Promises will be broken

Abnormally low temperatures and high winds are not a good recipe for horticultural work. Thats the prognosis for the next few days. So I have moved many pots of aubergines and peppers from the unheated greenhouse into the house temporarily to avoid the coldest night temeratures. The earliest tomatoes are already out but protected by glass cloches. Curioulsy we picked a few broad beans a couple of days ago – the earliest ever. It also looks like we shall have an exceptionally early crop of oats. I think that reflects a mild Winter and very sunny April. In other respects things progress pretty nomally. So normally in fact that my daughter asked the other day if anything had changed for me because of the covid-19 virus.

Teenage girls are rather social animals. She was in isolation for two weeks immediately prior the lockdown so for her this has been dragging on since early March. She has missed her birthday and seeing her mates. The children are of the opinion I have no mates and rarely leave the parish! Actually I dont think I have left the environs of the house and field in over three weeks, but that's nothing particularly remarkable for me in the last few years.

The changes I have made have been long running. I can recall the origins back some 30 years ago when I can across the idea of the saeculum. They accelerated about 3 years ago but still sufficiently slowly that no one really noticed. So by the end of 2019 I had for example given up all my committee positions, even on those organisations I had founded, closed down my decades old company, converted my meagre pension pot to fixed annuity. In essence I've positioned for a deflationary depression. I had no idea of course that my timing would be so accute , or that it would be a viral pandemic that triggered the changes. I rather expected it to be an ecological disaster or possibly a war escalating out of control.

Borrowing and printing currency by governments – which ought in a few years lead to severe inflationary outcomes is the likely response. Whether that will be a rerun of Britian in the 1970's or Venezuela more recently I cannot say. Either way many will be crushed, unable to service their already significant debts. Not just people but companies and countries. Promises to repay are reneged on , bonds default, State pensions are frozen. Anyone relying on financialised assets will learn the meaning of conterparty risk.

Historically everytime this sort of scenario has arisen there has been a significant upsurge in interest in self sufficiency, diy, grow your own etc. Unless you have hard assets, this is the practical route out of crisis, removing yourself as far as practical from the catch up game of prices rising faster than your means. The realy smart move of course is to get the means, skills and knowledge sorted while the times are good. But thats a contrarian move in the face of an easy money economy. They will tell you it is madness, and then when the crash comes they will tell you how lucky you are.


Slow changes

It has taken some time but I've finally regained access to the journal. 

The start to the calendar year hasn't been great.  The delivery man who usually brings the soil improver for making new vegetable beds cannot.  His vehicle has been off the road for weeks.  Yesterday  I was e-mailed to say the seed potatoes I ordered two months ago are now not available.   The weather has been so wet for so long the compost I was making is turning anaerobic.  Just before Christmas I got a cold  - the first for some time, but now I cannot shake the persistent cough.  Nevertheless the work goes on and I've several beds of oats, garlic and broad beans established.

I nearly didn't go to the Farming Conference in November.  The agenda was of little interest to smallholders or organic growers and I was unimpressed they managed a whole day with out a single local producer talking.  To my recollection only one of the speakers had any direct farming experience. However something did happen - somewhat accidentally - that was rather stunning.

In a break after the one outstanding presentation I found myself in a conversation with three others - all active in the organic  movement locally as smallholders or retailers. Of the four, three were women.  One of our number was taking an advanced external university course, one was taking a masters degree and the two others had PhD's in STEM subjects.  Clear evidence I think that the old stereotypes are invalid.  The real change is coming, from the bottom up, and its being led by some very well educated people.  Just dont expect to hear about this revolution at the Farming Conference  anytime soon.


A little blood, a lot of sweat, but not tears...yet.

It was a silly mistake, the sort easily made when tired. I put on my cotton gloves rather than the thick ones. I had been cutting bracken all morning from 6.00 am and came in for a much needed drink and a tea break around 10. Somewhat refreshed I resumed work and about half an hour in I felt a sharp pain in my ring finger and saw the bright red stain spreading across the glove. I dashed home, called Helen who pulled of the glove cleaned it up the finger etc. If would have been worse had it not mostly caught the nail (I expect I'll lose that in due course), but unnerving just the same.

