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Guy’s news: Waiting for rain in the Vendée

Irrigation is over for the year in Devon but with no significant rain since July, our farm in the French Vendée is a dust bowl; we have had to stop irrigating the lower value sunflowers, popcorn, butternut squash and maize in order to conserve water for the peppers, padrons, lettuce and broccoli. The water supply source is an old, winter filled, gravel pit shared with a neighbour. With no legal documentation to define which water molecules belong to whom, it is a question of who has the lowest extraction point. As the bottom uncovers, it is pretty obvious that he is winning.

The light sandy soils hold very little moisture and need 20mm every three days to keep the more demanding crops like broccoli growing without the pre-harvest stress that can lead to yellowing in your fridge. The farm is most important to us in the spring when early lettuce, cabbage, spinach etc sees us through the hungry gap before the first UK crops are ready. It is hard to run a farm and be a good employer with a two month harvest period, hence we also grow peppers, melons, padrons, sunflowers etc. This year we have decided to grow late lettuce (October) and broccoli (November) to continue for a month after the quality and flavour of the UK crop declines. Most of the rest of the farm should be growing green manures (vetch, phacelia and rye grass) which build up the organic matter and structure so vital on sandy soils. Normally they establish with the help of a few late August thunderstorms, but so far it has been much too dry for anything to germinate.

I reckon our padrons have a lot more flavour than anything I have had from a supermarket, tapas bar, or even from Spain; I put it down to most being grown outside with a little hardship rather than being mollycoddled in a tunnel or glass house. They had a particularly hard start this year, after a cold, wet spring followed by a severe aphid attack. But by August there was barely an aphid to be seen and they love the heat; the plants have doubled in size, flowered again and have set a huge late crop; depending on light and temperature I reckon we will be picking right into November.

Guy Watson

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