Leah Harris is trialling a reduced ploughing method to limit disruption of the soil.

Minimal ploughing to combat drought

It’s a hard job to grow veg, even in a good year – but the thing that gets you through is the purpose; you’re feeding people.

Every farmer I know is really struggling this summer. We have no irrigation system set up, which has meant there’s little we can do to keep our veg growing, or even to get new veg germinating. We drilled some beetroot seeds about five weeks ago, and it’s been dry ever since. Even for farmers who are irrigating, it’s an extra job taking time and manpower – not to mention water, which is scarcely available.

Our French beans had been looking like a fantastic, healthy crop, but they dried up because of the drought just before picking. We’ve lost about 1.5 tonnes so far, and sadly, it’s not just us. Others are not managing to harvest either; one farmer who has been growing beans for 20 years said he’s never seen anything like it.

A lot of smaller farms are family run, with traditional mixed systems (growing a range of veg and rearing livestock). The pressure that weather like this puts on those farms, and the human toll it takes, are intense. There’s no money coming in, and everything is standing still. It’s a hard job to grow veg, even in a good year – but the thing that gets you through is the purpose; you’re feeding people. To not even have that is really demoralising.

On the plus side, some crops are coping well at the moment, and as I write this, rain is just beginning to fall. The brassicas are looking particularly happy in our strip-till trial zone. Strip-tilling is an innovative method that involves cultivating in strips down the field, rather than ploughing the whole thing, to reduce disruption to the soil structure. Some strips are left untouched, and others only cultivated shallowly; just deep enough for seeds. Because we haven’t ploughed that field, it has retained a lot more water – you can dig down four inches and find moisture, whereas our leek field, which we ploughed, is bone dry.

Helping the soil to sequester carbon was one of the key driving forces for us to trial strip-tilling, and it also seemed like it could be good for water retention. Minimising ploughing also uses less diesel, saving fuel costs and emissions. There is still a way to go with our strip-till experiment, but I’m very thankful that this is the year we decided to give it a try.

Written by Leah Harris.


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