Progress with the bracken had been great up to that point. The whole growing year has been a bit like that – good progress in many areas and the occasional big knock back. We had a great strawberry harvest. Even the plants that got held up and werent delivered until April produced a few fruit. By contrast the main raspberry patch failed. To be fair the plants are a bit old – I started a replacement programme last Autumn, but obviously not soon enough. We would have had more blueberries too had someone (not me!) not messed around with the fruit cage so the thieving blackbirds could stage lightning early morning raids.

No dig potatoes has been an interesting experiment. The yields have been good (not finished lifting them yet) 13kg from the first 5 sq metre area. There were a few more green ones than I usually get, and some rodent damage, but no watering or earthing up. Harvesting was very easy too , just moving aside the mulch - no soil disturbance. I'll probably look to adding an extra layer of mulch next year to try to eliminte the greening. Of course there is work collecting and forming the leaf mould in the first place, but that happens in the Autumn when the other work is relatively quiet.

Finally after a couple years of failures I've got deliberately sown parsnips germinated. I've even managed to colelct seed from a few volunters that came up last year. Also a first a couple of very strong volunteer tomatoes outdoors. Usually such plants don't get advanced enough to fruit, but a couple of these are looking promising. I'll be sure to save seed from them too.

The new herb bed I started has worked well – Ive even got a couple of chives growing – something that has eluded me for some years. We have had lots of lettuce too. The failures – the shallots are undersized – ok for pickling and for our own use, but disappointing. Lost three quarters of the garlic to a bad attack of rust. The salvaged quarter are small, but acceptable for home use. Peas did OK and there's a few kilos in the freezer. The french beans I'm picking now will fill a lot of the rest of the space.

Plenty of wildlife to be seen including just yesterday, butterflies, a pair of slow worms, and a toad.


Plus ca change.

I've been doing this journal thing for a decade now.  I don't post as much these days. It feels repetitive.  The topics I posted on in the early days are still hot, vital topics.   I have evolved and expanded my horticultural activities, but still organic, min till/soil disturbance and trying to  be biodiverse.  Climate change and its consequences are if anything bigger now than when I started.  Back in 2008 there was still a hope given enough political will and action to avoid the sort of levels of greenhouses gases and impacts that now seem assured to happen.

Today I read that the States are going to "start talking now" about sea level rises.  Not actual do antything, just  talk about having a plan? And we still haven't formally adopted the 2016 Paris agreement goals - our plant are still based on Kyoto.  I have friends who know about this stuff who are not too worried - they believe there is still a viable path to avoid catastrophic impacts.   I think it is ture that that there is path, but I think it is beyond govermments anr people to make the rapid deep changes needed to follow that path. 

I've long held, and still do, the only credible planetary geoengineering  approaches are mass reforestation and widespread agricultural practice change to facilitate soil carbon uptake.  Mass agricultural change take time, often a generation. Reforestation also takes time to be really effective, but at least it is happening.

One of the big hopes for a technocratic solution is BECCS. But its barely there even at a pilot scale.

Biodiversity loss has now made it to  mainstream media occasionally.   But the impact of knowing that we have lost so much seems to pass as a mere  curio  rather than a terrifying  impact . If the world economy or any major stock market collapsed 40% it would be in the newpapaers repeatedly.  Poiticians and economists would be on air arguing the  'facts' .  Yet it would likely recover as happened after the 'crash' of 2008.  Biodiversity isn't regained that quickly.  I know which I think is the more critical problem to be on top of.  But the human world cleary disagrees.


Measuring the meaningful

I was taken with this graph in a this short article at

It exemplifies all too well just how natural capital has been declining while economic measures have been 'improving'. At some point we are going to have to stop depleting  that natural capital. When we do, what happens to those other measures?  it pays when measuring to be sure what you are measuring is meaningful..


