Monday, 3 November 2014

Old Mcdonald's Comfrey

As promised in my previous post a few days ago I have set up a new blog called Old McDonald's Comfrey - www.oldmcdonaldscomfrey.blogspot.com purely for the purpose of giving some suggestions on the use of dried comfrey.

Monday, 27 October 2014

More about Comfrey

Comfrey is never far from me – either physically or mentally. It is one of those neglected crops that every now and again have a very limited number of enthusiasts to promote their virtues, and yet they never become popular with many mainstream farmers. It is not a difficult crop to grow on a large scale, but it does need different management to most other farm crops grown for animal feed, and either needs to be fed fresh or mixed with some other crop for silage.

A few stalwarts carry on in a small way, but many growers neglect it after a while. Over the years I have seen sellers of root-sets and offsets, dried leaves and roots either cease business or show “out of stock” as a permanent notice and very few who continue. I am continually thinking of suitable mechanical methods of cutting and carting on a farm scale as livestock feed, but have not devised anything better than using a forage harvester that chops and loads directly into a wagon. This is suitable only for immediate feeding or ensiling. An alternative, when used as a mulch and fertiliser is to cut then pick up after wilting, although applying fresh cut leaves around trees in dry situations such as I have in the summer is my preferred use.

The best way to dry comfrey is to keep the leaves whole in a very shallow layer and turned frequently with great care to prevent shattering. Ideally they should be individually separated, but this is impossible except with only a few leaves. Bunched and hung up in a tobacco barn is feasible, but extremely labour intensive, and only suitable if you have a tobacco barn or something similar. I wilt in the field then use my numerous small olive harvesting boxes that have perforated bases and sides. Again, very labour intensive but the boxes are only used for olives in November and December when the comfrey is going into its dormant phase and not harvested.

The great problem for users of comfrey has often been that sellers and advisers do not know much about it, writing the most utter rubbish (often simply copied from other writings) about comfrey in general; Henry Doubleday and Lawrence Hills. I see the same misinformation time and time again, some even repeating articles that purport to be the writer’s own experiences of the crop. Sometimes sellers offer a specific cultivar, usually one of the Bocking series. I am always extremely suspicious of this in countries other than Britain, where Bocking 14 has been readily available for many years. Where did the plants originate? Who identified them?

I know comfrey is a wonderful plant, but I am sure it is not capable of making people into time travellers. I found one site referring to Doubleday in WWII - 40 years after he died, and here is an example from a site claiming to be a Herbal Encyclopaedia:

During the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, an Englishman named Henry Doubleday became convinced that the world could be saved from hunger and suffering by using comfrey. He established a charitable organization to research the cultivation and use of the plant that exists to this day and continues to publish pamphlets and books on its usage.

Henry Doubleday’s interest in comfrey was as a source of glue that could be used on postage stamps. He did not import what a century later became classified as Symphytum x uplandicum from Russia until about 1870. His earlier connection with potatoes was that he set up a factory in England to make starch from them. It was some years after his glue idea that he apparently saw the possibility of it as a source of human food, but it seems it remained only an idea. Unfortunately all his notes were destroyed after his death and it is not possible to know what his thoughts were. Lawrence Hills, in the 1950s, founded the research association to which he gave Doubleday’s name because of his work with comfrey.  For accurate historical information use Lawrence Hills’ works as your source, although it appears the botanic nomenclature was not settled when Hills wrote his books.

Many sites show photographs of a comfrey plant in its red or blue flowering phase and refer to it as S.officinale (Common Comfrey) when it is most obvious that it is not. They then claim that it does not set seed. Common Comfrey, as can be guessed from its name, sets seed profusely and will rapidly spread in a garden or field. Its flowers are white/cream/yellow. It is unlikely, but not impossible, that you will come across the red/purple flowered variant. Most other comfreys also set large amounts of viable seed. If you are growing comfrey to use either for animals or plants it should never be allowed to flower anyway. Flowering seriously reduces the productivity of the plant.  

