The last alder and apple leaves are stubbornly hanging on. My artichokes, which are traditionally propagated in the spring, refuse to stop growing – so we have dug, separated and replanted the suckers. Given a few more warm weeks, they will root out and be ready for a flying start when spring does come.
Our last swallow fledglings were still in their nests pleading to be fed into late September. It is hard to imagine them crossing the Sahara at such a tender age. We saw a few adults swooping for insects over the reservoirs into October; I gather some are now choosing to overwinter in the UK, although since I also read that they can eat 700 flying insects a day, I wouldn’t bet on their chances of surviving.
Over the next two months, next year’s cropping will be planned, fields allocated, and seeds and plants ordered. But what are we planning for? The problem for farmers, like swallows, is not knowing what to expect in a changing world where routines, built on experience accumulated over generations, no longer line up with reality. One might reasonably assume that warm autumns like this would allow crops to be planted later, but over the last 20 years we have actually brought the last date for planting leeks and lettuces forward by seven to ten days.
Indeed, the pattern for most growers has been to reduce the risks associated with exposure to extreme weather by retreating from the shoulders (start and end) of the season.
Another trend driven by risk aversion has been to bring crops indoors. When I started 33 years ago, most strawberries and raspberries were grown outside; today 95 per cent are grown under plastic tunnels. I anticipate the same trend for other crops.
It is hard to distinguish freak weather from climate change. 2020 has been a good growing year, and we expect to finish well ahead of budget; arguably the result of skill and economic prudence, along with some luck. But when we factor in CO2, economic prudence looks more like environmental madness.
Our commitment to get to net zero carbon demands that we reduce the 40 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions that come from trucking and shipping produce (we have never been environmentally insane enough to airfreight), whether from other growers in the UK or our friends in Spain. Getting to net zero requires us to grow more locally; to stretch our seasons back into the shoulders, probably use more polytunnels, and accept more risk.