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When the rain comes……

I’m writing this on what might possibly be the first day for weeks without rain, having been woken early by (gasp!) sunshine pouring through my windows.  I had resolved not to moan about the weather we have been experiencing, but the consensus among growers and farmers is that this summer (!) has so far been the wettest, coldest, windiest affair since any of us can remember, delivered to us by a ‘meander’ in the Jet Stream, the high wind that encircles the northern hemisphere, which seems to have become inclined to dip southwards (having first passed over Iceland).  When this flow of colder air meets warmer air, the result has been torrential rain, cold and wind.  We are also just out of an El Nino/La Nina cycle, which disrupts established weather patterns globally, producing droughts and rains (often in a ‘flip’ effect).

 
This climatic ‘anomaly’, which I have observed building up over some years, is resulting in a long-term change to our predominant weather patterns. These recently delivered us two consecutive extremely cold winters, and the monsoon like conditions we have been experiencing up to now (following a fairly extreme drought in the south). This has produced a crisis in crop production this year, because farmers cannot cultivate, sow and plant, or harvest crops.  Low light levels retard growth of the crops that are in the ground, heavy rain leaches out nutrients (particularly N in available forms), damp loving diseases flourish (potato blight has exploded recently), and crops go over and start to rot in the fields because it is impossible to get heavy machinery on the land to harvest (oilseeds are particularly affected so far).  The consequences of this anomaly will be higher food prices, among other things, and as I have been driving around in lashing rain, I recall a laughable short-lived publicity line by various farmer/industry groups that climate change presented great opportunities for agriculture, that in the south of England we would all be growing sunflowers. And, wasn’t it a great opportunity to profit from climate change?

 
Fools.  The whole point about climate change, to my mind (as a lifelong grower), is that of unpredictability, especially in a maritime climate like our own.  A warmer world, warmer seas, and a meandering Jet Stream could indeed make our climate prone to uncharacteristic weather patterns, making us periodically much wetter and/or colder.  It has occurred to me, driving past fields of stinking, rotting oilseeds, that we might need to look at the production of cold-tolerant rice varieties in lowland areas, and a have a big rethink about how we do or don’t drain land (and do or don’t cause floods). The point is, that if you are a farmer, you need to know when are the most opportune moments for cultivations; what to sow, when; which varieties are most suited to a warm/bright or cold/dull season; what pests and diseases are likely to be prevalent given the climatic conditions; and, if we are smart and well favoured enough by the weather, we all need to be able to get on the land to harvest crops, rather than having machinery sink up to the axles in soil, which then becomes a mud porridge, and so damages soil structure it affects productivity for the next few years. If weather patterns are unstable, all of these things become hugely difficult, and in an economic, social and political climate which is producing calls for ‘sustainable intensification’ of food production to feed the world, hugely worrying.  You can’t genetically engineer your way out of the problem of climate instability.

 
Needless to say, this inclement weather has played havoc with our project timetable.  We have not been able to get onto our new site to start the process of clearance and regeneration.  As I have a choice this time, I am choosing not to put heavy machinery onto the land, which would produce a churned porridge of soil, ruining soil structure and productive potential.  Last, time, due to pressure of funding cycles and spend deadlines, I was forced to do this to the soils of what is now Salop Drive Market Garden, which compromised productivity and required a lengthy process of reclamation and regeneration of soil quality.  Mercifully, our main funders (the redistributors of landfill taxes) completely understand the problem, being that they actually know something about land use.

All of this, along with a major decline in my father’s health (in fact he is dying, slowly, due to a hideous lung condition, COPD), an extended period of uncertainty in the workplace ( I STILL don’t have a contract of employment, on the eve of launching a major capital programme using large sums of other people’s money), and continuing major changes in the national and local institutional landscape, has ratcheted up the stress levels, and left me short of reflexive time of the kind necessary to maintain a blog.  The three part-time women that make up the ‘back office’ function, which includes fundraising for and managing the entire community agriculture programme, which (I think) now variously employs 15 staff, are stretched to a worrying degree.  We are managing such a period of productivity and growth, it is hard to find the time for work activity which requires reflexivity and the focusing of knowledge and learning into forward planning and securing sustainable growth – business planning and fundraising.

Having been on a roll with fundraising which saw us produce 130 or so bids in 18 or so months, this has now slowed to less than a trickle due to the pressures of actual delivery, which is worrying.  We have got through to the second round in a Lottery funded scheme (I’m told it’s a 50:50 chance of success) with a proposal for a major revenue scheme of work (with a small capital element), but I know it involves weeks of focused business planning, bid writing, obtaining of plans and permissions, etc etc etc.  I am hoping that August, the annual leave silly season, will allow me some quiet time for this intensely reflexive activity, which I will probably work on at home, as the office is such an intense working environment, which delivers minute-by-minute distractions, let alone having to grapple with ridiculously outdated IT systems that make it almost impossible to work productively.  Thank goodness for my trusty Macs.