One conference, three audiences

I was at the farming conference yesterday.  It turned out to be more interesting  than I had expected, but not for the reasons you might expect.

As with previous conferences the focus was largely on the commercial aspects of farming.  The first two speakers on brexit  showed this rather well.  They talked about the possible deals, tariffs and the impacts on employing labour.  All very significant to the business of importing and exporting  food products.  What we didn't get even a hint of were the implications for agricultural policy in the island.  How much different would the problems of Brexit  look if we had treated farming as a strategic resource. Growing nutritious food for the local market instead of exporting a narrow band of produce for cash and importing the food we eat at additional costs. We did get a glimpse about this in the last session about SCOOP.

The middle two speakers were techheads., one presenting on-line from Microsoft in the USA.  That would have been a lot more convincing had they been able to keep the slides in synch.  Funny given the key part of the presentation was about using redundant TV bandwith to facilitate mega data capture on farms.  The other tech presentation was from the lecturer at Harper Adams who  did the hands free hectare. (  A dynamic presenter with a passion  for what he does.  Full marks from me for an academc  showng  the theory can be implemented.  Not that I believe it is the right way to go.  I asked the question of the two of them: doesn't this drive  for tech  mean we are deskilling, devaluing and ultimately destroying the human element of farming?

That question led me to discover the second audience at the conference.  (The first being of course the farming businesses).  At least half a dozen people approached my at the break because of that question .  All but one were women and they all said the same thing - its the question on their mind too.  These people are all small scale food producers/processors and smallholders.  They value the lifestlye and the flexibility  and the personal touch in what they do. They likely don't have the capital to invest in robo tech, not that they would want to.  If anything such tech threatens to  destroy their opportunity to work as they want.  I will relate you a comment I made to one of the young market garden growers I know who was there.

See X,  if you spend a load of money on this stuff you could have an army of tech doing the work for no pay. (he has employees now).  In a couple of years you can retire, maybe take up a hobby.  Oh I don't know, something a bit active and useful, maybe say vegetable gardening  !

I won't say much about the presentation of the dairy advisor at Reading.  It was of some interest to me as he was dealing largely with greenhouse gas emissions (methane, NO2) from cattle and how it is affected by feed and  additives.  Apparently farmers have to be told that things that affect sheep  digestion don't affect cattle digestion (who would have thought?).

Jersey Hemp presented on what they are doing and the products they are producing.  They have expanded from an initial  2 vergee trialling to 240 vergee last year, and still llooking for more land, preferably organic.   The main value of what they do to my mind is to  offer the possibility of a break in the cropping  cycle which is very much needed on potato fields.  However my opinion is  they are going to have to access a lot more land  if it is to have a much impact across the whole Island, probably 10 times what they are now.

I have left the best until last.  The two speakers who addressed things pretty high on my agenda.  Emeritus Professor Mark Kibblewhite of Cranfield University and India Hamilton of Scoop.  The prof gave a very good analogy of the complex interating parts of soil and is microbiology as an engine.  And of course if you push it too far bad things happen.  A number of his papers can be downloaded at . India spoke about the origins and thinking befind the newly created SCOOP cooperative.  She address the problem of alternative supply chains for organic growers locally, and of the imbalance of scale.  Scoop is a co-operative run venture between  local growers and consumers with low waste and no single use plastic.   She has set up a kitchen at the site based on her previous experience in India and London to maximise use fo the produce that might otherwase be perfectly edible but presentationally unsaleable.  Their initial fundy was crowdsource in a very short time (see mostly they communicate on Facebook (

Now I have yet to mention the third 'audience'.  I am not sure how big this group might be.  I met two but there could be  more.  One was someone I used to work with, no connexion to farming.  He was there sussing out opportunities for his newly formed venture.  They are into data management and packaging/presentation management. The other person I met who also was not from a growing backgound was Rachel who runs the IoT work as Digital Jersey.  She was looking for opportunites  to collaborate with farmers/growers on using tech locally.