Further misinformation arises when the writer has no idea about fertilisers. They confuse ratios of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium with percentages, comparing them as if they were the same thing and then spout forth about this being better than that, and how to make use of them. This is especially true of those promoting the use of comfrey. Part of the reason for this, although inexcusable by anyone who claims to advise on fertiliser use,  is the habit of some fertiliser sellers showing analyses of their products as, for example 5:10:10. The sign : between two numbers means that they are in this ratio to each other.  Agricultural and horticultural convention is 5-10-10 and also to show the constituents as N-P-K in that order, with other nutrients also shown as their elemental symbol, e.g S and Ca for Sulphur and Calcium.

For those who do not know, 5-10-10 means that the package contains 5% Total Nitrogen 10% Phosphate and 10% Potash. Nitrogen is the total of Nitrical and Ammoniacal; Phosphate is Phosphorus Pentoxide and Potash is Potassium Oxide. I suggest you read professionally written technical fertiliser articles if you require more detail about mineral or organic fertilisers and their availability to plants. A good starting point is the online available UK DEFRA manual RB209 “Fertiliser Recommendations for Agricultural and Horticultural Crops”. It is highly recommended to commercial growers, but only to those dedicated home growers with a thirst for knowledge.

The ratio of N:P:K in a 5-10-10 fertiliser is 1:2:2 but a ratio is meaningless if you want to know how much of that particular fertiliser to apply. You need the figures 5-10-10 or whatever the analysis is. Knowledgeable people can make use of the information and then make their own calculations based on the N-P-K percentages. Occasionally it will be found that some writers put Potassium in the middle. I have even seen this in agricultural books when the author discusses various fertilisers in the order Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus. This is also inexcusable, and has given rise to some articles where I have seen the symbol for Potassium given as P and Phosphorus as K. Organic fertilisers (such as comfrey, meat and bone meal or seaweed) are described in the same way as mineral fertilisers so that users know their analysis and can make use of the information.

I use fresh and dried comfrey. I have made liquid from comfrey but found it did not suit my management systems. Liquid is obtained from the pressed leaves and stems. A favourite instruction is to dilute the liquid obtained from comfrey until it is “the colour of weak tea”. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen this quote. It is sometimes accompanied by “that is about 10:1” or 20:1 or 40:1. There is a big difference between 10:1 and 40:1. Even well-known gardening personalities come out with this nonsense. It is equally as bad as advising the use of a manufactured fertiliser by saying put “some” on your land. You have no idea what you are feeding your plants. The nutrients in a concentrated comfrey liquid are variable to begin with. The amounts in any given sample of fresh material will be different to another sample (more so if grown on a different site) and the moisture content, up to 90%, will also differ. Wilting the leaves is generally advised before pressing, but again how much water is left?

The agricultural college in Castelo Branco analyses comfrey leaves for me in the same way as they analyse olive and almond leaves to assist in assessing fertiliser requirements for the grove or orchard. It is unable to analyse the liquid and that is another reason I do not use it. It is possible to have a liquid analysed, but not locally. I would need to do some calculations based on the dried material of a wilted sample used for pressing in order to have an idea of the liquid analysis. Highly inaccurate, but the best I could do, and given the variability in starting water content of “wilted” leaves it is not good enough for me.

At the same time, if you grow comfrey on a garden or allotment scale, then making liquid concentrate may suit you rather than using the leaves fresh or drying them and a few years experience of using your own materials and methods should be enough that you know how to use it for your own crops. Analyses of leaves and liquid are very expensive (several times more than soil analyses) and possibly not justified for home use. I am on a bigger scale and using it for commercial crops. I am about to offer dried leaves for sale too, so I need to be able to calculate my own applications to plants, and to guide customers. Consequently I need the analyses.

I took samples from August and September cuts of the 2014 crop, did a thorough mixing, and had some analysed. These are the dried leaves I will be selling over the 2014-15 winter and spring. There will be a little variation in the analysis of a plant between the several cuts in a season and I will analyse more in 2015. It will take me a little while from posting this blog before the website is updated to include the comfrey. I will make an announcement here and also set up a dedicated blog that will give some suggestions on using the dried leaves – based on the latest analyses I have. I do not expect them to change to the extent that general advice needs to be changed, but it will be of interest to some amateur growers of comfrey to see if the analyses change.

