Sunday, March 2, 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 5ºC 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, December 23, 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.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Flying Ants

2nd October was “Flying Ant Day 2013” here. That was the day when the ants with wings left their nests. The day varies each year because it always follows the first  rains  that end the summer dry spell. Every summer is always dry, but they are not droughts such as are experienced for example in Australia and USA. The first rains also bring a drop in temperatures.

Weather forecasts are much more accurate than they used to be and I knew about a week in advance when the rain would begin. This is very useful information because it allows time to deal with work that absolutely must be done in advance of it happening. For me that meant removing the irrigation pump from the river as the first priority. I always leave it in position until immediately before local rain, because being an optimist, in the years when the river stops flowing I hope for sufficient of a thunderstorm somewhere in the mountains at the top of the catchment area will begin the river flowing whilst we are still dry. It did happen one year. Harvesting fruit and vegetables that are ready comes next. Figs and tomatoes are particularly prone to splitting with a sudden influx of water after they have been dry for so long. Olives are also at risk, but I had been carting out water in the tank of my boom spray to supply a little to those trees where the fruit was beginning to shrivel and I hope I have prevented damage.

There was a little rain early on the morning of 27th September with another 53mm falling during the day and a further 50mm over the next couple of days. Temperatures tend to be fairly static on a daily basis, changing little from one day to the next. It is rare to get a change of more than two degrees on consecutive days, but the rain makes one of the two exceptions in the year. Temperatures had been a degree either side of 31ºC up to the 23rd with slight falls as the clouds moved in and a drop to 21º when the rain began. It felt decidedly cool the first day, despite the fact that I consider that temperature to be very pleasant most of the time. There is a similar fairly sudden change each year in May when we begin to receive warm southerly winds and the shade temperatures increase. It is always warm in the sun, even in the depths of winter.

On the 2nd October around 10 am the ants began to take to the air. I had seen the numerous holes that appear around nests earlier in the morning and a few winged ants coming out of them. For a few hours they were on the wing, but not as numerous as in other years. Perhaps my efforts at destroying nests on the quinta is beginning to have some effect. Our biggest problem is the Seed-harvester Ant and they cause considerable economic loss so I spend some time searching out nests and killing the occupants, but many nests have only a single entrance/exit that is often covered through the summer heat and it is difficult to find them.

These ants do exactly what their common name suggests – they harvest seeds. Millions of them. I have lost all seeds sown in the garden on more than one occasion, and when I can spot the ants in the process I follow them to their nest, but a hundred feet of small seeds can disappear overnight. They also cart away many kilos of grass and clover seeds when fields are sown. They have no problems whatsoever with cereals, maize, smaller beans and even White Lupins. I have not yet seen an ant carrying a Broad (Fava) Bean. I have also lost about 20 young olive trees to ants building their nest in the rootball of newly planted and young trees and the tree dies. The Seed-harvesters are not the only culprit in these losses though, because there is a much smaller ant (no idea what it is) that likes to do the same.

In previous years there has always been an ant to approximately each square foot after they land. This year it was less than one to the square yard. They always drift downhill on this property whereas it seems they normally swarm towards higher points. Their behaviour is similar to that of the honey bee when a new Queen emerges and drones fly to mate with her in the air. Whilst the male ants still very much outnumber the females, there are many potential Queen Ants on the wing. Fortunately most of them fail to establish a nest. As with bees, the males merely die.

There is a lot of information on the internet for those interested, simply search the term “flying ants” and included, for those specifically interested in Portugal or Spain, there is a very good and easily readable paper with the title beginning “Nuptial flights of the Seed-harvester Ant (Messor Barbarus) in the Iberian Peninsula………” by Gomez and Abril of the University of Girona and published in the Myrmercological News of January 2012.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Feeding and watering olives

Olives will grow and fruit in a wide range of soils, even under arid conditions. Tree spacing is less in modern groves than it was historically, when trees were frequently planted around the Mediterranean at 12 x 12 metres spacing. Ignoring super high-density groves where the trees are close spaced for “over the top” harvesting with machines, it is currently usual to plant at distances between 5 x 5 to 7 x 7 metres.

Temperature constraints are that damage will occur below minus 6ºC.   Severe damage, and perhaps trees killed, occurs very little below that, but, like many species of fruit and nuts, olives have a chilling requirement  – i.e so many hours of temperatures below 7ºC,  (45ºF for those who use Fahrenheit) before they will flower the following spring. How many hours each cultivar needs is variable, and it seems extremely little research has been done. No doubt cultivars evolved to suit the environment in which they are found naturally, and a failure to reach the chilling requirement of any cultivar means that flowers will not bloom. A mean daily temperature below 12ºC for several weeks seems sufficient to meet the chilling requirement of all cultivars. How many weeks is open to debate.

