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Monday, May 18, 2015

Brief Glas rant.

When Joe McNamee asked if I would do a rant in the garden tent at the Ballymaloe Litfest, the first thing that sprung to mind was the new Glas scheme. This is the new environmental scheme brought in to replace the REPS (Rural Environmental Protection) Scheme. I have been in REPs for 20 years and I suppose the farm is the better for it, and I am certainly the richer, but it is confusing. In REPS we were paid to do things like take cattle in off the land in the winter to avoid poaching. As a result the rough dry ground where you would normally out-winter cattle got totally covered with briars and furze bushes.  In the past cattle would have picked over them in the winter and trampled them down and they would have been burned regularly.


Connor from Teagasc explaining to me and the heifers why we are dispensable to Irish agriculture.

Now, I don't agree with burning, but the regular burning of rough land in the past was better then the infernos we saw this spring when land that had not been burned for decades 'accidentally'  caught fire. After 20 years of REPS, it was decided that any land not growing grass was not eligible for area aid and inspectors with fantastically detailed areal photographs came around circling any brambles or other non grass on farms and many farmers were penalised for having bushes. I was greatly peeved to be penalised €800. However,  I am used to paying for my principles and did not resort to an afternoon with a box of matches. Others thought differently.

Back to the Glas scheme. I was excited to notice that there was quite a lot of money available for chough habitat, but it turned out that inspite of the fact that coughs roost all winter in my barn that I am not in a chough designated area and so I am not eligible for that.  (Anyway you can't get the chough money if you are in the OFS Organic Farming scheme.) Where is the logic there? It turns out you can't get the 'Low input permanent pasture' money either if you are in the OFS. So what can I get paid for? Laying hedges is one option. I planted a 180m hedge on the top of the farm in REPS 1 which is now ready to lay but it turns out boundry hedges are ineligible, and if I plant any more trees I will loose more area aid. Why?

So what am I left with? I can plant a hedge, so long as its not where an existing field boundry exists, and I can lay one short internal field boundry hedge. I can put up bee, bat, and bird boxes, and atha is about it. So it is another scheme only big farmers can get a signifiant payment for.

The good thing is I don't have to keep livestock anymore, which means I don't have to produce food anymore. I could just mow the place a couple of times a year, which would probably be cheaper than making silage, housing and fencing cattle, getting them tested, etc.

I has achieved objective 5.3. in me, but not in a good way.

  1. The objectives of the Schemes are:
    1. 5.1.  To encourage actions at farm level that promote biodiversity, protect water quality, and help combat climate change
    2. 5.2.  To contribute to positive environmental management of farmed Natura 2000 sites and river catchments in the implementation of the Birds Directive, Habitats Directive and Water Framework Directive.
    3. 5.3.  To promote and sustain attitudinal change amongst farmers
    4. 5.4.  To achieve a balanced and effective environmental programme over the period of the RDP. 


Thursday, April 30, 2015

Spring Foraging

Ahead of the Slow Food foraging day we are doing here on Sunday, I have been doing my homework. Here are a few of my favourite wild, or semi wild, plants growing within 100yds of the house. (There is no district line between wild and cultivated plants here and a lot of overlap between perennial vegetables, wild plants and weeds.) I am a bit concerned about two things. One, by encouraging people to eat wild plants, might I contribute to the disappearance, or reduced range of some of them, and two, will anyone enthused by the workshop poison themselves.  So I am planning to show people how to identify plants and which ones are protected and rare or sensitive to a lot of picking and point out the few really poisonous things.