What the present analyses have shown me is that I can provide all the P and K I need for my trees, and I expect (but do not know for certain) all the trace elements too, solely from comfrey. But not sufficient N. A large quantity of comfrey is required, and my original thoughts were to grow comfrey in the tree lines to make use of the fertilisers applied to the land and not utilised by the trees and also to eliminate carting of the cut comfrey used as mulch for the trees. Unfortunately despite my best endeavours to keep the tree lines clean, I am finding that birds are bringing in seeds and dropping them as they roost in the tree branches. I like to see the wide range of birds that inhabit my olive groves but blackberries and some of the bigger perennial and annual weeds are particularly troublesome.


I have reluctantly decided I would be unable to keep the olives, almonds and comfrey sufficiently weed free, and need to grow the comfrey on a dedicated area. If you have a few fruit trees, then you probably have the space for comfrey too. Think about growing a few comfrey plants close to each tree, specifically for the purpose of mulching the trees. 50kgs of fresh leaves is the minimum amount you will need for each medium sized productive tree. 

Saturday, 26 July 2014

PICCALILLI

Those of you who have my book will know that the simple recipes at the end have been modified by my wife from more complicated ones. They are quicker, cheaper and easier to make than the originals. They taste better too, because they have been adjusted to suit us. You will also know that whenever possible she makes the recipes flexible so that you are not tied to specific weights or ingredients and you can change them to suit you.

It does mean you need a little cooking experience, or are prepared to experiment. You will soon learn how to modify them, and there are always opportunities to change things as you go. Building in the safeguard of being able to make changes part way through means that tips on how and when to do it need to be included in the instructions.

One important point to note is that unlike almost all recipes for piccalilli this one does not have the vegetables coated in salt overnight. In fact there is no added salt. It is not necessary because of the other flavours. It is also a lot healthier than the salt laden versions. The amount of sugar in many recipes is also excessive. This is the typical “bad” manufactured food scenario - lots of both salt and sugar.

If you are in the northern hemisphere, now or in the next few weeks is the time of year when you (or a friendly neighbour) can supply most of the ingredients from vegetables in the garden – or buy them at their cheapest if you have no garden.

The two things you need to make vegetables into piccalilli are vinegar and spice. We use white wine vinegar because that is what is available in Portugal, but use whatever you have. The British brown malt vinegar is what my mother always used and the only difference is that it makes the sauce darker. The one essential spice is turmeric powder. Everything else is optional. I prefer some mustard seeds too, or you could use powdered mustard. Coriander seeds, powdered ginger and other spices are frequently used in more complicated recipes. The choice is up to you. Use what you like.

Marrows or courgettes tend to overwhelm anybody who grows them, and many gardeners have a few plants. They soon grow bigger than is suitable for a single meal and piccalilli is often the only thing that these fruits are used for in a household. They are also very cheap in shops that stock them. Onions, cucumbers (or gherkins) and cauliflower are traditionally used in addition to the marrows or courgettes. I think it would not be the same without onions and cauliflower. Further options are green tomatoes, French beans, runner beans, peppers (either sweet or hot depending upon your taste) capers and garlic. Omitting the overnight salting means you can have the piccalilli ready in under an hour after you have prepared the vegetables. We do feel that a small amount of sugar enhances the flavours.

Before making the first batch this year we did an internet search and looked at numerous recipes. Most had far too much salt, and only one confirmed our opinion that salt should be omitted. That was on the website of the supermarket chain Waitrose. We saw recipes that use nasturtium pods instead of capers. Carrots occasionally appear in recipes too. Some used weights, others referred to large, medium or small vegetables.
You might want some guidance on quantities to use. The ratio of vegetables to vinegar varied a lot in the recipes we saw, from less vinegar than vegetables to twice as much. Have available a bit more than half the weight of vinegar to vegetables for your first attempt, although it is unlikely you will need it all. Vinegar weighs 1kg per litre, 20ozs (one and one quarter pounds) per British pint, and one pound per US pint. We also suggest no more than 1oz of sugar per pound of vegetables or 55g per kilo – and use a lot less ourselves. We are not being diet goody-goodies, we just think that sweet piccalilli is not right. If you want sweet pickles then make chutney and not piccalilli.