As with all plants, better quality soil, adequate nutrients and adequate water lead to much more production. Soil is usually a “given” for most people, and, within the temperature ranges required, almost any soil can be made to grow olives. Millions of trees have been planted in individually terraced planting spaces on very steep hillsides. If looking to buy a new property specifically for planting olives, then somewhere with a good depth of soil, say at least a metre and not solid clay, and plenty of available water for irrigation are the main requirements.

With limited knowledge of olives, and a desire to begin a non-animal enterprise when we first bought our present property, I was led to plant a grove at 6 x 6 metres spacing. I am quite happy with that and have planted more since at the same spacing. This works out at 277 trees/ha of planted area. Over the last 10 years I have read an enormous number of articles, research papers and advice from a huge number of people and organisations involved in olive production in probably every country in the world where olives are grown, as well as spoken with several knowledgeable people. I have made decisions, based on all this information, that I use to provide food and water for my trees. Whilst at least one expert agrees with each individual decision - because I have chosen to follow at least one expert’s advice in everything I have decided, some will disagree with my overall management, but then they disagree with each other, ranging from extremely little fertiliser to extremely high levels, and from allowing quite severe moisture deficiencies (at times) to maintaining full moisture profile of the soil.

Note that being in the northern hemisphere the calendar year begins a few days after mid-winter, so southern hemisphere information that refers to dates is in the reverse production cycle position. Based on soil analyses, fertilisers used and crops grown in the groves since the previous analysis, I apply granular fertiliser as soon as practicable in the year. I top up phosphorus(P) and potassium(K) if necessary. I apply Nitrogen(N) according to a personal assessment of how much to apply. I may have grown a winter leguminous crop for harvesting or for incorporation as a green manure. Alternatively, a crop of maize may have been grown the previous summer and the stover left on the surface as an overwintering mulch; or a summer leguminous crop may have been sown and either harvested or ploughed in. I am also conscious of the requirement for adequate trace elements without fertilising to excess.  I have used foliar feeds, sometimes called foliar fertilisers, this year and propose to make them an integral part of my fertiliser programme. I will use high N early in the year and low N as the fruit matures. I may apply a second dose of N granular fertiliser in the spring too – again depending on a personal assessment of need. I prefer to split fertiliser into smaller doses rather than apply a full season’s requirements at once, but this is not always practicable. I will aim to have a pH of 7 or slightly above. Somewhere in the range of 6.5 to 8 seems to be preferred, but as I said, the experts do not always agree on the ideals

The groves are irrigated, either through drip irrigation or overhead sprays. The drip system is a single line with four litres/hour drippers at one metre spacing and laid on the ground. The different irrigation methods determine what I can and cannot grow in the summer. With overhead I can grow crops between the rows. With drippers I am limited in summer, but not winter. I still intend to grow comfrey on these lines (to be cut and used as a mulch for the trees) but this might be delayed for another couple of years because the weed seed bank in the soil is still too high.

There is nothing I can do about the texture of the soil I have except to increase the Organic Matter(OM) content. Higher OM means a soil that is more capable of retaining both nutrients and water. Many semi-arid and arid soils have an OM content of 1% or even less but, from anecdotal information only, it seems that the highest yields come from trees grown on land with OM of several percentage points. I will also avoid bare soil as much as possible, endeavouring to maintain some ground cover to stop the possibility of water erosion in winter despite the fact that I have not experienced this happening, and to ameliorate high soil temperatures in summer.  This means cultivating as infrequently as possible – anathema to some growers who insist on permanent bare land cultivated regularly throughout the year.

The sole reason behind my decisions is the way in which the olive tree grows and produces its fruit. The following three paragraphs are a combination of information in a University of Cordoba, Spain publication and a paper by Razouk et al, with the long title of “Optimal time of supplemental irrigation during fruit development of rainfed olive trees in Morocco” with some additional comments based on other information I have sourced.

Yield of olives is the result of three main developmental processes that occur from flowering to harvest:  fruit set, fruit growth and oil accumulation in the fruit pulp. Vegetative growth is critical in terms of olive fruit production, because flowers are borne in inflorescences at the axil of leaves of one-year old wood. This means that flowering and fruit set originate in the axillary buds of last years growth. So, the big problem is ensuring that this year’s fruit crop has sufficient nutrients to yield a heavy crop of large (for the variety) olives, but at the same time producing sufficient growth of new wood for next year’s crop. In less than optimum conditions one or the other, or both, will suffer. This is one of the reasons why there is so much biennial bearing in olives. New growth is restricted by the demands of a heavy crop on the tree, but flourishes when the previous year’s poor growth carries a small or nil crop, and the tree produces another good crop in the following year. A vicious circle.

