Going Bats: Wildlife For Growers Meeting 23rd April

Jan (far right) considers the merits of the overgrown hedge
Jan (far right) considers the merits of the overgrown hedge behind us

It’s been ages since Bath & Bristol Organic Growers (BABOG) have had a meeting, so a few of us took a break from the madness of spring sowings, plantings and cultivation to get together for a chat and coffee (and cake!); and we also welcomed Jan from Wiltshire Wildlife Trust to the meeting at Grown Green @ Hartley Farm on a drizzly Friday afternoon. It seems to make so much sense for wildlife charities and organisations to get more involved in groups based on sustainable gardening, horticulture and agriculture – unsustainable farming is probably the biggest cause of a decline in wildlife after all (loss of habitat and food, increase in disruptive chemicals etc), so it makes sense for us all to work together to conserve wildlife, and also spread the message that if you care about wildlife, you should care about what you eat and how it’s produce (and vice versa).

Despite my small plot size (just over 2 acres), I’m think I’m doing ok for wildlife (especially since building the pond 18 months ago); but I don’t know much about bats, nor whether they are especially beneficial from a growers’ point of view, or just a sympton of a healthy ecosystem. One grower suggested that bats could be very helpful if they predate on nocturnal and twilight pests such as leek moth; and Jan suggested that ‘gleaning’ species of bat, such as brown long-eared bats and natterer’s, would eat these kinds of insects and moths. They especially love open woodland and orchards; so my small field by the copse might be their cup of tea. We all immediately decided that we’d like more of these helpful critters flying around and cleaning all the pests away for us; but bats seem to be struggling due to loss of habitat, food and increased pesticides – all species are protected in the UK. The useful gleaning species like tall hedgerows to fly past at twilight, offering shelter and food at the same time; and like to roost fairly high up – so my idea of adding bat boxes to my shipping container weren’t much good. Jan suggested that I could add some to the little copse of woodland by the edge of my field, which has a wildlife route to and from it in the shape of tall outgrown hedges, so I might look into that (I never realised how many different types of bat boxes there are! Time to get the DIY tools out…). Apparently our area is relatively rich in bats though, even the most-threatened horseshoe bats; so I’ve now sown some night-scented stocks and phlox to encourage more twilighty insects to certain plots, in the hope that this will in turn help the bats too. If nothing else, it will smell nice in the evenings…

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Filled With Beans

IMG-20140418-00862 copyI managed to get the climbing beans in the polytunnel on Friday, huzzah! A row of a mix of purple (Blauhilde), yellow (Neckargold) and green (Cobra), plus a few Borlotti beans which I might pick young for the bean mix, or leave to dry. I also put in a row of sweet peas behind them: a mix of Old Spice (purples and pinks) bought and saved seed, plus some white Mrs Collier. They are in half of the New Tunnel: I think I’m going to have to change this tunnel’s name, it went up in 2012 after all, and I might manage to get another small tunnel up this year so I’ll end up confusing myself. I think I might call it the Vole Tunnel, since I can always hear the little monkeys squeaking away to each other in there, more so than the other tunnels since it’s just a bit further away from the car park, farmshop and carpenters’ barns so a bit quieter.

 

IMG-20140418-00859 copy IMG-20140418-00860 copyWhile clearing away the bolted salad brassicas that were there, and lifting up the salad Mypex prior to rotovating and laying the bean Mypex, I disturbed a nest of 4 young field voles (vole-lings? Vole-lets?) who were too young and dopey in the warmth to run away from me. Damn it, why are they so cute? I find it hard to ‘dispense’ with things unless I actually catch them red-handed (slugs are always red-handed, they were born looking guilty); so mouse traps around seeds and young plants that catch their prey are fine. I nudged the volelings to the side of the tunnel, so they wouldn’t get munched by the rotovator. A couple disregarded my warning though, and kept running back into the middle of the tunnel. It was tempting to let natural selection take it’s course; but it’s hard to harden your heart on a sunny day, so I kept nudging them back again to safety. If they nibble and destroy my beans mind you, that will be a different story.

Size Matters?

IMG-20140417-00857 copyWell, that was interesting. The Landworkers Alliance (LWA) demo on Thursday 17th April (International Peasants’ Day) went pretty well, where we set up a market stall outside DEFRA headquarters in London, to show how productive smaller scale farms can be – and to ask very nicely that small scale farms be considered when making policy. The demo attendees were a small but select bunch of around 40-50 (I’m terrible at guestimating), and a few of us spoke about why the status quo needs to change, and it what direction.

The ‘demand’ (or polite request) we made was to ask DEFRA to implement the voluntary cap on Pillar 1 CAP EU payments, at an extremely generous £150,000 per farm; and to divert the resulting £200 million (or at least some of it) to smaller scale productive farms under Pillar 2 of CAP. I still can’t believe that DEFRA has recently chosen to redefine the size of farms receiving Pillar 1 payments (replacing the old direct single farm payment) to those over 5ha – that’s a huge minimum size of farm, over 12 acres; my market garden business is on just over 2 acres of land and producing a huge amount of food. EU Member states can apply limits or not at their own discretion. So the threshold for minimum claim areas has been increased by DEFRA in this country to the highest possible level of 5ha because, in the words of Owen Patterson, “the vast majority of those claimants with less than 5ha are not economic units. They are, in lay parlance, hobby farms.”

IMG-20140417-00856 copy IMG-20140417-00858 copyCue seething indignation and rage from those thousands of small- and micro-scale farmers and growers, who are told that their endless toil and graft in the face of an ever-industial agricultural landcape is a ‘hobby’. Apparently it’s a ‘hobby’ if you earn your living from your business, as I do, which is an interesting definitition of ‘hobby’. Many of the 16,650 holdings who are now excluded from the Pillar 1 payments also earn their living from the land; there may be some lucky individuals who do run their smallholdings as a hobby, and don’t have to make a profitable enterprise in order to survive; but going by land size only is in no way a accurate way of measuring this. The LWA estimate that this change of threshold for claimants will save DEFRA £16 million each year – which is still much less than it’s proposed solution of adding a cap to Pillar 1 payments for those landowners with vast estates, who can claim well over £150,000 per year in subsides.

It’s the (lack of) logic of the argument that I find particularly galling. DEFRA say, on the one-hand, that holdings under 5ha are uneconomic, and therefore should not be supported (although this is of course completely untrue, as thousands of small businesses will testify and would be happy to should Owen Patterson their accounts to prove it – plus many would be glad of the extra subsidy money to expand and develop their business, and employ more local people, produce even more local food, teach youngsters about farming…). However, at the same time, the implication of diverting the bulk of the EU subsides to asset-rich landowners of vast estates is that these landowners need these hundreds of thousands of subsides in order to remain viable and survive. Surely if any one business needs yearly no-strings grants of over £150,000, they are “not economic units.” They are the ‘hobby farms’, only in a massive and unsustainable (in every way) scale.

Mind you, I shouldn’t get too worked up because none of this really affects me, since I’ve never had CAP payments in the first place. Although of course, it does affect me in a number of ways, and not least because those macro business with EU subsides are able to sell their subsidised produce at a price lower than my cost of production if they want to. Fortunately my customers base is very loyal, and people appreciate having local, fresh and sustainable produce from just down the road (and I grow many things that larger producers don’t grow); plus my margins are so slim that my prices are pretty much the same anyway (I’m really not going to be rich growing veg). So therefore my tax money is paying larger producers to subsidise their produce, and keep my income right down. It does seem a little unfair to be taxed twice though?