Food and Farming with some Fish n Chips! And plans for the autumn/winter mode of Ceremony
At my stage of life the last thing one wants to shout about is another birthday! Which is probably one reason why I chose to do something a bit different when the day arrived last Monday. Instead of a few friends for a pub meal, I was heart-warmed by a gathering of the best ‘Green Team’ supporters from Lostwithiel. Together, with the local priest in charge, we had a dedication of the library plus – very important to the Julian family – a blessing of the memorial bookcase for their father. It was just lovely having time to remember his work, look at his wonderful photos (below) and share lots of cheese and wine! Thank you so much.
Just a bit of a shame that it was too windy for enjoying the newly mown and tidied barbecue area, where borage is growing, ready for Pimms! Looking there, I am worried that – even without great heat – this combo of weather is quickly sucking moisture from everything; the ground is very dry.
Next Stage for Climate Hope events
This vicar, Paul, is the one who has supported all along in developing the Ceremony 4 Climate Hope and – although it seems ridiculous on early summer days – we began sharing ideas for the next stage, an autumn into winter version of Ceremony that can integrate with a Harvest Festival or Diwali or replace a religious service entirely. This type will hopefully be put on in Somerset as well as this part of Cornwall and I am excited to start working up the ideas.
Where to start? Having checked with the publisher and been given kind permission and encouragement to quote from the novel, Saffron-Bun Chapel, I still have Alan M. Kent’s message from last week in mind, especially the last section about forging a lasting covenant with the landscape. But there are tensions on all sides, to consider and write into the information pack for schools.
What I hope for is a long run-up, making connections over months ready for a week-long Festival of Farming and Food, which would end with the Ceremony on the Friday or over the weekend. Through the week I would like to see students visit and collect produce (fruit, vegs, flowers, corn etc) from a wide variety of sources. I can visualise a very beautiful shallow depth of woven willow tray, with handles extending from each corner and being carried round a parish or village, to visit and collect the produce. Then it arrives at the Ceremony and moves very slowly, stage by stage, stopping for performances, readings and pledges with lighting of the candles.
So far, my schedule is looking like this table. Sorry if it doesn’t work on a mobile phone. I will make some improvements if necessary, next week:-
|Day of the Week||Topic||Produce we might collect|
|Monday:- Looking Back||Traditions of old farming & crops. Could be a museum. To look at machinery old & new or crop varieties, including GM||Heritage apples, juice & cider. 1 big apple to hold a candle. OR potatoes|
|Tuesday: – Pollination||Insects and vital importance of pollinators. Threat of habitat loss and insecticides||Honey in jars, plus some actual honeycomb in a jar and a wick for a candle|
|Wednesday: – the Water Day||History of irrigation; threats of drought & strategies 4 hope. Aquaponics & re-wetting peat||Old model of a waterwheel holds a candle? Bottled waters, diff types especially any local|
|Thursday: – Soil & Poo! In the UK and beyond||There is a massive amount of info on soils 4 climate hope. Look at all fertilisers, but also think about run-off & pollution||A bag of horse poo perhaps!! But also a turnip for Turnip Townsend + giant pumpkin or gourd, & other big examples|
|Friday:- Landscape & Livestock, or not?||Tricky questions of plant-based vs grazed animals in our diet. Likely effects of re-wilding etc||Huge ball of wool, with a candle in it. Displays of many animal products|
My music composing brain is a bit challenged by writing a verse on Soil and Poo, but I will get there!
A relentless drive for cheap food
As hungry consumers, for many people the top priority is that land should be fruitful, providing as abundant and low-cost foods as possible. Across the world, this drive for cheap food in quantity has led us to stray from a responsible path, and that is why I have started to research far back in history and track the developments.
An aside here; this past week I had an email advising me to look at the soaring cost of fish and chips! And this comes from a very reliable source, someone who manages a chip shop: –
Hitting the news soon will be a dramatic rise in the cost of potatoes. Farmers did not plant as many as usual in the autumn, perhaps changing to wheat in the face of price increases due to the war in Ukraine.
Walkers, the crisps company, have apparently bought the bulk of the harvest out-pricing everyone else including us, fish and chip shop owners.
Fish prices have already risen because many big trawlers are Russian and therefore no longer able to sell to the UK. Energy prices have also affected the cost of fish and chips.