Two other observations I have to make about what was there. Actually about what was not there.  One of the presentations was pulled I believe by the organisers.  The Morning  Boat were planning to present some material about  agricultural workers rights.  I'll leave readers to draw their own conclusions about  the implications of that.  The other thing to note, I only spotted 2 other of the 12 or so certified organic local producers at the conference. It was only a couple of years ago you might well have seen all of them there.

I came away with a  rather uneasy feeling about all this.  The whole technology push  both inside and without  feels akin to the way the chemical companies treated farming  in the 1950's.  More capital required, more  control and conformance to third parties who  supply the 'magic'. And before long the farmer is the servant of the  agri bis corporations and the soul and joy and even perhaps livelihood has disappeared.


Minority interests

An item appeared in my newsfeeds today that got me fuming.

This  is was piqued by a piece about the Inter-Island Environment Meeting that happened at Crabbé a couple of days ago. I don't know how long it has been going - I found references to a meeting in Alderney in 2015. Oddly none of the groups in which I have an active role appear ever been invited to participate in these events.   After a bit of searching  I found the possibly partial delegate organisation list:

Eco Active Jersey;
Plastic Free Jersey;
The National Trust for Jersey;
States of Jersey;
Jersey National Park;
Société Jersiase Marine Biology Section;
Jersey Biodiversity Centre;
Aldeney Wildlife Trust;
Marine Conservation Society;
The Pollinator project;
Durrell Wildlife Conservation;
Jersey Bat Group;
The UK Overseas territories family.

Take off the non Jersey groups and you pretty much have a list of the approved, States sanctioned  groups.  The ones you are allowed to belong to without tarnishing your soft , safe, conservative image.  And most of those have permanent staff, people who can take or day or two at a conference  without any impact on  their income or business.

According to the JEP "The potential for a Channel Island Environmental Charter was also discussed, which proponents say will help the islands focus on conservation".   Most of the conseration they will be doing, certainly on land, is going to have to be with  farmers and smalholders.  It is inescapable when roughly half the Island land mass is agricultural ground.

But no ,lets not talk to farmers and growers and smallholders. Especially not those spesky certified organic people with their absence of pesticides and herbicides and planting of habitat, varied crop rotations and leys.  What the hell have they got to offer.  And lets not bother with those climate change nutters. You know the ones who have been saying for years that we need to act because it is going to change  habitats and breeding cycles and migration patterns and invasive species and diseases and pollination and crops and all that.  What on Earth has any of that to do with conservation?

Of course it isnt just this sort of meeting that gets treated with carefully honed  degree of exclusivity.  I hear there is to be another Farming Conference in Jersey, probably November 8th.  Do you think as a land owner, smalholder or being on the committee of a couple of groups with interests in famring that I have had any indication about it ?  I heard from a en passant comment from an aquaintance who isnt a farmer or smalholder when discussing some other topic. As in previous years it seems the organisers are  trying to be as tight lipped and intropsective as ever about the time and place and agenda. It one thing to talk about open transparent  initiatives, but quite another for the public to expect  quango like organisations to actually be so !

No wonder this Island is in such a damned mess.  These groups  need to be reaching out, not convening in secret huddles. The land and its usage is central in common to both these interest groups.  We need common ground and for that we need open dialogue.


Of seeds and seasonality

Feariing we might get hit with high winds  from the remnant of hurricane Helene, I've been focussed on saving seed in the field. Particularly from the taller plants most likely to be damaged such as quinoa and amaranth. I planted later than usual because of the wet cold start to the year.  Consequently their harvest is later too  though they have gained a week or so due to the very mild weather  recently.

It is a very inefficient  use of my time  really  - it takes a few hours to harvest and  winnow a kilo of grain by hand.  However I realy like the look of the plants - they are sometimes sold as ornamentals.  Those I don't  harvest  will be readily raided by hunrgy birds later in  the year and when I do get round to cutting down the stalks prior to planting  maincrop potatoes next year they will provide a useful bulk of high carbon material for compost making.

