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News from the farm   |   Soil

Record rainfall as winter starts early

With the trees almost naked, salads giving way to leeks and Savoy cabbages, and the ground sodden, we are battening down for a long winter. Unlike last year’s gloriously dry and sunny autumn, many seasonal springs were running by early October this year, as rain fell and the water table rose faster than water could percolate through the subsoil to the slate below.

We have had 19 inches of rain since 1 September; half our annual average and more than double the same period last year. Fear of repeating the dire winter of 2013 is rising in my stomach.

Rain
Rain has reached record levels for this time of year.

Though I have done my time pulling leeks in a January gale, weighed down by mud and waterproofs, I doubt I could hack it full-time today. Watching the teams return to unload their leeks, cabbages and kale, I am amazed at the smiles; maybe it is just relief that they will soon be warm and dry.

Spare them a thought as you chop your veg. As well as physical and mental strength, it requires great dexterity to clean, trim and strip a leek neatly, especially when your fingers are half frozen.

When the soil is this wet, the structure becomes unstable and vulnerable to damage by machinery, livestock and even feet. Ideally, we would shut the gates and keep off, but the perishability of green veg forces us to harvest almost every day regardless of the conditions. Life would be easier on better drained, sandy soils and in lower-rainfall areas further east.

That said, the proximity of the Atlantic, which delivers the wet air, also keeps us warm; our mild winters allow us to grow crops which would suffer in the colder, dryer east. And the clay in our soil helps hold nutrients which would be leached away on sands.

We do our best to protect the soil. We use low ground-pressure harvesting vehicles on caterpillar tracks, leave grassy borders, and grow rye or vetch on resting fields to cover the soil and trap sediment. Running a cultivating tine behind the tractor on the year’s final weeding increases percolation and avoids run-off, which can cause soil loss and flooding in heavy rain. In some areas we trap run-off in dikes. 

Every year it becomes harder to find hardy souls able to stand a winter in the fields – and climatologists suggest our weather will only get wetter. Investing in more polytunnels, caterpillar-tracked vehicles and better tracks to improve access across the farm has to be a priority.

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    Guy Singh-Watson

    Self-confessed veg nerd, Guy Singh-Watson has over the last 30 years taken Riverford from one man and a wheelbarrow delivering homegrown organic veg to friends, to a national veg box scheme delivering to around 50,000 customers a week. Guy is an opinionated and admired figure in the world of organic farming, who still spends more time in the fields than in the boardroom. Twice awarded BBC Radio 4 Farmer of the Year, Guy is passionate about sharing with others the organic farming and business knowledge he has accumulated over the last three decades. His video rants have provided a powerful platform to do this, with a video on pesticides going viral on Facebook to reach 5.6 million views and 91,000 shares. His weekly veg box newsletters connect customers to the farm with refreshingly honest accounts of the trials and tribulations of producing organic food, and the occasional rant about farming, ethical and business issues he feels strongly about. In June 2018, Guy handed over the reins of Riverford to its staff, choosing employee ownership as the model that will protect Riverford's ethical values forever and ensure the security of its employees.  

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