Everyone knows the Dandelion, Taraxicum officiale, and all parts of the plant are edible. The young leaves are great in salads and the roots can be cooked and eaten or dried, roasted and ground into coffee, although its a lot of work for not much coffee.
Chickweed Stellaria media is in no danger of disappearing around here and seeds its self  all around the garden and polytunnel. I would probably eat more of it if it wasn't so stringy when you pick it, but I do snip bits off and put them into salads, and when I remember I bring an odd handful to the hens, who really do enjoy it.
 Nettles Urtica dioica are very useful and and good for you. The tips are the least stringy to eat, and can be cooked as greens or made into soup. They are nicest in early spring before all kinds of insects move in and live in them. In fact in spring foraging it is pretty much all about  leaves. Summer is for flowers, (think elder meadowsweet) and autumn is best for nuts, seeds, roots and berries, which is obvious when you think about it, but only just occurred to me.
Fat hen is really just wild quinoa, that the early Americans domesticated into a seed crop. Early Europeans ate the seeds to and they have been found in ancient bog bodies in Ireland. I have tried eating the seeds, and its a bit like eating sand, but maybe I didn't cook it right. The leaves are excellent in salads and taste a bit like Camembert.
Watercress Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum is the wild plant I probably use the most. It grows in abundance in a stream on the farm. I mostly make it into soup, or cook it up with a buch of other things like nettles. It shares the stream with the deadly poisonous Water Dropwort Oenanthe crocata. It is a good thing to be able to tell them apart, or this might happen. 
from Flora Britannia by Richard Maybe (who also wrote "Food for Free").
People tend to be concerned about liver fluke which can encyst in the stems of water cress, but they are mostly below the water level and are killed by cooking, or a 6% vinegar solution. 
To my shame, I am not sure if this is common sorrel or Sheep's Sorrel, Rumex acetos or aceosella, hopefully someone will tell me before I have to get out Webb's flora and work it out properly. I put bits into salads and cooked greens sometimes because I think its good for me but I don't really like its sharp rhubarb taste.
 Neither am I particularly keen on Wall pennywort Umbilicus rupestris but it looks great in a salad.
Wild Garlic or Ransoms Allium ursinum is great stuff for the pesto, but also good in soups salads and sandwiches, any way you want really. It is not half as strong as the smell would suggest. It is not growing wild around here, but I put some in the front garden a few years ago and now I see them popping up around the place. I expect farmers eradicated them from around here as they would flavour the milk. It would be interesting to feed it to cows and them make cheese. 
The three cornered leek Allium triquetrum is an introduced plant, originally form the Mediterranean that enjoys West Cork hedgerows, was also introduced to my garden where it is expanding its territory, competing well with its South African neighbor Montbretia.

I will try and add more to this later.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Saving seeds for beginners

Here is an article I wrote for the GIY magazine 'Grow'.



Saving seeds for beginners
What makes us different to the other apes is our tendency to mess with food. We cook it, ferment it, dry it, grow it and deliberately breed it for certain traits. Our domesticated plants were developed from wild plants, over the last 10,000 years, or so, by farmers and gardeners. None of the early growers had degrees in biotechnology, nor were there any seed companies. Yet, they created all the important crops we use today. They grew, and exchanged their seeds, each farmer developing landraces suited to his or her taste, culture and climate. A huge diversity of types was developed in this way, which gradually spread around the world. We have a vast amount of domesticated varieties, but many are disappearing as ‘BIG-AG’ buys up small seed companies and reduces the number of available varieties. Farmers are encouraged to buy modern hybrid varieties that produce crops conforming to supermarket standards of appearance rather than use traditional ones, from which they can save their own seeds. Legislation in many countries is also making it difficult for farmers to save their own seeds and to sell or exchange them. Most seed packets do not give you much information about the origin of the seeds. They do not even show country of origin. Most seeds are produced in warm dry places like California and Israel, where the predictable weather allows seed to mature without danger of mould. Growing seed form such environments does not prepare them for the Irish climate. By saving you own seeds you can be a part of the evolution of domesticated plants, care-taking rare landraces, and adapting and creating varieties to suit your garden. It is not difficult. Always keep the seeds from the best plants in your garden, and eat the other ones.
One of the first things that early farmers selected for was self-pollinating plants. This is a useful trait when you are trying to domesticate a species as it prevents it crossing back to its wild relatives. Crops such as wheat, peas, common (French) beans and tomatoes are self pollinated. Seeds are produced when ovules in the plants ovaries are fertilised by pollen. When this happens inside a flower and the pollen and ovules come from the same plant it is called self-pollination. These are the easiest plants to start saving seeds from as you don’t have to worry about them crossing with other things.