I have had a vexing time this year with some seeds.  Packet after packet of the bought in parsnip and lettuce failed to germinate.  Fortunately I had  some of my own saved seed of the same varieties that did germinate.  I  might put that down to the catalogue I use has changed management and perhaps they  got their handling wrong early on?

Interestingly while I struggled to get some  things to germinate, I had quite a lot of self seeded lettuce, parsnip, chard and radish  come up.  It reminded me of a question I have meant to look into before and never persued.  Why do gardeners and growers  sow seeds in Spring when nature scatters them in Autumn?

I can identify a few reasons.  First, there are those seeds that require particular treatment to germinate.  Typically non native plants that need  protection or more warmth (or cold!)  than would likely happen if left to try to self seed.  Second there is  variety and selection - particularly if you grow hybrids  - they won't come true or might cross pollinate.  Third is control.  Important for anyone using mechanisation to have a degree of uniformity.  But also for  successional croping to  ensure a continual harvest through the season rather than a glut. 

But for all that I cannot help wondering if there might be something in scattering  selected seed of indigenous and naturalised seed in the Autumn to save effort in the Spring. And then there is another question about seed sowing .  Nature  mixes things up  - different plants of diverse species growing  together.  There are gardeners who do that - its called polyculture.  I'm not sure how I'd manage that under the strict Organic certification rules requirung crop rotation.

Maybe if I have another year of germintion failure while self seeded stuff pops up I'Il give it a go.


In the Field

This morning  I felled a couple of  4 metre sycmores.  It only took half an hour.  Believe me it is less arduous than taking a sickle to bracken.  Practice is needed to get accustomed to handling the axe, but once you have the feel for it....  Washington of course is famous for taking  down a cherry tree, and Gladstone took it up as a hobby when an M.P. and was still doing it in his 80's.

We have plenty of trees around the field, especially sycamore, but also sweet chestnuts, elders and oaks.  That means plenty of leaves for leafmould .  But sycmours are prolific seeders and trees are liable to pop up everywhere.  Those on the veg beds get weeded out asap, but  at the north end among the bracken I let them grow a couple of years.  Apart from sequestering a bit of carbon, it also provides a nice size of ramial like branches to use as a base for compost heaps. It is best to let the dry a year before using.  You do have to think ahead to do this.

I had forgotten to mention a little informal experiment I did last year with leafmould.  I planted a few of my Lady Balfour potatoes under the chicken wired area when I started filling it.  I was a bit dubious thinking the rodents would probably eat all the tubers, but I persisted.  The bin ended up about a metre deep in leaves by the end of November.  However leaves contract in volume very notably as decay proceeds and by April there were potato shoots up through the  remaining  layer.  I didn't get round to harvesting until late.  Truth is I forgot amongst the other jobs and only got to it when I wanted to bag up the leaf mold and dismantle the bin so I could plant out  stuff.

I was peasantly surprised.  They were easy to lift - just scrape away the leaf mold with the fork.  They were much bigger than my normal grown tubers.  Yes there wes some evidence of  slug damage and rodent gnawing  , but  plenty were good enough to  harvest.  My normal planted potatoes struggled with the lack of rain.  I did water them but the process is too slow by hand to make much difference.  The result I would say the leafmould bin potatoes were better and certainly  less effort.  That probably just reflects the remakable  moisture retention capability of leafmould.  Given I was going to collect  the leaves and make the bin anyway a harvest of minimum effort potatoes was a big bonus.  

Elsewhere the outdoor  tomato harvest has gone from  looking  unbelievably good to  almost a write off.   Unusually for outdoot tomatoes I had quite a bit of greenback.  That is caused by  excess strong sunlight and too high heat.  It is much more common I think in greenhouses.  Then the rain came.  Too much water after a dry period  causes the fruit to burst.  There's still enough salvageable for cooking down for passata, but we probably won't have as many bottled as last year despite growing twice the area.