Home & Shop Companion #0052
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
It’s a watery world out there just now; storm Christoph came across yesterday and dropped a month’s worth of rain in a few hours, which flooded the road outside our house, so deep that many motorists chose to turn back, and one brave and unfortunate van driver who didn’t had to get pulled out. When we get a lot of rain, we have an easy method to tell how much because the dip along the neighbour’s field where once there was a ditch now runs with water once the underground drain is at full capacity. When we came here this happened only once every few years, but now it is an annual occurrence, and although I haven’t counted, it has probably happened four or five times over the last year.
In the field today there is also a huge patch of flooded land, it looks quite picturesque, but I hope it will soon soak away. The water level just reached the bottom of the growing muck heap, which this year is in one of the rows of trees, out of the way for cutting the next hay crop, though when I put it there I didn’t think about the possibility of the bottom being under water.
With all the water, it is hard to imagine how dry everything was last spring, and we are feeling the effects in the kitchen as our own potatoes have run out. Now having to buy them from the shop, the latest lot were horrible. Although they are organic, they are watery and tasteless. I know much of the taste is related to the variety, but big commercial organic growers, like conventional farmers, also tend to grow varieties for their high yield, and always use irrigation because that can double the output from the same piece of land. It reminds me of something I read thirty years ago about the introduction of one of the new high yielding varieties into the Andes, the home of the potato. The expectation was that this would help the local population because they would get more from their land. But the locals didn’t like them, because the new potatoes didn’t grow well without artificial fertiliser and a lot of extra water. In addition, although the new potatoes were bigger than the native types, the dry matter by comparison was so low that there was still more nutrition in the smaller, tastier, more disease resistant native potatoes.
It can be challenging to accept that the apparently obvious best choice, like those new high-yielding potatoes, isn’t in fact the best choice, especially if you are invested financially, mentally or emotionally in the new technology or a particular way of thinking. I experienced this phenomenon when talking to a neighbour on my way back from the field a month or so ago. I know where he stands on things environmental and agricultural, but I couldn’t resist gently drawing him down a different path, as I described the grazing system my brother is following. His cattle are on rented land which is not ideally fenced, but despite the difficulties he has been working towards rotational grazing over the last two years, moving the cattle regularly, mob grazing small patches along the lines of Regenerative Grazing. Even in that short time he thinks the grazing has improved, but the clincher came this summer when a retired farm worker who lives in the same village asked my brother why his fields were still green when all the surrounding land was parched and brown. My neighbour, who has some background in farming, listened to the story with interest, then all of a sudden his factory settings kicked back in, and he came out with the well-worn phrase, ‘but the only way we are going to feed the world is with industrial farming.’ I am sensible enough not to push against such a solid brick wall, so instead I said, ‘Ah well; it’s interesting though,’ and left it at that.
If however, my neighbour had said, ‘the only way we are going to feed the world this year is with industrial farming,’ I would largely be in agreement, but in twenty years’ time it will have to be different, and a big reason for that is water, whether it is because we have too much or too little, or at the wrong time of the year.
There is a rhyme I learnt as a child, which goes:
Whether the weather is cold
or whether the weather is hot,
you’ve got to weather the weather,
whether you like it or not.
Fifty plus years on, we still cannot choose our own weather, though working all together it seems that we have managed to do exactly that, and do we like it? I think not. However, whilst idling away some time on YouTube some months ago, I came across some short films which were in effect reshaping the weather in a positive direction, by water management and ground water replenishment. Some were in Australia using heavy earth-moving machinery to reshape the land, some were in Africa using tiny hand built walls of soil or rocks, shaped like crescent moons, to intercept surface water and channel it to a single tree planted in the middle of each crescent. But amongst the most encouraging moments for me in all of 2020 was watching examples of water table regeneration in India. There are many of them, but amongst the most inspiring is a village in Maharashtra province. There the villagers worked together to build dams, ponds, channels and trenches, to plant trees to slow down water runoff and to recharge their aquifer. Now, they no longer have to import drinking water in tankers, their crop yields are much greater and their incomes have increased, all of which has reversed the trend for locals to leave to find work in the already overpopulated cities. As one of the farmers said, ‘When we did not have water, we had nothing, now we have water, we have everything.’
Here’s the link if you’re interested: The Miracle Water Village
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.