Some tomatoes, especially the big beef ones and the cherries can cross pollinate. Flowers on these plants have stigmas that protrude out of the flower, but it doesn’t really matter as most of the seeds will be true to type, and if they are not you have the chance of developing your own variety. 





Cross pollination occurs when the pollen from a different plant reaches the ovules. Care must be taken in saving seeds from cross-pollinated plants that pollen you want, is reaching the flowers.


A species is defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.

Plants that are the same species, and have the same Latin Name are able to cross pollinate. For instance cabbage and cauliflower were developed from the same species of wild cabbage, and can therefor cross with each other. So, if you want to save cauliflower seed you don’t want any other cabbage type plants flowering within the distance insects are flying around. The other complication with cross-pollinated plants is that a significant population of plants is needed to prevent inbreeding. For practical purposes 20 plants is usually enough but seed companies would often have a minimum of 200 plants to ensure enough out-crossing. The pollen form wind-pollinated plants, such as beets and maize, travels even further than insect pollinated plants and can cross oceans.
Hybrid seeds are produced by inbreeding lines of vegetables until the genes on both of their sets of chromosomes becomes almost identical. Then, two of these inbred lines is crossed. This produces a population of almost identical plants with one set of chromosomes from each parent. They tend to be more vigorous and and productive than either of the parents but they are an evolutionary dead end as the traits of the succeeding generations of plants is unpredictable as all the genes will be randomly mixed up.
Landraces are farmer varieties that have more variability in them than a commercial variety. They contain more genetic diversity within them than modern varieties. This gives them more ability to adapt to new conditions such as changing climate, diseases and pests.




Saving Tomato Seeds
To save tomato seeds squeeze the seeds of a ripe tomato into a container and leave at room temperature for 3 days until a bit of white mould develops on the surface. Then stir the contents and fill the container up with water. Allow the seeds to settle at the bottom and then pour off the debris. Rinse the seed in a sieve and dry on a windowsill on a plate, (they will stick to paper). Stir as they are drying, to prevent them from sticking together. Remember to label them.

























Saving Pea Seeds
to save pea seeds, leave the peas on a few plants to mature. When the lower pods have turned brown, harvest the whole plant and hang it in a dry place. when all the peas are dry you can pod the peas by hand or put them in a container and trample them to extract the seeds.





A variety is a population of plants from within a species that differs from the remainder of the species in certain characteristics.


Drying Seeds
Seeds must be fully dry before they are put in airtight containers and stored. Seeds store best when cool and dry. Seed banks freeze seed for long-term storage and you can too, but be sure it is really dry before you do so. Large seeds take longer to dry than small ones and if you are not sure how dry they are, it is better not to put them in airtight containers.
To test if a pea or bean is ready to store, hit it with a hammer. If it cracks and breaks into small pieces it is ready however if it squashes it is. When dry, cucumber and pumpkin seeds will snap when bent.
















Storing seeds
Most seeds will last for a several years in a cool room. Putting them in a fridge in plastic food containers will extend their lives. The table below gives a rough estimate of how long seeds will last. Viability decreases gradually so there is no exact time and it depends on the original quality of the seed and on the storage conditions. Sachets of silica gel will absorb water and if enclosed with your seeds will help to keep them dry.




Germination testing
It is easy to test your seed for viability. Put a few seeds on kitchen paper in a plastic box, or in a small pot of compost. Then put them somewhere warm and see how many come up. Some seeds like it cool like lettuce and spinach, while tomatoes, peppers and other tropical plants like it at least 20C. 



Friday, May 2, 2014

Cost of Compliance Rant

I have already spent a morning, this week in Teagac, rearranging my farm map, for the area aid, because not every square inch of my farm grows grass. Here and there there are gorse bushes and even briars! Last year my planner put a 'habitat' area into my area aid plan as 'foliage' and as a result I was penalised by a considerable amount.  I was not the only one, and this is the reason diggers and matches are out, all over the country, burning and clearing land, that is marginally useful to agriculture, but crucial to wildlife.

