In the 1960s, as a fresh-faced new farmer embracing all things modern, my father installed irrigation in his pastures to ensure a supply of fresh grass for his cows through dry summers. But the futility of making rain, which falls so effortlessly – if irregularly – on its own, soon defeated him.
Unlike Jean de Florette (the farmer in the eponymous French film who was driven to an early death in search of water for his crops), he bore the defeat well, and his cows seemed none the worse for it. The pump and pipes disappeared under brambles until the 1980s, when, as a fresh-faced new veg grower, I dug them out to irrigate my parched lettuces.
In the absence of protective controls to shut the system off automatically when it ran out of water, I slept by the tractor, which drove the pump, to be awoken by the change in tone when it ran dry. It was a miserable existence.
The licence to draw water from a small stream, taken out in the 1960s, has since been supplemented by six winter-fill reservoirs, holding 40,000m3, with underground mains and electric pumps, sophisticated controls, and UV filters to ensure that the water is free of coliform bacteria. Only in two of our 35 summers have we not had enough water to keep crops growing; with no rain forecast in the south for a month or more, this looks like being the third.
We have just enough water for the high value, shallow-rooting, drought-susceptible lettuces, salad leaves and radishes, plus the tomatoes, cucumbers and basil in our polytunnels. Everything else will have to root for itself. The summer cabbages have stopped growing, and there are still plenty of artichokes for our boxes so far, but supply will deteriorate over the next month.
We are already seeing some quality issues from moisture stress as sweetcorn, courgettes and salad veg, already stressed at harvest, lose more moisture on their way to you. A good tip at this time of year (from my mother-in-law, Liz) is to dampen, or even soak, your leafy veg for a few minutes before wrapping them in a damp paper bag in your fridge.
On our French farm, we have just completed a new 50,000m3 reservoir. In Devon, Raph, our long-standing, wood-dwelling cosmic advisor and co-owner, is doing his rain dance – but in the longer term, as summers become drier and hotter, and rain less predictable, we definitely need to invest in more reservoirs, pumps and pipes here as well.