The reproductive cycle from flower bud initiation to fruit ripening takes 15-18 months depending on cultivar and growing conditions, as initiation starts in one summer and fruits from this initiation ripen in the autumn or winter of the following year. The terminal bud of a shoot is almost always vegetative and shoot growth starts with this bud break in spring, when temperatures rise above 12ºC. Growth continues as long as temperatures are below 35ºC, and there are no soil water deficit or other environmental stresses. Growth begins pre-flowering, but natural soil water supplies are almost always sufficient to avoid the need for irrigation at this time. Critical stages for the tree are flowering in April/May; a time of rapid growth about mid June; pit hardening about the end of July or early August, and a second rapid growth about mid September. The first rapid growth stage occurs just as most Mediterranean soils are becoming water deficient for the summer. Pit hardening and the second rapid growth stage are well and truly in the dry summer and early autumn before the winter rains begin. Some fortunate areas receive some summer rain. Pit hardening is about the time of flower initiation for next year’s crop too, so a lot of stress on the tree at this stage. The growth stages and fruit development were the factors considered by Razouk and his associates.

So, back to why I do what I do. I rely on soil analyses in preference to leaf analyses. The reason for this is simple – the chemical and nutritional composition of any particular leaf changes throughout the year, and younger leaves have a different composition to older leaves. Because of these changes I believe that leaf analysis is of less value than soil analysis for long term planning. We could obviously become super technical and do all sorts of tests, but that is for research scientists, not your average grower. Some sources of information, particularly those selling foliar feeds, insist on using leaf analysis (taken in July each year) as the decision maker in fertiliser requirements. Following the work of some researchers, maintaining the soil at adequate levels of all plant nutrients is recommended – bearing in mind that an excess of some can prevent an uptake of others, even although they are available. I take an approach that if levels of the macro nutrients are considered adequate by most authorities I am probably offering my plants the best that can be reasonably done by any farmer.

I agree with those who say that applying foliar feeds shows an almost immediate response, whereas granular (or liquid) fertiliser applied to the soil may not. At the same time it is not a lasting effect – similar to the application of prilled lime, which is a very finely ground limestone that is formed into prills the same as granular fertilisers and break down rapidly after application to the land. This gives a quick fix to a low pH but does not have the ongoing pH correcting ability of coarser ground limestone. The same applies to the foliar feeds, they raise nutrient levels within the aerial part of the tree for a short period of time. I do, though, go along with the school of thought that foliar feeds assist the plants to assimilate nutrients from the soil. P in particular can be a problem for plants to take up because it is fairly immobile in the soil, and it appears that applying foliar N can assist with that problem, although it also seems sensible to have some P in the feed. Foliar feeds do not replace the soil nutrients, they complement the soil supply. You cannot feed a tree just through its leaves.

I apply N fertilisers to the soil so that the tree has the nutrients to produce fresh young growth in early spring, and will apply a high N foliar feed, containing P, K and trace elements, as a booster pre-flowering, possibly a second high N foliar feed too. Some authorities believe that Boron(B) should be applied pre-flowering. Both compound fertilisers and foliar feeds that I use contain some B and I am not inclined to add more as a special feed unless I apply only N to the soil when I might mix some additional B with the foliar feed. B is toxic to most living things at fairly low levels – it is used by people who do not like “poisons” in order to kill ants. It certainly is a poison (as are most things) above certain levels. If I think the pH level needs raised, I will include lime when filling the fertiliser spreader with the granular N or compound fertiliser. Lime spreads easier when mixed with granular fertiliser.

Provided the trees are growing well there will be no further fertilisers applied specifically for the olives until late summer, but any crops grown between the rows of trees will be fertilised independently of the needs of the olives, and some of this is available to the trees. After pit hardening I will apply at least one and probably two foliar feeds with lower N and higher levels of P and K, plus trace minerals. It is convenient to apply these foliar feeds with sprays against olive fruit fly – a necessity where I live. There are so many untended groves that all olive pests and diseases are able to proliferate and a failure to treat against them results in enormous crop losses, sometimes total failure. It is also necessary to spray against a fungus that can cause total crop loss too and this is done nearer harvest. Again it is convenient to add a foliar feed with these sprays if desired.

I use the overhead spray equipment for irrigation primarily because I have it and it suits me to use it in a grove which I can summer crop. The drippers were installed to meet the needs of a new grove, but using existing pumps and underground main lines. I have the dripper lines on the surface because I prefer them where I can see them and I make an inspection as soon as I begin an irrigation. That way I can spot any problems along the lines and fix them immediately without switching off the pumps. An underground line that suffers damage will not show up until the water begins to puddle on the surface, which undoubtedly means some trees have missed out on their water, and it is necessary to dig up the line to mend it. There is also the problem of where to bury the line. In the early years the trees occupy only a small area of the soil so the drippers need to be relatively close. As they grow, the lines are moved back from the trees and the trees make use of additional drippers as they spread their root zone.

