Crop stars: Farmers continue to produce quality record crops against the odds


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The Independent Online

My stars of the year are the farmers of West Dorset, many of whom have brought in record crops this season. It's not fashionable to praise farmers. In the public eye, they have become villains. I am fed up with hearing what villains they are. Over and over again, the same vitriol is poured from the same cracked jugs: farmers are ruining the countryside; farmers are poisoning the land. The fact is, acre for acre, gardeners use far more nitrogenous fertilisers, fungicides, herbicides and insecticides than farmers. Farmers can't afford to chuck the stuff around in the quantities that gardeners do. Why can we be allowed to take pleasure in a well-grown row of beans while they are vilified for a fine field of corn?

Many gardeners with apple trees, pear trees and plums, have had wonderful crops this year. So let's give thanks for our good fortune in living in a country with the kind of land and the kind of climate capable of producing plenty of food. Let's also celebrate the skill of farmers that know how to use those advantages. This season, round here, the harvest of spring barley has been good, the winter wheat even better and the sileage cuts exceptional in quality as well as quantity. Whisky drinkers in particular should be toasting the spring barley. Quite a lot of that is destined for malting and so is grown with very little added nitrogen – it spoils the taste.

Despite the long, cold winter, there have been record yields of winter wheat. The dryness of spring kept the wheat free of disease, then the rain at the beginning of June came just in time to keep the crop growing without check. Arable is increasing in Dorset, as the annual income of small dairy farmers in the West Country drops to around £8,000 a year. Despite that, Dorset is still a place with plenty of pasture. Good milk and good sheep is what it's chiefly known for, which is why the sileage cuts are so important.

Sileage making was a whole new strategy for my farming uncles in the 1950s. It means cutting the grass green and packing it into clamps where it cooks into delicious smelling stuff like fruit cake. In a good season, such as this last one, you can get at least three (sometimes five) cuts off the same field. It's like lawnmowing, but you put the grass to better use. Before sileage, farmers made hay to feed to their animals through winter, but hay-making, in a climate as damp as ours, with wildly unpredictable summers, is a nerve-wracking business.

Certainly, on the right kind of day in late June, with the right kind of butterfly hovering over the right kind of flower, a hay meadow is a wonderful place. But they ebb and flow with the seasons. Different plants dominate in different years. Early summer rain may beat down the tall grasses. This summer, there were very few windows for making hay. There were scarcely three days together when it didn't rain. But when a hay meadow is cut, the grass needs to dry as quickly as possible. As the season marches on, heavy dews in August and early September compound the problem.

So it's not surprising that hay meadows have become less common than they used to be. Hay-making now is an indulgence available only to nature trusts (and people like me) who don't depend on the crop for their living. When we first came here, we started making hay on our top field, the only bit of flat land in the whole place. But first we had to widen the gateways, because tractors are much bigger than they used to be. Then we had to sort out the fences to stop the sheep getting into the field while the hay was growing. This year, it wasn't cut until mid-September, by which time it was pretty useless as winter feed.

"You haven't got any poppies," said a rambler, leaning over our gate this summer, watching me pull ragwort in the meadow. The tone was accusing. "No," I said. And I tried to explain that poppies are flowers of the cornfield, not a hay meadow. They are annuals, that depend on ground being turned over every year to give their seed a chance to germinate. "There's no chance for them to grow in a permanent sward," I said. But I could tell from the look on his face that he didn't believe me. What I wanted from him, of course, was not accusations about poppies, but some help with the ragwort. Pulling it is a hard job.

Sometimes I wonder whether, in a few years, there will be any farmers left who have the machines necessary to toss our hay, tidy it into rows and bale it. Or the inclination to tow all this paraphernalia through the narrow lanes to deal with our indulgent bit of landscape, our escape from reality. In the future, will all farmers have to grow corn as fast as nature allows?

At the end of October this year, the UN broadcast the fact that, with the birth of Danica May Camacho in the Philippines, the world population had reached seven billion. Much of this population growth (from two and a half billion in 1950) has been in the parts of the world where droughts and poor ground mean that farmers can rarely celebrate a good harvest.

There have been terrible famines in those 60 years, but new kinds of rice, new kinds of corn, have meant that a higher proportion of the world's ever-increasing population could be fed than would otherwise be the case. Writing in our prize-winning parish magazine, local farmer Mark Roberts highlighted a new dilemma. A strain of wheat widely grown in Uganda is being attacked by a debilitating kind of rust. The disease has already spread from Africa into the Yemen. But what if it reaches the Punjab, which presently supplies almost a fifth of the world's wheat? Those who deal in the grim business of famine reckon that if the Punjab crop fails, 200 million people could die.

The dilemma is this. The rust, at the moment, is being held in check by vast quantities of fungicide. But at the John Innes Centre in East Anglia, scientists have bred a new variety of wheat that is resistant to both drought and the rust, and so can be grown without being drenched with chemicals. Good news? It depends on which part of your brain has been washed. The new wheat is genetically modified. Is this worse than the fungicide? Is either of these worse than the prospect of a child dying, when it could be fed? As the man with the moustaches says, it's not easy being green.