As an aside, I haven't heard a cuckoo in the last few years and they used to drive me demented at this time of year. Neither (for the first time), have I seen any red bottomed bumble bees this spring. They used to be the first to arrive in my tunnel to pollinate the broad beans and crucifers. (I took this photo from http://urbanpollinators.blogspot.ie/2013/10/bumblebee-queens-fat-bottomed-girls-in.html sorry!)

Anyway, I come home from the Teagasc outing, to find an email from  the Organic Trust, requiring me to be the subject of an audit by INAB. I had never heard of INAB but I looked it up and they are a body that inspects people who inspect people. I suppose it has to be done.

So they are going to inspect the organic inspector inspecting me, in August. It turns out the inspector they want to send is a seed merchant who sells imported, conventional seeds, from his website. So I suggest that perhaps a different inspect would be more appropriate. BUT this is going to cost the Organic Trust over €2000 because that's what INAB inspectors cost, and they have to get this inspector inspected. Also they have been told to inspect seed producers so they have to send the auditors to me, and as I am the only seed producer growing a significant amount of seeds. HMMM…. why are they choosing seed producers this year?

Organic Trust inspectors don't get paid as much as the INAB, but in the end it is the organic farmers that pay for this, because it costs us (I think it cost me best part of €500 this year, to be certified organic), and use an organic label on our food, when it doesn't cost anything to NOT tell people that their food has been treated with chemicals.

So, now they are going to send a conventional farmer to inspect me. I am ok with that, because there is no conflict of interest, and I have found her very well informed and fair in the past.  Organic inspectors cannot be organic producers which is fair enough, as there is scope for conflict of interest. And, I am sorry to cost the OT and extra €2,000. In the end consumer that pays for this, or mostly can't afford to, and so organic food becomes increasingly only available to the wealthy. I didn't go into organic farming with a view to supplying a privileged few with safe food.

When I finish REPS 4 this year, there will be a temptation to drop the symbol. My customers are largely home gardeners and small certified organic producers. It would not be profitable for me to sell seeds in large enough quantities for large commercial organic enterprises. Larger organic seed companies can produce seeds more cheaply than Brown Envelope Seeds by growing them where labour is cheap and the weather is better, and there are a lot less inspections.

And here's another question? Why do food producers have to put their symbol numbers on what they produce, including seeds here, but there are no symbol numbers or producer numbers on imported organic seeds?

Now I better do some actual work!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Soil temperature is the best indicator of when it is the right time to sow vegetables


Norfolk farmers allegedly dropped their trousers, and sat on the soil to see if it was warm enough to sow crops. A soil thermometer is probably as accurate.  

Below are the Met Eireann soil temperature figures for Sherkin Island which is the closest weather station to Brown Envelope Seeds. Although soil temperatures differ a little from year to year, especially in spring and autumn, they are fairly predictable between May and September differing by only a degree or two on average. Met Eireann statistics can be found here By looking up the nearest station to you, you can see when soil temperature is suitable for the sowing of crops in your area, or you can use a soil thermometer - or you can use the Norfolk method. 

Mean 10cm soil temperature for Sherkin Island

Year
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
Annual
2014
7.0
6.7
7.0









6.9
2013
7.5
6.8
6.3
8.9
12.3
15.5
18.8
17.6
15.3
13.7
8.5
8.0
11.6
2012
9.0
9.0
10.0
9.7
12.6
15.2
16.1
16.8
14.8
11.5
8.4
7.7
11.7
2011
5.5
8.1
8.5
12.6
13.4
15.7
16.7
16.2
14.5
12.5
10.9
8.1
11.9


The figures for Mullingar show more variation than Sherkin which is to be expected, as Mullingar is further inland and both higher summer and lower winter temperatures occur, as the temperature of the sea buffers the climatic changes near the coast. 