Not all the water I currently pump is utilised by the trees, but it will be in time, and until then I make use of drippers outside the root zone by sowing pumpkins and squashes as  feed for the goats, as well as some household use and also tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, etc. immediately adjacent to a dripper. In previous years I have also sown the drought hardy black eyed peas between the rows and they have benefitted from the water from the drippers, particularly those peas close to the drip line. The site is a very slight slope so the water naturally travels downhill and the drip line is uphill of the row of trees it supplies. Both types of irrigation are left in their permanent positions. Hand harvesting means there is no need to move the lines off the fields.

Irrigation commences around mid-June every year for the whole property, which makes it convenient for the first irrigation requirement of the olives – unless there has been a particularly dry spring when an earlier start to the irrigation season may be required. There is always plenty of water available in the early summer, and this first irrigation has been found to be the most beneficial from an economic perspective. It assists both the current crop and the ability of the tree to produce growth for next year. It is more valuable than the water needed at pit hardening and the second rapid growth stage. This is a most fortuitous situation, because those relying on natural water supplies, as I do, may run out of water if the winter and spring rains were low or ceased early.

My strategy then is to maintain a good soil moisture level as long as possible, and of course other summer crops grown in the groves need this water. My theory behind this is that if I run out of irrigation water, then the more there is in the soil the longer it will be before moisture stress affects the crop. I know from my 2012 maize crop that it was successful without irrigation from silking onwards. The olives did not receive their pit hardening and mid-September water that year. Provided I have the water I will continue to irrigate past the second flush of growth, but in 2013 the last irrigation was just after pit hardening. Reducing irrigation earlier in the season does not prolong my season, being dependent upon a river continuing to flow.

For those with water storage, Razouk showed that a large quantity applied at the first rapid growth stage (he used 500 litres per tree, on mature trees) can be followed by the next at pit hardening, and preferably a third at mid-September. If there is storage for only one irrigation, or natural supplies only into the early summer, then apply water in June. Whether water is available or not I will cease irrigation at the end of September. This allows time for the fruit to mature without containing too much water - which would result in a lower oil content, giving a poor yield of oil for the fruit weight. This is extremely important for anyone paying a contractor crusher to produce their oil and charging, as apparently many do, on the weight of fresh fruit rather than yield of oil.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

2013 to date.

I do apologise for the last post not really being a blog, but I felt I had to post something after almost three months since the previous post, and I had those snippets ready in a document intended to be used in an advertising campaign.

Weatherwise, 2013 began as 2012 had ended – very mild. 2012 had a mean temperature of 15.33ºC for the year, the third warmest since we came here in 2003, with 2011 at 15.90ºC and 2010 at 15.75ºC being the two warmest. Overall, the 2012/13 winter was very pleasant, with extremely few frosts, and only a couple of recorded negative temperatures, with the lowest minimum only –1ºC. The first few years we were here we regularly recorded minus fives and sixes each winter, with one minus seven. Temperatures elsewhere were even lower that night and there were widespread losses of olive trees and eucalypts across the whole country. Virtually everyone thinks of Portugal as a prime holiday spot in summer and few realise that skiing is possible in the winter. The Serra da Estrela (about 40 miles from us) has a ski lift.

As I said at the beginning of the previous blog we had a prolonged spell of wet weather. In the 8 weeks from 18th February we had 352mm of rain, and just as things were looking hopeful for a very late start to spring work, we had a downpour of 15mm in a few minutes on the 27th April. It then turned cold and we had overnight minimums down to 6ºC into the last week of May, with little progress upwards until well into June.

Conditions in March, April and early May were so wet that at the lower end of underground land drainage pipes the water was being forced to the surface because it could not flow sufficiently quickly through them. Being at the bottom of the river valley means there is a considerable amount of underground water moving through the property from higher up the hill. Then, of course, it stopped raining as it always does for the summer.

Growing cold weather crops is somewhat easier than warm weather ones where the soil temperature needs to reach a certain level before the warm season seeds will germinate. The long cold and wet spring also meant that the broad beans (Vicia faba) continued flowering and growing on when they should have been maturing. It meant a heavy crop, but also primed the late spring weeds – mainly a very large crop of corn marigolds and several species of the daisy family. I always find it interesting on the farms I have owned to see the way the weed spectrum changes with the improving fertility of the soil. I do not recognise the different species of these daisy type flowers (several of them are possibly types of Chamomile from the scent) but they come in all sizes up to about 1 metre tall and have masses of flowers each containing an enormous number of seeds.

The prolificacy of the weeds, insects and fungal diseases of crops, plus the relatively mild winters so that they all thrive, has left me deciding to forget any ideas about being organic (even in the kitchen garden) and I now spray as necessary. The winter beans in particular benefited from a fungal treatment early in the year. Some were left untreated due to not being able to walk on the ground because of the excessive rain, and they succumbed without producing anything. I have lost previous crops to the same problem. I have three knapsack sprayers, and it is heavy work and very slow with constant refilling of the sprayers, so I am purchasing a tractor mounted one.

