We planted the first lettuce on our French farm last week, immediately covering it with low-level tunnels. At midday it might reach 20°C but once the sun sets, the thin plastic does little to maintain temperatures (which sank to -6°C last night), so we lay fleece over the tunnels for some added insulation. All being well, the first lettuce will be cut in late March, six weeks ahead of the UK crop.
Our biggest worry is lack of water; after a drought that went on into November, followed by a dry winter so far, our 12 acre reservoir is still only about 25% full. In previous winters, waterlogging has been the biggest problem, delaying planting and stunting root growth. Without water, in this climate, we might as well pack up; there should still be three months of rain left but rather than wait we have started pumping from small ponds in a desperate attempt to ensure water for our crops. Meanwhile, new affordable GPS technology has helped us to make semi-permanent raised beds; with satellite-guided tractors always running in the same tracks, the crop soil now remains undamaged.
A recent trip to the regional horticultural show in Angers left me astounded by the level of mechanisation and specialisation of even smaller producers in France. Improved battery technology has spawned a range of small, light weeding and planting aids that should make work easier while being more people-centric and allowing greater autonomy for workers than the heavy machines that typically drive field workers like cattle across the Fens. Small battery-powered machines are still less flexible than an autonomous human; mechanisation, and the investment required, drives specialisation, often to the detriment of rotations, diversity and nature. In a world where farmers get less than 2% of GDP, efficiency is critical to survival; the only answer is for farmers to co-operate to allow more than one enterprise to thrive on a farm without being owned and managed by the same person. We have no livestock here in France but, as we do in Devon, we work with a local organic dairy farmer who grazes the clover leys making up 50% of our rotation, and generates manure without us having to worry about milking cows.