On a crisp, October morning looking out over the organic fields of Bristol’s Community Farm rolling down to a foggy Chew Valley Lake you could be forgiven for believing that all is well in agricultural England. Look at little closer, however, and you’ll see a reality that is frightening even the most seasoned of UK farmers; acre upon acre of failed crops, organic vegetables half eaten by slugs and sodden, nutrient depleted soil.
In what is now being called the worst UK harvest in 30 years, the Community Farm like every grower across the country is struggling to work out where they went wrong. The truth is the weather simply didn’t do what it was expected to this year and around the globe it has left anyone who depends on it confused, worried and struggling to make ends meet.
“We’ve lost fifty percent of harvest here,” says Andy Dibben, the head grower of this community supported agricultural scheme. “An acre and a half of potatoes never even came up. That was horrific. You lose potatoes to blight but to lose your potatoes before they even come out of the ground is unheard of.”
For the UK, the main problem has been the rain. After a brief sunny spell in early Spring, the rain started in March and didn’t stop all summer making it the second wettest on record. Some fields were so sodden they didn’t even get planted while other crops rotted in the ground. The Community Farm’s squash crop was another that failed although not as a result of the excess rain this time but as a result of the lack of sunshine, Andy thinks.
Even those plants that did survive are nowhere near as flavoursome this year. Two long term community farm volunteers bemoan the watery tasting plums and tomatoes they’ve been picking. “It’s simple,” says Andy “sunshine equals sweetness”. The only advantage of the rain was it kept the flying insects away which meant that the carrots, normally besieged by carrot fly and leeks – equally under attack by leek moth at this time of year – were left alone to thrive.
“There’s just no pattern to the weather anymore,” says Andy who’s been a farmer and grower for fifteen years. “All the rules are gone. There has always been a folklore about when you plant things but that’s all gone out the window. To me, the weather looks broken”.
It’s alarming talk but his views are being echoed by farmers around the world. Failing harvests in the US, Russia and other countries this year have left world food reserves at their lowest level in almost forty years. For the US it wasn’t the rain but the lack of it that ruined their harvest. Heat waves and droughts – the worst in fifty years – wiped out key crops like corn and soya beans and sent food prices spiralling. This year, for the sixth time in eleven years, the world will consume more than it produces. It’s a pattern that is leading experts to warn that the global food supply system could collapse at any minute.
The fear of the food shortages and the more tangible rise in food prices may be the first signs of climate change affecting our daily lives. Experts are suggesting that we are entering an era where each country will look to fend for food itself and countries like the UK will no longer just be able to get food so easily from other places. In this environment, more sustainable food systems that source supplies locally and look to protect and preserve the soil may be the best answer to surviving a food crisis.
Back in the Chew Valley, Andy Dibben acknowledges that it’s only the Community Farm’s business model of shared community membership that has enabled them to survive such a difficult year. “We’ve been okay because we weren’t set up on big bank loans. When we hit a major financial crisis this year we turned to the membership to loan us money and it came through in three days”.
Now the challenge, for all farmers, is next season. And the answer for many of them seems to be polytunnels. These cylindrical plastic structures look set to be dotted across England’s green pastures by this time next year. With no faith that next year will be any better and an absolute dread of the impact of another bad harvest, growers just can’t afford to risk growing all their food outside anymore.
“The world is changing and we have to change with it,” says Andy Dibben. “We’re going to have to take more risks, plant different types of crops and use anything we can in terms of science and technology. It’s a matter of finding whatever works.”
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