Make sure you have sufficient sterilised jars with non-corrosive lids for the batch being made. Know the capacity of the jars and allow one spare over the combined weight of vegetables and vinegar. You might not need it. They must be kept hot because the newly made piccalilli will be close to boiling point when it is transferred to them.

Our main purpose for a recent batch was to use up an overgrown courgette and excess cucumbers. So, we used 1 large cauliflower, 250g/half a pound of French beans and 2 big Onions in a total weight of 6.5kgs/14lbs of vegetables in their fresh natural state. The single courgette we used was close to 6lbs (2.5kgs) so comprised about 40% of the total weight. Cucumbers brought the total to 6.5kgs. We had not previously used French beans and are not impressed. They add nothing to the flavour and we will not use them again.

We had added 5 large garlic cloves to an earlier batch of about half the quantity plus about half a jar of leftover capers, and I like that. We decided on 2litres of vinegar which is a lot less than any recipe we have seen, and is about one third of the weight of the prepared vegetables. We made the decision because the courgette and cucumbers were harvested from the garden immediately before being prepared and we knew they would contain a lot of liquid. With other vegetables you might need more. The starting amount is not critical to success.  
You will see how to use the dry ingredients during the instructions below and we used 1 heaped tablespoon of Mustard seed, the same of turmeric powder, about 3ozs/90g of flour, and 150g/5ozs of white sugar. All these are less quantities than other recipes will state, but it was enough.  Keep the flour handy in case you decide to thicken the sauce some more, when a tiny further amount of turmeric can also be added.  More vinegar should be available to increase the quantity of sauce if you think it necessary at a later stage. Some prefer the sauce runny, and others for it not to drip off the bottom of a spoon dipped into a jar, and the quantity of liquid in your chosen vegetables will have some effect on the consistency, and quantity, of the sauce. 
 
Take some notes on what you use and how long various stages take. That way you can decide whether you want to change anything for the next batch. You will make more.

If you intend to weigh the vegetables do it before preparing them – it is easier. Cucumbers and large gherkins are best skinned, as the skins tend to be bitter and the bitterness can persist in the piccalilli. Small courgettes need not be skinned, but if large like the one we used they have tough skins. We peeled most of it but left the skin on a few pieces for additional colour. We also removed the central pith and seeds. Break the cauliflower into small florets and prepare and cut all the other vegetables into the size of pieces you want in the finished product. Keep each vegetable separate from the others. About half an inch or 1cm cubes suits most people, except for garlic if used, which many will like sliced small, or even crushed.

Heat the vinegar and sugar in a pan big enough to take all the vinegar and vegetables. Whilst the vinegar is heating mix the mustard, turmeric and flour into a smooth paste with some cold vinegar. Other seeds or spices that you want to include should also be mixed in this paste. Extra dry spices, or including peppers, will change the flavour. Bulk up the paste with hot vinegar from the pan. This ensures you have a smooth paste that will not go lumpy. It also thins the paste and makes it easier to pour.

Pour the paste into the pan of hot vinegar before it comes to the boil. The mixture, now a sauce, needs to be stirred continuously and heated to boiling point. It should be adjusted to the consistency you prefer. I am happy with it quite thin. You do not want it too watery, nor do you want too much of it. You want jars full of vegetables in sauce, not sauce with some vegetables, so be careful about adding extra vinegar, and remember the liquid that will come out of the vegetables, especially the cucurbits (marrow, courgette, cucumber). You can always add more flour and a touch of turmeric later if you want to thicken it more. The sauce should not quite cover the vegetables when all have been added to the pan, and you can increase the quantity of sauce at later stages. You always have room to manoeuvre.