An article in i-newspaper confirms – https://inews.co.uk/news/potato-shortage-price-rise-warning-farmers-turn-away-britains-favourite-vegetable-2096233
This has made me realise, I better put potatoes onto my produce list too and fit in a visit to Colwith Farm potatoes. Not only do they experiment with different varieties, but they also make vodka from leftovers and just started offering Fry Days on Friday, selling loaded chips! This is all very bad for the waistline and probably not ideal to read about if you are peckish!
The type shown below, Sagitta, are the best choice for early chips and one of the best tasting potatoes available today. Mainly used in the chip shop trade, these tubers provide excellent mash and can be boiled well too. Second earlies are typically ready for harvesting around 15-22 weeks from planting.
Starting the background research
My first and an invaluable source was National Geographic at the link below.
The article begins about 12,000 years ago, post Ice Age. Ever since homo sapiens roamed the earth they have been learning to improve their techniques for producing and harvesting food.
The wild progenitors of crops including wheat, barley, and peas are traced to the Near East region. Cereals were grown in Syria as long as 9,000 years ago, while figs were cultivated even earlier; prehistoric seedless fruits discovered in the Jordan Valley suggest fig trees were being planted some 11,300 years ago.
The whole article, not long, is fascinating as it tracks not only the progress of different crops developing around the world but also the major impact that rearing animals, drinking milk and eating meat had on many races, European and Scandinavian especially. The workings of the human digestive tract and people’s DNA were changed (though Vegans and others may suggest it should not have been considered healthy progress).
I dare not copy and paste further because the copyright rules are pretty strict, but I do urge you to look not only at this section, but the others about The Art and Science of Agriculture, Domestication, Hunter Gatherers and more.
IMAGE – The Fig Tree at Meadow Barns:-
Water & Soil
Records indicate that irrigation channels were conceived and made from about 5,500 years ago, starting in the Middle and Far East. The Romans developed many improved farming techniques and sought out stronger plants to cultivate. By the Middle Ages in the UK a simple type of crop rotation was being practised in open fields, with one section always left fallow. This was taken to a higher stage by Mr. Charles Turnip Townsend.
For the time of the Ceremony I would like to see some Farm related installations as scare-crow displays around a village. Charles could be one – very appropriate!
Turnip Townsend https://schoolhistory.co.uk/industrial/charles-townshend-and-jethro-tull-english-farming/
The Norfolk Rotation: Wheat-Turnips-Oats or Barley-Clover
Wheat, which took goodness from the soil, was followed by turnips that gave the soil a chance to rest and could be used as a winter fodder for livestock. The third crop, oats or barley, also exhausted the soil. In the last year of the rotation clover was grown, which put nitrogen back into the soil and could also be used a fodder crop for animals. The new four field system avoided wasting land, allowed more animals to survive the winter and improved the nation’s diet with more fresh meat and dairy products.
A period of important agricultural development began in the early 1700s for Great Britain and the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, which lie below sea level).
New agricultural inventions dramatically increased food production in Europe and European colonies, particularly the United States and Canada.
One of the most important of these developments was an improved horse-drawn seed drill invented by Jethro Tull in England. Until that time, farmers sowed seeds by hand. Tull’s drill made rows of holes for the seeds. By the end of the 18th century, seed drilling was widely practised in Europe.
I have no intention of exploring all these various topics in depth at this point, but it so happens that 2 projects have come to my attention this week, about land below sea-level.
Emissions from The Fens and the Netherlands. Persuasion or Punishment?
Across the channel, in the ‘Low Countries’, agriculture is a very vital part of their economy. Millions of cows, pigs and chickens help to make the Netherlands an agricultural powerhouse. But the animals that contribute to €105bn in annual farm exports also generate something less desirable: alarming levels of nitrogen emissions and ammonia from their waste. As emissions hit legal EU limits, the Dutch government has a drastic solution to its growing pollution problem. It wants to cut livestock numbers by a third, buying out farmers to stop producing, as part of a plan to halve emissions by 2030. Farmers are livid.
This story goes back a good few years, at least to 2019. It also has an impact on the building/construction trade (another industry with high emissions). It has taken a long time but just a few weeks ago official approval came for the buy-out policy to begin:-
Dutch farmers cause traffic chaos, in protest against the buy-out.
