We have just finished planting, mulching and guarding 2,500 hazel and walnut trees over 25 acres of steep, south-facing grazing land. It will be four years for the hazels, and eight for the walnuts, before the first small harvest.
I will never see the walnuts in full production, but have been sustained, through the bitter east wind during planting, by a vision of being wheeled out in my later years to sit under the trees as the nuts drop, with a flagon of cider and an air rifle to see off squirrels.
This project is driven by passion and deep rationality, not economics. The idea is to introduce biodiversity by mixing old, complex pasture, grazed by animals, with nut trees overhead; to grow food on marginal land without disturbing the soil, and to sequester carbon underground.
But as much as that makes profound sense (to me anyway), and does have the potential to one day become economically viable and create a path others may follow, measured in £ alone it is currently madness.
Why? 70 per cent of hazelnuts are grown in eastern Turkey. A global market in a relatively non-perishable commodity has driven the price down so far that hand picking the nuts is only economical using child and migrant labour in questionable conditions.
Inevitably, the response has been to mechanise; most of the remaining 30 per cent of hazelnuts are grown on large, highly mechanised farms. The machinery requires a billiard-table flat surface, with all other plants removed by herbicides or cultivation; and the cost of the machinery begets bigger farms, which beget bigger machinery, and an environment stripped of diversity in an attempt to shape nature to the machine. Depressingly, this pattern is the same globally for virtually all crops: from almonds, tomatoes and wheat to pigs, hens and dairy cows.
We are told that following economic dictates like this is rationality. And now we are supposed to believe that, with carbon accounting and some tinkering at the edges, the same band of ‘rationalists’ will lead us out of the environmental crisis their approach created.
Much as I acknowledge the power of capitalism to create innovative solutions, we must balance what is measurable (be that carbon or money) with a more profound, complex and longer-term rationality, which incorporates multiple, harder-to-measure indices that we may only partially understand. Sounds a bit like nature? Maybe it is. I worry this is too much to ask of free market economists – but I have ordered another 2,500 trees for next year.