Unfortunately producing the crop is only part of the process, and due to an old and ongoing knee problem that has been exacerbated by the hand picking of the beans I have been unable to complete the harvest. The unharvested portion of the crop has been cultivated into the ground and will produce a green manure crop when the beans germinate with the autumn rains. I have a horrible feeling I shall have to accept that old age is catching up with me and that I can no longer do everything to which I have been accustomed. I usually walk several miles in a day working the quinta, but the knee problem has meant that I have been using the tractor just for travelling around the place. I have decided that I will not grow any more “close to the ground” field scale crops for hand harvesting, with the exception of pumpkins/squashes where a heavy weight is soon collected. Maize and olives are both at a much more acceptable height to save my legs.

The olives had a very large amount of blossom and on the whole have set a good quantity of fruit. I usually spray against olive fly and a fungal disease known locally as gafa and caused by an organism that research people seem to disagree about the spelling, but one of them is Colleotetrichum.  A failure to spray against both often results in a total crop loss, and at best a very large decrease in the crop harvested as well as oil quantity and quality in those fruit which are picked. The number of fruit bearing trees is increasing each year and I could not possibly manage with just the knapsacks.

I sowed two hectares of Piper Sudan grass and it is growing well with irrigation, but because it was late sown I will take only one cut (probably the first or second week in August) for hay instead of the usual two. The quality will be more than adequate for the goats. I was unable to get a maize crop in due to the late and incomplete bean harvest. I did manage to sow pumpkins and winter squashes along some of the olive tree lines so, with the usual winter grazing I should be able to meet the winter feed needs of the goats, but I will buy some concentrates if needed.

In the kitchen garden we had the best garlic crop I have ever grown and good results with all peas – Kelvedon Wonder, my favourite for flavour, Douce Provence and Rondo. Overwintered onions were very poor, failing to bulk up, and we will need to buy some later. I saw some fresh in the supermarket in May that looked good, and they were an excellent sweet flavour too. The variety was Reca. They are still being sold now. I think it is Spanish, and I will look for seed for overwintering this coming season. The late summer sown cabbage Spring Hero also cropped well. Asparagus was nice whilst it lasted, but a lesser crop than previous years.

I bought new seed potatoes this year, and Mona Lisa was quite early for a maincrop, beginning lifting after 12 weeks, and these will be followed by Picasso, a potato with one parent being Cara that I grew in Scotland and they look alike, white with pink eyes. Both varieties will store through the winter, but insect damage in storage is a major problem here and I will have to be vigilant.

I could not find any fresh peanuts to sow, so will have to do without our own, but several other crops are looking good – melons, Jerusalem artichokes, gherkins, cucumbers, and tomatoes (Ailsa Craig, F1Shirley and a determinate San Marzano). The curcubits and tomatoes are cropping well so far, the gherkins in particular have an enormous number of fruits – and despite a quantity having been pickled there are far more than we can use off only four plants so I have begun feeding some to the goats. They are not all fond of them at this stage, but that is not unusual with a new food. Like everyone else in the locality we have very few apples set, no peaches, plums, apricots or almonds. I know someone who grows tree fruits on a small commercial scale, and apart from cherries (apparently a low volume crop this year) he will have no other fruit.

The only new crop I am trying is Sweet Pepper. We have always eaten a very small quantity if offered to us, but both of us have usually found that they have been too hot. As previously mentioned we do not consume any spices. I found a variety, Marconi Red, that is supposedly extremely mild. So far, only a couple of “tasters” in a stir fry, and still green, it is indeed very mild. We will see how they fare as they ripen.

July is sometimes the hottest month of the year, and August in others. I hope that this year it is July because we had a spell of 37 and 38ºC although it has been a more bearable 32/33 for the last week. Time will tell. Fortunately the river is still flowing, it ceased on 6th July last year, and it was helped by some thunderstorms in the mountains on the weekend of 13th and 14th July. I would not say no to a few more, although they can be the source of fires. I am anticipating some fairly big ones this year after the wet Spring. Unfortunately many of them are deliberately lit during August and September.

Friday, June 28, 2013


I have cheated in the preparation of this article. A long spell of wet weather up until mid-April and low temperatures thereafter left me with a very late start to a spring and summer work schedule that I cannot complete, but I must do as much as possible. That has left me no time to write a blog and the next few weeks will be no better as I have begun hand harvesting about 1.6 hectares/4 acres of beans. It is almost three months since I last posted, and that is far too long. I have been thinking what I could do instead and have a brief opportunity to post now.