 
Anyway, I recently found the video of The Beatles song Rain, which I think was on their album Rubber Soul, published with this blog, which has helped me to maintain a more positive outlook than might otherwise have been the case.  It’s only rain, after all, and yesterday, while down on my allotment plot (looking good, despite the late start and dismal weather) I did not run and hide my head.  Consequently I got bloody soaked, which actually isn’t that unpleasant. John Lennon, bless you.

The first setback – and the therapeutic benefits of allotmenteering

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This last week brought elation, frustration, and a large dose of despondency – and yes, I admit it, the first tears, being as I am such a girl.  At the beginning of the week, to add to the funds already raised and the contracts secured, we received a donation from the William Cadbury Trust which we will be able to use to put in new accommodation at one of our sites, Salop Drive Market Garden (pictured in this page’s header).  We ran out of space a long time ago, for community activities and use by visiting school groups.  There was an outbreak of pogoing in delight around the office, as we had a couple of days before put our heads together and decided that we were going to have a Portakabin type building, come what may – and so come it did in the form of a lovely cheque.

However, by midweek it became clear that as getting the lease for the new Barlow Road site from the local authority has been to agonisingly, painfully, slow, and as the critical signing off has still not taken place, it is now too late for us to start the regeneration of the site before July, a full six months after the process of procurement of the necessary services, and undertaking the first phase works, should have started.  We are a few days shy of the ‘official’ start of the bird nesting season, which means we cannot start work until 1st July.  Cue stress-out and tears, as I have not been well for some time, with a flu type virus and my constant stalker, fibromyalgia, which so restricts my energy levels that what is normal activity for most people is an exhausting struggle for me.  Plot temporarily lost.

There is a robust body of evidence in place now which demonstrates the health, social, and therapeutic benefits of gardening, food growing, and being in a green space.  Through our work we reach thousands of people of all ages and abilities, creating beautiful, safe, productive and well managed community farms and gardens, and providing a wide range of accessible activities.  In need of a dose of the same medicine myself after the rollercoaster week, I sought refuge in the hard labour of bringing a formerly abandoned 100x30ft allotment back into productivity, spreading and digging in lovely sweet smelling composted manure, sowing seeds, and watering newly planted top and soft fruit and herbs, as well as the rows of newly sown seed.  I have designed a six-course rotation, that includes one part red clover green manure, with two plots receiving a healthy dose of the compost.  I laboured in the magically warm weather, until the sweat was dripping from the end of my nose.  My physical strength and stamina has vastly improved in the ten months since I took on the plot, and this weekend it was the saviour of my mental health.

I love allotments, with a passion.  The site I am on, Thompson Terrace Allotments, in east Oxford, is a large site of 7 acres, with nearly 200 full size plots of ten poles each, the traditional allotment size for a working class man to feed his family.  The allotments tradition is alive and well, with new practices being brought in as women, people from ethnic minority communities, and younger people, take up allotment gardening.  The slide show is of the allotments and my plotholder neighbours, showing the diverse and sometimes amusing characteristics of the people on the site.  I have a bit of a thing about allotment sheds, too, the retreat of the gardeners as well as a handy storage space.  People improvise, as you can see in the slideshow.

It’s the first time I have gardened in the social space that an allotment site provides, and there is always some one to chat to, exchange gardening tips with, or as in the case of an American man I met on the site, discuss deep economic philosophy and theory, and the state of the world’s economy.  He was very well read, even if he did lean quite heavily towards a neo-Con world view, and hold some sympathies with the Tea Party.  On my last visit I must have chatted to at least five plotholders, including my Zimbabwean neighbours, who grow corn, squashes and collard greens in the traditional African way, although their crop of corn partly failed last year as they were using African-bred seed not adapted to our short growing season and wet autumns. Alastair and Owen, next door, have built what I call the Chicken Palace and cosset their small flock of hens, and other growers are setting up beehives.

So, I am largely cured of my outbreak of depression and frustration about the setback to our starting date by a wholesome dose of allotmenteering in the spring sunshine. I am now working on our service contract, to get that in place quickly so we can get paid rather earlier than we were in the previous two financial years (it was October!), and on reprofiling the Barlow Road project, as the programme of seasonal activities that were to follow the initial site clearance has been jettisoned out of the window. We will have to take a whole new tack to get the site into a reasonable semblance of order by the time winter sets in, and the Big Tree Plant funded scheme gets going.  Sowing a grass clover ley into thoroughly cleaned ground cannot now take place until next year, so we will have to resort to a much later sown rye and vetch overwinter green manure, tackle the weeds as best we can in an extended summer fallow, and reprofile other key activities.  It’s not the best we can do, and it IS frustrating to be put in this position by forces beyond our control, but I just have to swallow it and solve this first big problem with the project.  There will be plenty more big problems, and I’m sure there will be more girly weeping along the way.