Do not tip everything into the sauce willy-nilly. The reason for keeping them separate is so that you can add them in order to achieve equal crunchiness in the piccalilli. Onions are always first, and the sauce will drop in temperature and stop boiling. Stir each vegetable into the sauce as you go. When one is thoroughly coated, add the next, but there is no need to rush. Cauliflower follows the onions, then any other hard vegetables such as carrots. These are followed by (if used) beans and peppers. Next comes the bulk - the cucurbits and finally garlic and capers. If the sauce is too thin for you, add more flour and turmeric paste, but remember you have to keep stirring it, so not too thick. 
   

Continue heating and stirring until the sauce returns to the boil. Liquid from the cucurbits will increase the amount of sauce, and the vegetables should have enough sauce to just cover them when boiling point is reached. If not, merely add some vinegar - and more flour paste if you want. Make sure it reaches boiling point again if you have added more vinegar or paste. You now have piccalilli. It can be removed from the heat now, which is what we do, or left to boil some more, but you must remove it from the heat before the vegetables become soft. A small number of minutes should be sufficient for anybody. Put the piccalilli in the hot sterilised jars immediately. Fill them right to the top and close the lids firmly. It will keep a long time. Some folks like to let the flavours mingle for a couple of weeks or more before using. As soon as it cools is long enough for me.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

www.oldmcdonaldsolives.com

That is the name of my website. Even if you are not interested in what I have to offer - mainly dried leaves from trees and other plants traditionally used in cooking, herbal teas and for small pets, you might be interested in some views of where I live and the neighbouring land. Use the Google map "streetview" icon for this purpose when you link from the website.

Those of you who either have, or are thinking about having their own website, should take a look too. See what an exceptional site has been created for me by my friend Patrick (mentioned elsewhere in the blog from time to time) through his site www.launchwindow.net and consider using him to upgrade or create your own site. Patrick also did the technical work to enable my ebook to be published. He could do one for you too.

Obviously the launch of my site is for my new venture for 2014 and that is offering a range of products from things growing on the quinta. I have previously remarked that I like to do something new each year. The almonds are now the favoured venture for 2015 as it is unlikely I will have the land and infrastructure ready to consider planting later this year.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Mediterranean Diet

Having recently read yet another article praising the Mediterranean Diet (MD) I decided to write this blog. Over the best part of 20 years I have read a great deal about the origins of the term and what it means. Having known a few people from rural areas of countries around the Mediterranean (Med) when I lived in Australia in the 1980s and knowing what they considered traditional foods from “back home” I always doubted that the MD was truly representative of what country people in that area ate in the middle to latter 20th century. Having lived in rural Portugal for the last 11 years my doubts are now beliefs.

The MD is generally recognised as being one promoted by Harvard University’s School of Public Health in the mid 1990s and constantly repeated by all and sundry ever since. It is supposedly based on the typical diet of people in Crete, the remainder of Greece and Southern Italy during the 1960s. There is quite a good Wikipedia article on how it all came about, including some earlier research and some subsequent studies. UNESCO has recognised the diet pattern as an integral cultural heritage of several countries bordering and close to the Med, including Portugal which strictly has the Atlantic as its shores, Gibraltar being the westerly point of the Med.

The MD indicates that a large proportion of daily food intake should be, and I quote, "abundant plant foods, fresh fruit as the typical daily dessert, olive oil as the principal source of fat, dairy products (principally cheese and yogurt), and fish and poultry consumed in low to moderate amounts, zero to four eggs consumed weekly, red meat consumed in low amounts, and wine consumed in low to moderate amounts". What that all means is, of course, interpreted differently by different people.

Harvard also made the MD idea into a graphic known as “The Healthy Eating Food Pyramid” and another called “The Healthy Eating Plate”. These are revised from time to time to take into account recent research but follow the same ideas as the quote above – with some notable exceptions. Dietary vitamin supplements are now recommended by Harvard. If a diet is adequate then supplements are not necessary. If it is inadequate then it cannot be a healthy diet. Vegetable oils (the olive is a fruit not a vegetable) are also now recommended as “healthy”. There have been too many adverse research reports about the unhealthiness of vegetable oils for me to accept this. All vegetable oils are a modern invention, say about 100 years ago onwards, and an industrial processed one at that – nothing natural about it, and no long-standing use of vegetables as a fat source in any of the countries near the Med. In fact I am not aware of any country that historically relied on vegetable oil as a source of fat. I do not have any vegetable oils by choice, nor would I (nor have ever in my life) eaten margarine and similar spreads – always butter. Why does Harvard espouse chemical supplements and industrially processed fats?

