My plants for the future: Preparing for climate change

Farmers like Mark Diacono are preparing for climate change by growing olives, almonds and even apricots. By Rob Sharp
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The Independent Online

The traditional farming town of Honiton, Devon would be better twinned with some sun-kissed Tuscan hillside settlement than its current German stablemate, Gronau. The name of this city means "green pasture", and seems an increasingly inappropriate match. For in Honiton, traditional farming techniques that might see land left alone for grazing – and thus create green pasture – are being eschewed. Now, you are increasingly likely to see the cultivation of almonds, apricots and olives – not exactly staple crops for the British farming community and among the few lucky by-products of global warming.

The dynamic individual behind these changes, a part-time farmer called Mark Diacono, began planting exotic crops in Devon two years ago. While he is having mixed success – he does not produce a perennial harvest – his work is being heralded as the future of farming by the great and the good of British farming policy.

Diacono bought the 17-acre Otter Farm, where some of these exotic crops grow, three years ago when his family moved to the West Country. Of the start of his business, he says: "It was entirely a happy accident. I knew I wanted to grow something and was trying to think of the kind of plants I thought I wanted to grow, including mulberry, and apricots, many things that used to grow in the UK and some things I thought we could grow because of climate change. And then I knocked off the ones that were impossible. What I was left with was a list that I could marginally produce with a following wind."

The farmer shortlisted 20 crops. After consulting friends in the farming community, as well as celebrity pal Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, he discovered the reality the UK was set to face: earlier springs, milder, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers by 2025. Added to that would be increased erraticism, something familiar to those who missed summer this year when, apart from the trouble caused to holidaymakers, an unusually hot, dry spring made it hard for crops to get established. Added to that, July's torrential rain destroyed vegetables and made cereal harvesting very difficult; this is the harsh reality of future farming in Britain.

When Diacono first planted his olive groves in 2004, he had been told not to expect a harvest for 10 years; he settled on a plan to produce commercial quantities of his produce by 2010. But in 2006, he says, "We produced a handful of ripe, black olives on only three-year-old trees." Now, he has announced his plans to have his first commercial harvest from his 120 trees in five years. As well as the crops already mentioned, he has already invested in persimmons, pomegranates and Szechuan peppers.

His efforts are part of an increasing diversification of crops being grown in Britain. Near to Honiton, at the Tregothnan estate near Falmouth , the Boscawen family (which has lived at the estate since 1335) has been experimenting with a tea plantation since 2000.

This year the estate produced the first ever British-grown, single-estate tea – admittedly only sufficient for 200 cups, but enough to show a quality not to be sniffed at. It is also little known that Britain currently produces more mozzarella than Italy, and meanwhile the British wine industry is being taken seriously for the first time.

Necessarily, this success on the ground is being reflected centrally by those ploughing forth with policy for Britain's growers. Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has just announced that Farming Futures, which is a collaboration project between the National Farmers' Union, the CLA and levy boards, will receive funding of up to £250,000 for the next 18 months. Diacono's tale is trumpeted in Feeding the Future, a report commissioned earlier this month by Farming Futures that was managed by the charity Forum for the Future. Farming Futures was set to up to raise awareness of climate change among farmers and is trying to prepare its members for planetary heating. This, it claims, could cost UK agriculture billions if current harvests begin to fail. The bottom line is: farmers need to adapt to survive. In Farming Futures' eyes, Diacono exemplifies what the future holds, and if he, an amateur, can produce Britain's first commercial harvest of almonds (as he did in 2005), then the future might still herald copious bounty for UK farmers. David Fursdon, the president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), whose members own and manage about half the land in rural England and Wales, said: " We hear a lot about the negative effects of climate change – droughts and increased pests and disease. But earlier springs could mean sowing, ripening and harvesting ahead of time – and there is a lot of potential for new markets and crops." He also highlights the possibility of new livestock species, such as ostrich and hair sheep, being reared in the UK and disease-resistant and low-maintenance breeds.

Feeding the Future features contributions from such esteemed figures as the acclaimed environmentalist Jonathon Porritt and Lord Rooker, the Minister of State for Sustainable Food and farming and Animal Health. Porritt, for one, is keen to back the advantages of home-grown produce, which cuts down on food miles. He says: "All this points to a wholesale transformation of today's food production and distribution systems. The low carbon food economy will mean much more emphasis on local and regional rather than global, on hyper-efficient supermarkets and distribution systems and on organic and low-impact farming." 81 per cent of English farmers believe the climate is already changing; 53 per cent say they are already affected by climate change and 70 per cent believe these changes can offer business benefits.

With the fruit and crops Diacono has already produced, he is cementing relationships with various contacts in the "food world" that publicity surrounding his farm has pulled together. Fans of his include the chief buyer at Harrods, who is rumoured to have already pledged to buy " everything Diacono produces" if he continues his run of success. All of which is not bad for the work of a small operator working in a small town in Devon, twinned with an anodyne German city more famous for its wursts than its vino. Now all that needs to be done is for the public to buy into the equation: Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, said: "People need to move to a more seasonal diet so that they are eating food that can actually be produced in a more sustainable way... we need to buy organic. " The time to act, it seems, is now.

For more information see

Growth area: a taste of the Mediterranean

By Alice-Azania Jarvis

* Olives

Declining summer rainfall is making south-west England increasingly suitable for olive farming. Diacono started planting trees last May and has mixed success; it will be another two years before farmers know whether British-grown olives are a profitable option. Harvesting would be around November.

* Almonds

As long as the last frost arrives no later than March, British farmers can begin an almond harvest around October. The safest varieties are those from France and they fare best in the temperate conditions of the South.

* Pecans

Pecans are the most challenging of Diacono's crops; he anticipates five years more trials before they become a more popular option. Harvested in October, they depend on increasingly lengthened British summers without too much rain. If they prove successful, however, they could potentially be grown in northern regions as well as the South.

* Apricots

The development of frost-resistant rootstocks has made apricots a far sturdier crop than they used to be. Coupled with the UK's longer summer and autumn, this is making apricots particularly well-suited to British conditions. With the provision of adequate wind-breaks, successful crops can be expected in most regions around September.

* Sharon fruit

The trade name for the kaki persimmon, the Sharon fruit will be able to survive even the harshest British winters. However, a good long summer is needed to produces an optimum crop which, if successful, will be ripe around September.