Bringing the harvest in
Where was the sun? It's not been a great year for us gardeners. It never really became summer here in Wales. It felt like we were stuck in spring and a cold one at that.
Night time temperatures still dropped down to single figures in June and the warmest it got was 25.7°C on May the 25th. The skies were overcast for most of the season and low light levels took their toll on the plants. Apple trees stand bare, there are no plums or kiwi's. And don't get me started on the rain! We've had some very spectacular floods here, never seen before in living memory. The bees stayed in their hives and the hover flies were so late, I ended up buying ladybird larvae on Ebay to deal with an infestation of aphids. The slugs liked the weather though and all summer it felt like we were under siege by vast armies of molluscs. It's also hard to keep on top of the weeds when the rain just won't stop and as potato blight hit a good two weeks earlier than normal, a lot of gardeners just gave up. But giving up is not an option for a resilience garden.
We are quite prepared on our plot for wet weather and the hugel culture beds really proved they were worth all the effort this year, as the salads and courgettes grew away well above the mud. We started doubling a lot of our crops, growing them both inside and out, so that whatever the weather, we'd get something. It worked to some extent, but there's not much you can do about lack of light and warmth. Some crops were alright with that and we harvested masses of runner beans, the leeks are looking good and other people reported bumper crops of peas, but unfortunately ours fell victim to slugs and rodents. The garlic, looking so promising at first, succumbed to a severe attack of rust, onions once picked, started rotting and clubroot ran rampant among the brassicas. As the potatoes caught blight so early, the crop was small, with many tubers still going off in storage. This year, I'm really glad that we can pop to the shops to get food, because if it came down to feeding ourselves with what we grew, we'd be going quite hungry come January.
Food prices on the rise
Be ready for food prices to take a serious hike upwards this autumn. All across Northern Europe the erratic weather has caused harvests to be poor and as a consequence, we will all be paying more for our food. And I fear that those prices are unlikely to come down again. Farmers have been selling their produce too cheap to be sustainable for years now and with their fuel costs soaring they simply need to get more of a return. To grow cereals, vegetables and fruit successfully, you need a stable climate, with traditional seasons and seasonable weather. Droughts and floods wreak havoc to the land for years after they occur and to grow summer crops, you need summer temperatures; the one we've just had might well be the beginning of the new normal. It isn't just bad news for vegetarians, by the way. Animals bred to become food for humans also get fed on grains and animal feed has now become so expensive, farmers are slaughtering their herds because they cannot afford the price of the feed. You think this is bad? It gets worse.
I'm sure I'm not the only grower who's noticed the absence of the bees this year. We need bees to pollinate the flowers that will not just turn into our fruit and vegetables, but also into our vegetable seeds. Carrot, parsnip, beetroot, cabbage; the vast majority of our most popular vegetables need their flowers to be pollinated by bees to produce seed. No bees, no seed, no vegetables, it's that simple. Our bees are having a hard time and it isn't just the weather; they are being poisoned by farmers' use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Despite the outcome of two recent studies into the effect of these pesticides on bees clearly showing the great harm that is being done to them, our government decided that there is not enough proof to ban the use of these chemicals, unlike the French and the Italian governments, who have. In the words of one French scientist:
"Under the effects we saw from the pesticides, the population size would decline disastrously, and make them even more sensitive to parasites or a lack of food."
The Great Disconnect
I think a big part of the problem is that the general population is so disconnected from nature and how food is produced, they simply can't make the links between weather, food, farmers and bees. The current mode of thinking is that if there is a problem, science will solve it with GM, pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilisers, but last year our garden was devastated by manure contaminated with the weed killer aminopyralid, and we were merely one of many affected since 2008. Although “accidents” like this have been happening for years, farmers can still buy and use this product, while the government department that is responsible for regulating this poison, openly admitted to me that it has no way of enforcing it's own regulations. Worse still, amateur gardeners can now buy the closely related Clopyralid, which is now finding it's way into the green waste stream and thus into community composting schemes. Even Americans realised how dangerous this stuff was and banned it, but in Britain we can spray it at will. As the authorities now admit they are getting concerned about our food security, you'd think they'd protect our alloments and community gardens from this kind of danger, but Dow Agrosciences interests come before the public's.
Mentioning the USA, where they prosecute people for growing veg in their front garden, they will soon be growing another GM corn. The old Round Up Ready stuff is becoming useless as “superweeds”, resistant to glyphosate, are strangling crops. This new GM corn will be unaffected by an even stronger weed killer, 2,4-D, which once upon a time was a component of Agent Orange. We also now have the results of the first ever long term study of the effect of Roundup and Roundup resistant maize on rats; it causes tumours, liver and kidney damage. Pop corn, anyone?
The big corporations are having a great time though, at Glencore they reckon that the worst drought to hit the US since the 1930's “will be good for business”, as they can profit from rising prices. With Big Corpo making money from first poisoning our land, seas and air and then profiteering from food shortages and with governments sitting firmly in their pockets, I can see a heck of a storm brewing up.
I could go on, but it just gets too depressing and I'm more interested in how, as Transition activists, we're to address these issues. We need to make food even more central to our activities than it already is and show that we have a deep understanding of all the factors involving food production. Not holding our annual conference at spring sowing or autumn harvesting time would be a good start. Harvest celebrations can be used as a way to raise awareness of the importance of an abundant food system; we urgently need to reconnect the public with their food and where it comes from. We can "harvest" any growing disquiet about the rising cost of food to start this process. In the last year or so the focus of the Transition Network has been on local economies and business, resulting in the very promising Reconomy Project. With that one on its way now, could we maybe revisit the issue of food and start engaging our farmers?
It might be harvest time, but our work is only just beginning. I fear that if we fail to grow enough alternatives, the cupboard in the coming years might stand empty yet.