So what do country folks really consume? It is necessary to generalise, there are exceptions – I have met a Portuguese vegetarian and a couple of teetotallers.  Without question a lot of olive oil is consumed, people have told me of up to a litre a week for their household, but it is likely to be Virgin Olive Oil, not Extra Virgin, and from the olive mill where their, or their neighbours’ olives were pressed. It is poured on most dishes, cooked or uncooked. Often used as a dip for bread to accompany food. They also consume a lot of vegetables, fruit and some nuts – my wife and I eat about a kilo of nuts a week between us. I doubt many other people do. But these people also eat a lot of meat, cheese and eggs. In fact they consume a lot of everything, because they eat a lot. They also drink a lot. Almost every person I know here has wine with their lunch. I recall 4 or 5 years ago coming across two old couples (and I am 70, so when I say old, I mean old) about to begin their middle of the day break from picking olives. On the back of the donkey cart were two enormous loaves of bread, a huge chunk of presunto (dried ham) a heap of fruit and 4 bottles of wine. I did not see any olive oil but my experience is that presunto is eaten with dry bread, no oil.

Therein lies, I believe, the real reason these people live so long without much by way of illness – they cannot spare the time to be ill because they have too much work to do. To be fair, Harvard has always stressed the need for what they term “regular physical activity”. Most modern people do not have work that needs that regular physical activity, even housewives with their modern gadgets do not get the exercise of doing such things as laundry by hand. Although I know one old lady who in addition to working her small quinta and tending goats, still does, and in the river at that, and all year round – it is an exceptionally clean river. As a consequence people in modern sedentary jobs are not burning up the calories they would consume if they lived the peasant life, and so end up fat and often with associated health problems.

To go back to the original source of the MD, Crete, it is estimated that there were over one million goats and sheep on the island in 1990 just before the MD was widely publicised. And people were supposed to eat very little red meat? There were also “large” numbers of pigs whatever “large” means, and “some” cattle. These animals, plus hens, were and are owned in small numbers by virtually every country dweller around the Med. The number seems to vary according to family needs, but I would say from observations, usually between two and twenty. Some people raise more than they need in order to create some income. There are extremely few cattle owned by small scale farmers. Lack of adequate grazing is a prime reason.
 
On the other hand it seems just about everybody kills a pig on a regular basis. Add to this kids, lambs, and bountiful numbers of eggs for almost all the year. Further away from the equator hens need supplementary lighting to keep producing at a reasonable rate through the winter. In all my life, and that of millions of other rural people, nobody has ever asked how much home reared meat is eaten. Official figures of meat and egg consumption simply ignore this aspect of diet, because nobody knows. All animals are by law required to be ear tagged for food safety and disease control reasons (and in recent times an internal identification bolus in addition to the ear tags) but huge numbers are not so identified. It is wrong, and I do not condone it. Officially they do not exist, but their offspring are killed and eaten, as well as lots of cheese made from surplus milk.

Add too the fact that every little block of land owned by these people includes (apart from the necessary olive trees) wine grape vines. Nobody knows how much home produced wine and brandy is drunk either, because nobody knows how much is produced. Have a meal with, or just visit, any of these people and you will soon find out that it takes a persistent drinker to get through what they do.


I follow what I believe is really the MD, including using Virgin not Extra Virgin Olive Oil. I take oil in exchange for olives I take to the mill at Sobral do Campo. EVOO is for those with money who use it sparingly – a bit like drinking good Claret and Vintage Port every day instead of equally as satisfying less expensive wines. I also eat a lot more butter than anyone I have ever met, but then I still do a lot of physical work 7 days a week, and unless you do too, or exercise intensely several times a week, I think you would be better sticking to Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate, but without the supplements and definitely without vegetable oils.  

