want dry conditions in winter and spring, in the summer we want it cool and breezy with enough rain to keep the grass growing. For leafy vegetables we want plenty of rain in measured doses throughout the spring and summer and for winter leaves, no frost. For tomatoes we want early warmth and a fair bit of sun in early summer. For hot peppers we want lots of hot sun. We’re quite demanding, always watching the weather forecast, yet the weather we want often sneaks up the valley next door – we see it and think it is coming and then it slips away.

Much of what we want is at direct odds with other aspects of our mixed farm. But because of this it is fairly rare that there is no silver lining to the cloud. On a rainy day when my mind is full of the hay or harvest, in desperate need of sun and a drying breeze, to meet Rosie or Rebecca with her mind on vegetables and a smile on her wet face saying “lovely rain, isn’t it?” And I can agree with her, and am reminded that the grass will grow better for the sheep and cattle.

As I write it’s been dry and hot for weeks. So far we are feeling it most in the vegetable gardens as seedlings struggle, lettuces get a blue tinge and then bolt, even established cucumbers and courgettes are losing a few fruit. We can see the future impact too, as the wheat and rye started to flower early they will make less grain. We see it in the weeds going to seed quickly in the fields and gardens. We’ll have more weed seeds in the garden soil next year and for years to come. On the arable ground, I’ve been out with the tractor whenever I can, cutting the docks back to keep them from seeding but they’ve ripened quicker than I could stop them.

I recall the drought of 1976, watching the stock moving from one field of dry brown grass to the next, eating the dry stems, picking the flowers off creeping thistle, eating good green blackthorn and hawthorn and bramble from the hedges and deep-rooted grasses from the old established parts of the pastures. If the rain really does not come this summer we may need to feed hay. The farm is better set up for drought now than we were then. We have a much higher proportion of long established native pastures, more hedges, trees and scrub. Our leys are full of deep-rooted herbs. Our garden soil is better.

Looking for the silver lining which comes with the drought cloud is easy. We made hay with no concern about whether it would be dry. There was no tension if our little baler broke down and no fear that it would be a problem if the contractor with the big baler arrived late. If we are still in this dry weather at corn harvest, we won’t have the worries we have become accustomed to in the last many wet summers. If we are lucky we will drive cheerfully out into hard bone-dry fields with the combine and grain trailer. We will tell ourselves the horror stories from former years of the combine almost getting stuck in a wet patch, only escaping by some nifty reversing downhill, of dropping the trailor axle-deep in mud, saved with help from our neighbour with his bigger machinery, and grain already chitted as we brought it in.

We believe we are seeing new patterns of weather caused by climate change. It is not yet possible to predict what will happen and it may never be. Certainly the weather I knew here as a child and which then seemed stable is not what we have now. We seem to see more extremes. Mixed farming spreads the risks with weather. Organic farming has advantages too. Our soil is resilient, buffered by humus and living things, and Organic farms regularly outperform others during droughts for this reason. Our diverse flower-filled pastures tolerate both wet and dry conditions better than modern monoculture rye-grass pastures as do our herbal leys, pioneered by organic farmers in the early 20th century. Our trees and shrubs add an extra dimension. Open pollinated and heritage vegetable and cereal varieties have greater genetic variation, giving more chance of matching the weather conditions.

We are looking at more we might do to increase the resilience of the farm in the face of climate change and at the most basic, we think resilience lies in trees, humus and the greatest possible variety in all respects. But whatever the weather brings, you can be sure that neither you or farmers will ever be quite satisfied, but that’s okay, it’s our mutual obsession.

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