Night temperatures are dropping, creating heavier dews, which take longer to dry under a lower sun. Good news for the cool and damp-loving young winter crops of leeks, cabbages and cauliflower; less good for the sun and heat-loving lettuces, squash, pumpkin and tomatoes, which are nearing the end. Ageing plants, less favourable conditions and rising humidity give fungal diseases the chance to spread, wringing the last life out of weakened summer crops.
Yesterday we were visited by a neighbour of our farm in the Vendée, France. Like most of the large-scale, commercial organic growers in the Loire Valley, production is highly mechanised; expensive and inflexible labour laws make growers terrified of the weeds, blemishes and crop variation which would render mechanical harvesting of baby salad leaves impossible.
The solution commonly adopted is to thermally sterilise the top 10cm of soil by injecting enough steam to heat it to 70 degrees, burning a staggering over 2,000 litres of diesel per hectare in the process. Everyone I speak to agrees that it is environmental insanity but, as far as I know, we are the only people to refuse to use it or to buy crops from sterilised soil.
By contrast, John, our Devon farm manager, is proud of our weeds and the ecological diversity they support; we have learnt to live with them. When watching my sterilising French neighbours mechanically harvesting a whole pallet of rocket in just ten minutes, I experience a combination of admiration and weariness; is this the inevitable future of my industry?
Is it pointless to resist commercial sanity, even when it contributes to the environmental insanity that denies our children a future? Will the ever-falling price of food at the farm gate (agriculture makes up just 0.7 per cent of GDP in the UK) render it impossible to farm any other way? There could be a richer, subtler, more complex and environmentally sensitive alternative – but sadly, the clumsy hegemony of free market dogma will never lead us there.
Meanwhile, the stark reality is that despite our appreciation of weeds, we have been unable to recruit the staff to deal with them. Our leeks are drowning in an unexpectedly vigorous sea of dock leaves, re-emerging from roots ploughed down with the grass that preceded the leeks in the field. The hand-harvested leeks may be a little smaller and bendier, and we will be little poorer, but no one will starve this winter.