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Weather Extremes


Forget whether you believe the world is warming, and if you do, what is causing it. Think instead about what you have seen and read about in the last three months. I have been confined indoors for a lot of that time due to continuing wet and windy weather. My winter outside work schedule has not been met, but being restricted has let me see what is happening to others less fortunate than me – when I have an Internet signal.
The usual Australian heat and bushfires have been reported as well as blizzards in America. Floods and gales have made the news in Britain and some European mainland countries, and Portugal’s Atlantic islands have also suffered. The difference this winter/summer appears to be the severity of these events and the geographic and time extension over past years.
Some parts of Australia that normally receive summer rainfall are in drought conditions – and unless you have seen first hand what an Australian (or similar country) drought looks like, then you cannot imagine it. People in places like Britain talk about having a drought. No they do not, they have a short spell without rain. Where I now live it does not rain between May and at least the end of September. Every year. That is just a dry spell. Drought means absolutely no grass whatsoever, and water supplies drying out completely. No food, no water and the inevitable outcome is that enormous numbers of farm livestock and wild animals die.
Drought is particularly bad in the SW of the U.S.  “Natural disaster” status was declared for counties in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Kansas, Utah, Arkansas, Idaho, Oklahoma and California. California has been dry for 3 years and is running out of drinking water. Hawaii is included in the natural disaster status too and other countries worldwide are similarly suffering. The Eastern part of the U.S. suffered from winter storms with unprecedented snow in some southern states. As I post I am aware of temperatures in at least one area of Kansas being close to zero Fahrenheit. One thing I came across that many will have missed is the flooding in Bolivia. More than 40 people killed and about 50,000 homes totally destroyed in January, plus an estimated 100,000 cattle lost. I saw one aerial photo of an isolated higher bit of ground tightly packed with a large number of cattle that would obviously starve to death. 

It seems a lot of vegetables have been lost around the world, including those in large numbers of glasshouses and plastic tunnels for out of season supplies. We can feel as sorry as we may for all the farmers worse off than ourselves, and indeed those non-farmers who have lost their lives or homes and possessions, but there is little we can do. I am sure that more than one reader has suffered losses themselves in recent weeks due to the weather. It is not so long ago either that many in Scotland had sheds collapse due to excessive snow. Recent wet seasons have caused havoc too to farmers’ cash flows. For a couple of years I have been half-heartedly planning future action in the event that extreme weather and declining supplies of petrochemicals make what we now consider normal life to become unobtainable and/or unaffordable. 

I have made a couple of posts already about “what if” scenarios, and these were on the basis that I did not really expect to need to resort to putting the ideas into practice, just a sort of insurance policy. If these extreme conditions continue for another couple of years there will be severe shortages of several food commodities for those in “developed” countries. Millions are already starving and an inability for other countries to supply food aid does not bear thinking about, but we should. 

Along with some farmers in other countries I had noticed that weather patterns were staying around longer, meaning that when it is wet it stays wet for longer, and when it is cold (always relative of course) it stays cold for longer. The only difference is that in this part of the world it definitely is warmer than even 10 years ago. We have not had what I would call a "hard" frost (that is below minus 5ÂșC here) for about 6 winters. I have the old records but it takes some time to search them all. We have not been below freezing point since 10th Dec and that was only minus one. Soil temperatures have been in double figures at 9.30 a.m. and the mean temperatures for January and February 2014 were well above anything we have experienced in the past. 

I have also noticed in my trawling of news and general agricultural sites around the world that more and more large scale farmers are switching from traditional livestock and crops into so-called niche markets. I think it has always been this way, but probably on a smaller scale. I wonder if this shift means that grazing livestock numbers will fall rather quickly and that staple cereals acreages will also fall around the world. 

This would give opportunites to some - but who? Similar opportunities will arise for those not into broadacre farming, hence my interest in the lack of water in California, which produces more than 80% of the world’s almonds. Growers there are struggling with the lack of rain and snowmelt. Little snowmelt will be available this spring. California also supplies virtually all of several different vegetables consumed in the US. 