It is not clear from the articles I have read why nitrogen levels are so high, or is it that the Dutch have chosen to set much higher standards than elsewhere? Can it be linked with draining the land, creating dikes and polders? I thought it might be worth a quick look at this topic, and found a detailed account at https://www.thoughtco.com/polders-and-dikes-of-the-netherlands-1435535
I have trimmed this back a bit, but not a great deal. I find the story fascinating and want to pursue the effect of all this historic manipulation on the soil today:-
The Dutch and their ancestors have been working to hold back and reclaim land from the North Sea for over 2000 years. Beginning around 400 BCE, the Frisians were first to settle the Netherlands and they built houses or even entire villages on earth mounds. These constructions were called terpen, and about a thousand still exist in the Netherlands.
On December 14, 1287, the terpen and dikes that held back the North Sea failed, and water flooded the country. Known as the St. Lucia’s Flood, this flood killed over 50,000 people and is considered one of the worst floods in history. A result of the massive St. Lucia’s Flood was the creation of a new bay, called Zuiderzee (“South Sea”), formed by floodwaters that had inundated a large area of farmland.
Pushing Back the North Sea
For the next few centuries, the Dutch worked to slowly push back the water of the Zuiderzee, building dikes and creating polders (the term used to describe any piece of land reclaimed from water). Once dikes were built, canals and pumps were used to drain the land and to keep it dry. From the 1200s, windmills were used to pump excess water off the fertile soil, and windmills became an icon of the country. Today, however, most of the windmills have been replaced with electricity- and diesel-driven pumps.
Reclaiming the Zuiderzee
Jump forward to 1916, when storms and floods provided the impetus for the Dutch to start a major project to reclaim the Zuiderzee. From 1927 to 1932, a 19-mile (30.5-kilometer) long dike called Afsluitdijk (the “Closing Dike”) was built, turning the Zuiderzee into the IJsselmeer, a freshwater lake.
On February 1, 1953, another devastating flood hit the Netherlands. Caused by a combination of a storm over the North Sea and spring tide, waves along the sea wall rose to 15 feet (4.5 meters) higher than mean sea level. In some areas, the water peaked above existing dikes and spilled upon unsuspecting, sleeping towns. Just over 1,800 people in the Netherlands died, 72,000 people had to be evacuated, thousands of livestock died, and there was a tremendous amount of property damage.
This devastation prompted the Dutch to pass the Delta Act in 1958, changing the structure and administration of the dikes in the Netherlands. This new administrative system, in turn, created the project known as the North Sea Protection Works, which included building a dam and barriers across the sea. This vast engineering feat is now considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Further protective dikes and works including dams, sluices, locks, levees, and storm surge barriers were built, beginning to reclaim the land of the IJsselmeer. The new land led to the creation of the new province of Flevoland from what had been sea and water for centuries.
Much of the Netherlands Is Below Sea Level
Today, around 27% of the Netherlands is below sea level yet it is home to over 60% of the country’s population of approximately 17 million people. Thus a huge part of the country is highly susceptible to flooding. Time will tell if the North Sea Protection Works are strong enough to protect it.
What has happened in the Fens?
The Dutch drainage experts were brought across to Cambridgeshire in the 17th century, leading to a very similar drained, nutrient-rich landscape as in Holland. I found out all about this in my Alumni News last week, where the university now has a Centre for Landscape Regeneration.
Working this top-grade farmland produces one third of England’s vegetables – including key crops like potatoes, celery and carrots – and half of all UK-grown lettuce. Of the half a million people living in the Cambridgeshire Fens, 80,000 of them are employed in some aspect of food production.
“When you add up the whole food chain – from ‘farm gate to plate’ – the Cambridgeshire Fens puts a huge sum of money into the UK economy.”
The article has good pics and a clear description. De-watering is the cause of emissions, but not nitrogen and ammonia in this case, it’s CO2 and methane.
All soils release greenhouse gases: soil microbes break down the organic matter and belch out CO2 and methane. But in carbon-rich soils, like the Fenland peat, it’s as if the microbes are on steroids.
“The ancient Fen system was like a natural canning process, and that can has been opened because the Fens have been drained. Trapped plant matter is now exposed to the air, and its carbon is being converted into carbon dioxide,” says Marquand.
