A Naroques

Return to earth – a farmer’s life

Amongst all the spring time rain, there was a window of opportunity to sow the sunflowers. The game with spring sown crops like sunflowers and maize is that if you sow them early into cold soil they take longer to get going and so are more vulnerable to attack from slugs and others, plus they run the risk of a late frost. Sow them late and you can be waiting until November for the grains to be dry enough to harvest, at which point a few weeks of rain or an early frost can ruin the lot. In this instance the soil was cold, and wet enough to be damaged by a tractor. I decided to wait. It didn’t stop raining and I’d missed the window.

This left with me with a problem of bare earth. Bare earth is a disaster. You’ll never see bare earth in nature. There the soil is always protected from the wind and rain by a cover of seasonal vegetation. Not only was the earth bare, but it was ground down to a powdery seed bed of the kind that can disappear into the ditch after a decent rain storm.  A lot of farmers will talk matter-of-factly about the fact that they’d resown the maize 3 times because 3 times after heavy rainfall the seed and soil ended up down the bottom of the hill. When the former owner of our farm mentioned this to me in passing, it hit like a punch. Because each time this happens, it’s hundreds of tonnes of irreplaceable topsoil gone forever, at least in terms of human timescales. Look on an aerial map of freshly cultivated fields and you’ll see the white shades at the top of the slopes where the soil has been eroded. Even in the valley bottom, when you step off the part of the field that has remained a path into the field that’s been cultivated for years, you step down about 6 inches. That’s 6 inches of disappeared soil.

Whilst I awaited the back op, I’d had to let the neighbour prepare for my sunflower sowing in the conventional way, using his large scale rotavators that reduce the earth to this fragile dust. Once the opportunity to sow the sunflowers had gone, I needed to try and protect the naked fields. My idea was a cover crop of mustard. Mustard’s upsides are that it grows fast, gives a decent amount of greenery to  give back to the soil as compost, and tolerates dry conditions. It was a significant investment in seeds and labour to sow the fields with a crop that had no sale value and was for soil protection purposes only. A couple of months later I realised the extent of the dryness of the ‘couteaux’ (the hills that rise up from the valley bottom) during the summer months. Heavily depleted after years of the plough and chemicals, the remaining clay bakes solid, meaning that even the drought tolerating mustard struggled. The response of any plant in trouble is to flower and make seeds in order to ensure its genetic survival. Very soon and before growth sufficient to make any meaningful contribution to the soil, mustard flowers started appearing on all sides. These had to be cut without delay because if it went to seed,  it would become a major weed problem. Cue another expensive operation in time and money to mow it all down.

For the second attempt at spring sowing I had a sense that I needed to protect the soil by not reducing it to rotavator dust. To my naive eye,  the loosely prepared soil looked ok to sow into. But I now found myself in a situation where the clay soil clods had dried into small to medium stone sizes through which the irregularly sown sunflowers were trying to find daylight. The clods provided the perfect hiding place for slugs, who were quietly picking off few that made it.Chastened and financially alarmed, I called the neighbour to come and sow my soya beans. He insisted on rotavating again, then sowing by eye rather than using the markers which allow you to place the seeds exactly the right distance apart. For him, as a conventional chemical farmer, weeding is done with huge chemical sprayers so 10cm here or there out of line doesn’t matter. Not the same when you’re driving across the field with a sharp hoe, designed to pull up everything that’s not exactly 60cm apart. Thus the result of my first attempt to hoe the rows of soya was a long afternoon in 35 degree heat stopping every couple of minutes to look back over half pulled out soya plants.

Weeds between the crop rows are only half the story. Then there’s the weeds that grow between the plants on the row itself. To control these, I had borrowed a finger weeder  – a simple framework of metal points that are dragged across the whole field and pulls up any plants that are less firmly rooted than the crop. But since sowing it had rained and when it dried out , the rotavated clay dust formed its habitual crust as hard as concrete. The finger weeder was as effective as it would be dragging it down the M1.  As the days passed, I watched the weeds on the rows growing steadily. The result was that from afar the field looked good – long lines of green. But from close up it became clear that a large part of these lines were an assortment of weeds, some of which were a local pest called Datura.

Highly toxic, seeds of this in your harvest are enough to make it unsalable. So I went out into the field to pull them up. Hundreds of them. Then there were hundreds more. Then thousands. The Datura problem now being on a scale that was impossible to deal with by hand, I needed a new plan.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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