Since publishing about my almost 70 years of rural living, a huge number of people around the world have accessed the book’s home page at Smashwords, and many have taken up the option of a free sample, but this sample is the opening pages and does not properly reflect the whole content of the book. So I decided to post a few later snippets that I have “on file” for proposed adverts. These snippets give blog readers an opportunity to learn about where I have been and some of the thoughts I have on rural living even if they have no interest in the book. When things slow down I will prepare a blog reporting on the year to date at the Monte.
With the combined resources of ten years shining the seat of my pants on various office seats, and some help from my friendly bank manager, I was able to buy nine acres, a few buildings and a large house that would benefit from some improvements.
The Church of England Commissioners decided to sell this small hill farm they had acquired with Queen Anne's Bounty. Now Queen Anne died in 1714, and I doubt whether the Church Commissioners had spent any money on the place since they acquired it.
The first Monday morning after I ceased being an employee was undoubtedly one of the happiest days I have ever experienced.
We found a sheep and cattle station in the Bingara/Barraba area we thought would suit. 3006 acres. A typical weatherboard Australian house that was in decent condition, sound, with mains electricity, water from tanks and a deep borehole.
Christmas Night, 1982. My wife announced she was going to have a baby. Well, I knew that, I thought he was due to arrive in March sometime; but she meant NOW.
Out of idle curiosity one day I had called in at a goat sale. The first animal into the ring was this Angora buck that had not only been Supreme Champion at the Sydney Royal two years previously, but had sired the Champion group of doe, buck kid, and doe kid the following year. The auctioneer tried to start him at $A8000 failed to do so and began drastically reducing the opening price, but could not get any takers. I offered him $A200 to get the ball rolling.
We had discovered on our visit from Australia, and another occasion immediately after returning permanently, that we both felt we were home once we were north of Pitlochry. You know when you are somewhere you will feel happy to live.
We had help in the growing of the mushrooms from what we referred to as our Mushroom Ladies. These were some local schoolgirls who would work on Saturday afternoons and were extremely adept at the precision work of mixing growing mediums and inoculating with precise amounts of spawn. Another area where I feel the female of the species is likely to be better than the male.
We had already decided we were unlikely to find anywhere better than one of the places we had seen near Castelo Branco.
You will be restricted in what you buy by the amount of money you have available or can borrow, but there is one thing that it is imperative to remember before you buy. Someone, sometime will sell it again.
That is the purpose of these Chapters, in fact the whole book – not to force my opinion upon you, but to give you information that allows you to make decisions when you consider your own particular piece of soil and what you will do with it over the next few years.
Think of your land as a series of accounts at a bank. Every time you grow something you write a cheque.
Bare soil is never a good idea. Bare land is more subject to erosion by wind and water, and is doing nothing towards improving your property.
Weaver’s research, which involved digging pits as deep as necessary, showed that almost all plants we are likely to grow on the farm and in the garden will send their roots to six feet deep, and some to more than twice that depth – if they are able to penetrate the ground.
If you have livestock that are housed then they will as a matter of nature produce the finest organic material there is, and mixed with the bedding for them I believe it is the absolute pinnacle of feed for your soil and underground workforce.
Having land permanently stocked, even if very lightly, is not the correct approach. There has been a fair amount of research on this topic in several countries confirming that rotational grazing is required.
There is not much point in cutting down a healthy tree and turning it into charcoal just for the purpose of making a carbon sink. About 50% of the carbon in the tree will be released into the atmosphere in the process of making the charcoal.
Personal experience of ploughing out a grass ley that has been down for four years has given me great confidence in the system.
If it is true that energy is wasted for one crop, say maize, then it must be true too of tomatoes, cauliflowers and all other directly eaten food crops which the anti-grain feeders are telling us to grow instead. There is not a lot of energy in a 95% water content lettuce.
My experience of Mediterranean diets is that the old country folks living their simple lives consume a lot of high quality animal meat and fats, and enormous quantities of eggs.
A lot of the existing forage in these upland areas is really only suitable for some classes of ruminants because of its lower feed value. This lack of choice by farmers is, of course a major stumbling block to the theories of non-farmers on how to produce food.
POULTRY. We will start with something that I am confident to claim I know a lot about, and I have a great deal of experience, so have no hesitation whatsoever in destroying some widely held beliefs and myths. I will go into much more detail than with other species, but I repeat my warnings that this is not a text book, so what follows is an extremely long way from containing everything that a poultry keeper needs to know.
Advice on machinery is even more difficult than livestock. One thing is certain, and that is that all machinery will cost you money to buy and keep on costing you money every time you operate it.
Simply sowing nuts can be a very cheap way to produce the trees. I planted some almonds, as well as walnuts and sweet chestnuts, in the first Autumn we were in Portugal, 2003, had a harvest of almonds in 2010 and planted more nuts from this harvest so have numerous trees for a few cents and some time.
Garlic. A necessity of life. I would like to believe the miraculous powers attributed to garlic as a preventative and curative of all sorts of illnesses and diseases.
For those who want to know, the order of courses is Hors d’oeuvres, Soup, Fish, Entrée, Remove, Game, Entremets Sucre, Entremets Savoreux, Cheeses, Desserts. We harvested olives in the November and the Hors d’oeuvres were our own olives with home baked tomato bread (incorporating tomatoes we had grown and sun-dried ourselves) and the first tasting of our first vintage.
I really do enjoy specific wines for specific courses, but at the same time I have no objection whatsoever to those who drink only whites or only reds with everything. If that is what they prefer, then that is fine by me.
This can be either a starter dish or a main course depending upon quantity served. Any seafood you like, garlic, parsley and cream. Heat the lot whilst the pasta is cooking. Drain the pasta and mix everything together. Some like ground black pepper over it. Can be eaten cold as well as hot, and with a lot of cream and only a little of the seafood and pasta it makes a good thick soup course too. For a soup you could replace some of the cream with milk so that it is not quite so rich.