The article sets out the conflicts clearly. One the one hand people want to add water back over the peat, and on the other, farmers and consumers want to keep it dry because it is so important to UK food production.
I cannot imagine putting water back would be as simple as it sounds. Will there be enough water to re-wet? Drought is going to be with us long-term for sure. I can visualise the need to create a kind of artificial tank, containing peat soil in the bottom and relatively deep water above. This could bring a chance to grow crops, in a hydroponics or even aquaponics style.
Do you know the difference? I did not. Well, we are back with fish again!
Hydroponics is growing plants in water; they need to be capable of staying upright without soil to anchor them; common examples would be salad greens and strawberries. Most online images show the tanks set up in huge sheds, where the picking and management is easy, at waist height.
With aquaponics there is an extra dimension, that fish are kept in the water, or sometimes separate water that is streamed in, so that their poo adds a vital extra amount of nutrients to the growing system.
I always love an excuse to go back to Nairobi, so perhaps that is where I ought to go soon to learn more.
Kitio is among an emerging group of African agri-preneurs who are introducing new innovations, like aquaponics to the age-old sector of farming.
Kitio’s Muteero Farms is situated on a 2-acre plot in Nairobi, Kenya – and focuses primarily on growing lettuce. One of the key advantages of aquaponics is that this type of farming is not reliant on soil.
“We can basically grow vegetables where we don’t actually have arable soils, so be it on sand, be it where the soil is, is spoiled by chemical runoff or where there’s maybe a rocky environment or where the soil itself is not suitable for growing certain certain crops that will not grow well in that soil.”
Combined with the fact that aquaponics uses 98 percent less water than traditional farming, and requires significantly less labour – this method can produce better crop yields than traditional farming.
“So all the water they need, all the nutrients they need, everything they need is injected directly into the roots. Instead of spending their time growing downwards looking for nutrients looking for water – the same energy that they (would) spend looking for the nutrients is what they spend growing upwards. So what that means is that an aquaponic plant would grow almost 50 to 60 percent faster.”
Although aquaponics requires significant capital investment, this type of farming could be crucial to Africa’s food security, particularly as the effects of climate change begin to threaten traditional forms of agriculture. And as the global appetite for organic foods increases, Martino is already developing a long list of loyal clients – from online shoppers, to grocery chains and restaurants.
The proposal I have found, that comes closest to using hydroponics or aquaponics in re-watered peat areas, is an experiment called ‘Peatland Progress’:-
A New Vision for the Fens will tackle climate change, biodiversity loss and the anxieties of the next generation head-on through the purchase of a parcel of land, bringing together the north and south ‘halves’ of the Great Fen. By buying this land and creating new wetland habitat for wildlife, Peatland Progress will allow us to achieve a core purpose of the Great Fen, to buffer, protect and link our two precious fragments of fen habitat Holme Fen NNR and Woodwalton Fen NNR.
We’ll also be demonstrating a new system of land management, paludiculture, at farm-scale, a UK first, which will prevent the loss of peat soils, lock in carbon and create new opportunities for farmers and future farmers.
This was a totally new word for me – paludiculture. It is a label for growing plants in re-flooded peat areas, but the choices of species that can grow are far from anything we might consider as a viable food crop.
Conclusion – more thought and research required!
Matters arising – further meetings and correspondence items
In no particular order, I received more detailed feedback about gravity storage from Richard P and shall continue to enjoy his contributions. It is really technical physics, so I think best to say to you readers, please send an email if you want to get into those details.
A message came from Antony T, rather appreciative (THANKS V MUCH!). He had more questions about Lithium and something about metals being used in Vape cigarettes. When my son is back in Cornwall next week, we will look not only at his questions but also the shocking death of a young woman, due to a lithium battery spontaneous fire. The newspaper reports date from late March but it was on TV this week again, where her mum pleaded for greater awareness and care about when and where to recharge bikes and scooters.
If you saw and enjoyed the film last week, of Jam First Theatre, I hope you will a) See the influence in this one and b) Similarly smile at the way my artist Louise and I adapted Laurence Pears’s approach. Big thanks, Larry! PS YouTube clips don’t always embed, so you might need to go and find it on our Meadow Barns Centre channelm sorry!
We are open Monday, Wednesday and Thursday in half term. Not too late to book and do one of the walks.