We all have try to survive and feed ourselves and families, and this led me to wonder how I might change my farming system. I intend to plant almonds. I will fit this change into my intentions for 2014 after the ground dries sufficiently for me to begin thinking how I will catch up on the backlog of work around the farm and what I will be able to achieve through the summer.

Monday, 23 December 2013

August to December 2013


August was a relatively mild month, temperatures fairly steady in the mid-30s C without any high spikes. The river ceased flowing on 10th August which meant a cessation of irrigation. It has ceased for the last few years now, and I am beginning to expect that to be normal. The first few years we were here it was more reliable. Fortunately, having bought the tractor mounted sprayer as intended I was able to cart some water to the most susceptible olive trees – young ones bearing a heavy crop, and keep them from losing their fruit.

What a difference that sprayer has made. It was not off the tractor for over 3 weeks from when I bought it. I sprayed against weeds all along the tree lines in less than a day. It used to take me the a week with knapsack sprayers. I also had complete protection from olive fly and gafa with the first clean crop I have harvested.

I know many people are opposed to using chemical protection of crops, but there really is no alternative here. Neglected groves abound and they are a permanent source of spreading diseases and pests. A loss of table quality fruit and the resulting low oil yield from the damaged fruit that is harvested is simply not an option, so spraying is necessary. I used the sprayer too to clean up the edges of the tarmac drive where weeds, and particularly couch grass were beginning to damage the surface. It also proved useful in spraying in and around buildings against insects, as well as treating the goats for the same problems. Biting and sucking insects, as well as flies, are a great problem for livestock in the summer.

In the garden, we continued to harvest lots of gherkins and then a year’s supply of the peppers which were just beginning to fruit when I posted in July. They are indeed a welcome new crop and very pleasant. To save anyone checking back to July, Marconi Red is the variety we used. I only had nine plants, but they cropped for many weeks. It is not a big blocky pepper, but has a very small cavity and is easily prepared for cooking or freezing – so my wife tells me. I just grow and harvest crops, she does the rest.

The potatoes followed their usual form of not being particularly brilliant. The property just seems not to be suited to grow them. Mona Lisa definitely outperformed the Picasso – both potato varieties, nothing to do with art. I will try Mona Lisa again next year, and maybe something else new. I just cannot accept that with all my experience I am unable to produce our own potatoes for all year round supply. Those available in the shops are of such poor quality that we eat them much less frequently than we like, using rice or pasta instead.

The olive harvest was rather late with very slow ripening of crops around about. I was picking ripe fruits as I could because I knew it would take me too long if I waited for full trees to ripen. The days become shorter and rain always stops picking. I was storing the picked fruits in vats of water until I had sufficient to take to the mill, when we received a sharp frost on the morning of 21st November. This was followed by a mild few days and then a string of frosts right through to 12th December. The first one had damaged all the olives remaining on the trees so it became a race against time to pick them, whatever their state of ripeness, before they disintegrated. Our son and family were visitng for a week and I was almost finished, with only one remaining to be picked, a very old and very tall tree, close to the house on the west side, that acts as a sunscreen to the cellar entrance and shades part of the house too. The day after their arrival we finished the tree, with my son doing all the climbing. I did not purposely plan it that way but I was pleased not to have to spend an hour climbing amongst the branches. His wife and I took care of the lower fruit.

As expected the oil yield was very low because of the frost damage to most of the crop, Fortunately due to a total lack of insect and fungal damage the fruit had retained a reasonable amount of structure and was acceptable at the mill. After allowing for the miller’s 18% processing deduction we ended up with 10 kilos of fruit to the litre. This meant a production of one litre to approximately eight and a half kilos of fruit. Very acceptable under the circumstances. At first I thought I might have been looking at a loss of much of the unharvested crop, and if I had not sprayed the resultant lower yield of even the sound fruit would have been a disaster.

There are still a few days to go to the end of the year, it is raining as I type, and it is forecast to last into the new year, so the nights will be mild, but that long string of frosts has reduced the mean minimum for the year and this will not be a record breaker for temperatures. I do expect it to be in the top four though since we came here in 2003. The afternoon high for 31st December will give me the final figure.