Mean 10cm soil temperature for Mullingar

Year
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
Annual
2014
4.4
5.0
5.2









4.7
2013
4.7
4.6
4.8
8.3
12.6
16.6
20.1
18.1
15.0
12.5
7.2
6.0
10.9
2012
6.1
6.7
8.9
9.7
13.4
15.8
17.3
17.7
14.6
10.4
6.8
4.5
11.0
2011
2.7
6.0
7.1
12.3
13.0
15.5
17.4
16.3
14.4
12.1
9.2
5.1
10.9


Broad beans, rocket, kale, parsnips, peas, radishes and spinach can germinate at temperatures as low as 5ºC but may take up to a month to do so. At 10ºC a higher proportion of seeds will germinated and maximum germination of crops will be a lot faster than at 5ºC. As soil temperature reach 10ºC sometime in April or May crops such as beet, cabbage, lettuce, onions and leeks, will germinate but growth will be slow and the plants will be subject to more pressure from slugs and other leaf eating pests.  At 15ºC degrees, french beans, carrots and sweetcorn will germinate, and plant growth will be a lot faster,  so crops will have a better chance of competing with weeds. Soil temperatures in a polytunnel will be several degrees higher and so plants started under cover will get a head start. Corn, courgettes, pumpkins, cucumbers, tomatoes and aubergines are happier at soil temperatures of 20ºC or more and will do a lot better under cover. In a good summer they will have a chance outside and by choosing cold tolerant short season varieties chances of success are improved. 

The next table shows the germination of different vegetables at different temperatures. 
The number in brackets is the number of days to reach the level of germination. Most seeeds will germinate between 15 and 25



Crops
0ºC
5ºC
10ºC
15ºC
20ºC
25ºC
30ºC
35ºC
Asparagus
  0
  0
 61(53)
 80(24)
 88(15)
 95(10)
 79(12)
 37(19)
Beans, lima
  0
  0
  1
 52(31)
 82(18)
 90(7)
 88(7)
  2
Beans, snap
  0
  0
  1
 97(16)
 90(11)
 97(8)
 47(6)
 39(6)
Beets
  0
 53(42)
 72(17)
 88(10)
 90(6)
 97(5)
 89(5)
 35(5)
Cabbage
  0
 27
 78(15)
 93(9)
  0(6)
 99(5)
  0(4)
  0
Carrots
  0
 48(51)
 93(17)
 95(10)
 96(7)
 96(6)
 95(6)
 74(9)
Cauliflower
  0
  0
 58(20)
 60(10)
  0(6)
 63(5)
 45(5)
  0
Celery
  0
 72(41)
 70(16)
 40(12)
 97(7)
 65
  0
  0
Cucumber
  0
  0
  0
 95(13)
 99(6)
 99(4)
 99(3)
 99(3)
Eggplant
  0
  0
  0
  0
 21(13)
 53(8)
 60(5)
  0
Lettuce
 98(49)
 98(15)
 98(7)
 99(4)
 99(3)
 99(2)
 12(3)
  0
Muskmelon
  0
  0
  0
  0
 38(8)
 94(4)
 90(3)
  0
Okra
  0
  0
  0
 74(27)
 89(17)
 92(13)
 88(7)
 85(6)
Onions
 90(136)
 98(31)
 98(13)
 98(7)
 99(5)
 97(4)
 91(4)
 73(13)
Parsley
  0
  0
 63(29)
  0(17)
 69(14)
 64(13)
 50(12)
  0
Parsnips
 82(172)
 87(57)
 79(27)
 85(19)
 89(14)
 77(15)
 51(32)
  1
Peas
  0
 89(36)
 94(14)
 93(9)
 93(8)
 94(6)
 86(6)
  0
Peppers
  0
  0
  1
 70(25)
 96(13)
 98(8)
 95(8)
 70(9)
Radish
  0
 42(29)
 76(11)
 97(6)
 95(4)
 97(4)
 95(3)
  0
Spinach
 83(63)
 96(23)
 91(12)
 82(7)
 52(6)
 28(5)
 32(6)
  0
Sweet Corn
  0
  0
 47(22)
 97(12)
 97(7)
 98(4)
 91(4)
 88(3)
Tomatoes
  0
  0
 82(43)
 98(14)
 98(8)
 97(6)
 83(6)
 46(9)
Turnips
  1
 14
 79(5)
 98(3)
 99(2)
100(1)
 99(1)
 99(1)
Watermelon
  0
  0
  0
 17
 94(12)
 90(5)
 92(4)
 96(3)

I hope this will help people decide when to sow their seeds.