Friday, April 5, 2013

More about food and drink

My post about Portuguese wines continues to be very popular, so I thought I would write something more general about food and drink.

Having lived in several countries my wife and I have had the opportunity to discover a variety of dishes that are popular in certain parts of each country even though they may not be common across the whole country, and often never heard of or known internationally. This applies even more so to table and fortified wines.

I will begin with a dish that, to me, was the worst I have ever eaten. I have been presented with, and failed to eat, tripe boiled in milk, but I did manage to consume a Buckie Whelk. Now in case you are not familiar with the term Buckie Whelk, Buckie is a Scottish word for the common whelk Buccinum undatum. That is only the beginning. Buckie is a town on the Moray Firth coast of Scotland. So, combining the fact that the town is named after a whelk, and this particular species of whelk is named after the town, one can begin to imagine the size of these things. One of my idols, Max Boyce, talks about a pig coming in three sizes - big, huge and…. Duw! Well, these Buckie whelks are, as Max would say, Duw, Duw whelks. They were a gift, along with a lobster and some crabs from a Moray Firth fisherman.

We prefer crabmeat to lobster, but only just, and there is a lot more on a lobster than a crab so I am quite happy to eat them, and this one was delicious, but the Whelks (there were two on my plate) were a different matter, and I only managed to down one, and that with copious amounts of Chablis. To me Chablis is the wine of choice with all shell and white fish, and essential with lobster. My wife prefers Champagne. We very rarely drink either, simply because both are expensive. For more oily fish such as salmon, trout and mackerel I prefer a red wine – not too powerful otherwise it will outcompete the flavour of the fish, but there is a very extensive suitable range in most countries.

Second worst is a particular Portuguese sausage. It is an anaemic white before and after cooking because it is made only of pig fat and cornflour. It tastes every bit as bad as it sounds and looks. I admit to not being a great fan of sausages, but I quite like all the other of the vast array of Portuguese ones I have tried. As with southern Europe generally these sausages are mainly eaten raw, but the white one is cooked. I doubt if there is any wine that would make it acceptable.

Although I failed to eat the tripe on its own, I do enjoy a dish local to the immediate area where I live and very slightly further north in Oleiros and Pampilhosa. It is called maranho and uses tripe. It is similar to haggis, except that goat meat and rice are used instead of sheep and oatmeal. Presunto (Portuguese dried ham) is also included, along with the usual onions and some flavourings, with parsley often included. The bag containing the maranho is made of the goat’s stomach lining (i.e. tripe), replacing the sheep’s in a haggis. I do not eat the bag. Note: Ready made haggis as bought in butchers’ shops is bagged in synthetic skins. Recipes for maranho vary slightly from household to household, but in the immediate locality mint is included. Several species of mint grow wild here, and there is only one that is chosen for the maranho. I am no botanist and have been unable to identify it with certainty.

Just to add a bit to probably most readers’ knowledge, the four different chambers of a ruminant’s stomach – the rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum have different types of lining and this give rise to different styles of tripe. In many cultures only the linings of the rumen and reticulum are used for human food, and very few use the abomasum lining. The river that runs as my boundary and very close to my house is called the Tripeiro. The origin of the name is said to be because the river is so clean that people washed their animals’ tripes in it. They still do and it is still that clean. Some still do their laundry in it too. The people of Oporto are sometimes known as tripeiros, or tripe eaters, because that was all they had left to eat after they had supplied Christopher Columbus’ 1492 journey with meat. It is then possible that the river is so named because the people on its banks have always been tripe eaters too.

I am aware of a meal that two of my cousins and their mother were to have but could not. My eldest brother called to visit them one day and on the way up the garden path was met by their pet, a very old, very fat, three-legged dog, and my brother said it was running flat out. Now this dog only moved when it was absolutely necessary, and waddled with difficulty. He knew there was something not quite right. He entered the house to find the occupants sitting shocked in the kitchen/living room. The reason for this was that the old fashioned range – a fireplace and oven, were totally demolished and there were pieces of food, debris and soot all over the room walls, floor and ceiling, as well as coating the occupants. Miraculously none of them were injured. It seemed that they had intended to have a few vegetables to accompany a pie. Somehow, the instructions on cooking the pie had not been followed. It was in a tin, and the tin had been put in the oven. The lid of the tin should first have been removed.

My mother was renowned by friends and relatives as a superlative cook of “afternoon tea” dishes. Of course I could never understand the raptures of other people at our always very large Sunday afternoon gatherings (never less than a dozen people) because I had the same things for tea every day of the week. Meals at home were breakfast, lunch (the main meal of the day), tea and supper shortly before bed-time, and supper always just a snack. Father worked permanent night-shift down the pit so that he could run the smallholding during the day and needed his main meal when he was at home to eat it.

Probably mother’s best was her Girdle Scones, similar things being known as Griddle Cakes in other places. Following my usual system of giving recipes, I assume that the lady who is to make these already has some cooking knowledge. Plain flour, butter and currants in the ratio of 4:2:1; baking powder (bought as a propriety product that is a mixture of Bicarbonate of Soda, Cream of Tartar and some starch), the smallest amount of salt you are comfortable with, and enough milk to make a crumbly dough. The girdle is a flat plate of iron that is heated from underneath, either an open fire or modern means. The Australian style of barbecue that has such plates, and not these silly grilled bars of metal that others use, would be ideal. Roll out the dough to three-quarters of an inch (20mm) thick and no thicker! Cut into rounds. Butter the girdle to stop the scones sticking and cook quickly on each side, turning only once. How well done you like them is up to you, father liked his as the outsides were beginning to go black, whilst others seemed to prefer mid to dark brown. I liked the lot. Some prefer them warm and whole, others split them and butter the insides of both halves. I liked them cold and split because I could put more butter on. Strawberry jam is good – on top of the butter of course.

I have eaten in an enormous number of restaurants and hotels in quite a few countries of the world. Ownership and management of these places change through time, and chefs even more quickly, but places worthy of mention are Canberra International, Australia; Morangie House Hotel, Scotland and the Buçaco Palace Hotel, Portugal.

The Buçaco is the most recent we have visited, and I am sure the standard of the hotel will have been maintained, its own aged wines (although expensive) will still be in top class order, and the surroundings are magnificent. Napoleon’s troops suffered their first defeat in the Iberian Peninsula at the Battle of Buçaco. The Canberra International is remembered for its extensive menu, the quality of the food and the fact that the Head Waiter and Chef both went out of their way to provide for a seven year old boy who liked his food, knew what he wanted, and had what the Head Waiter said were “sophisticated tastes”. In fact it was him who suggested that the boy try a strawberry flambé and cooked it with great flair at the table. When we returned six weeks later the waiter said to him “I remember you sir.”  

Morangie House is situated in a beautiful part of Scotland not far from my favourite whisky distillery of Dalmore, and very close to my second favourite, Glenmorangie. There had recently been a fire in the kitchens when we were there and rented field kitchens were in use, but the food was still superb. The thing I remember most was that the hotel offered several of the better wines from their list as single glasses at the equivalent of the bottle price. I know most places offer wine by the glass but that is the only place where I have seen the better ones offered, and nowhere with such a wide choice. In the room was a bowl of fresh fruit, a carafe of sherry and some mints. The usual chocolate on the pillow too. Not a lot of extra cost to the hotel, and undoubtedly that cost is allowed for in the room charge, but just those little additional touches that all hotels could provide, but fail to do so.

I sometimes wonder if my wife and I are alone in enjoying our meals so much. I hear so often about people eating whilst watching TV or “eating on the go”. What a way to live, or more likely to cease living at a much younger age than necessary. Proper food is cheap, time for preparing and cooking it is minimal, enjoying eating it takes a little longer. It is possible to have a top rate meal on the table in under half an hour from entering the kitchen. Obviously you need the ingredients in the cupboards and/or refrigerator, but it really is that quick. Even urbanites would be hard pushed to pick up their car keys, go to the local takeaway and have the food on the table in less time.

Something else I have noticed in recent years is that people have stopped eating butter. On the rare occasion we have visited other people who know the way we eat, there is normally cheese and biscuits provided after dinner. At home we never have less than four cheeses nor six different biscuits. This is never reciprocated. I can live with that (provided there is a reasonable quantity of Port) but I cannot live without my butter. I sometimes just butter a piece of cheese and forego the biscuit. At other times I enjoy a piece of butter, placed under my tongue, and then draw Port through it. Delicious. People generally nowadays fail to eat enough animal fat and consume industrialised vegetable fats instead. Definitely not the way to live a long and happy life.