Since collecting hazelnuts, dropped like gifts from heaven onto my shed roof with no effort on my part, the idea of growing nuts commercially took root and refuses to leave.
After a lifetime spent growing over-bred, puny and temperamental veg plants, which need annual planting, constant encouragement, and give up at the first hardship, I yearn for vigorous crops that are truly happy in our climate.
British hedgerows have withstood the abuses of hedge-trimmers, undermining rabbits and marauding livestock since the 18th century Inclosure Acts; they are incredibly diverse, but the dominant plant is normally hazel. Can we learn from these beautiful hedges, which also provide sanctuary for so much wildlife?
The persistence of my nutty dream finally led us to hosting a seminar last week on the potential for commercial nut growing in Devon. An Italian nut agronomist thought our climate and soil were near ideal. Peckish squirrels, and a beetle which lays its eggs in the nuts, seem to be the main threat; the investment needed for harvesting, drying and processing equipment is scary but manageable; and then there’s the need to develop a whole new area of expertise.
Altogether, it is a huge gamble. But a number of the farmers in attendance were interested, partly through a desire to be part of the solution rather than the problem with regard to climate change and wildlife loss. Charles Tebbut, a nut importer determined to get more nuts grown in the UK, estimated that the social cost savings from carbon sequestration, avoided pollution, and wildlife benefits could be quantified at £409 per hectare per year.
If a mechanism existed to pay that, it would be more than enough to get us planting. But it is a theoretical exercise; frustratingly, despite the widely acknowledged benefits of agroforestry and Michael Gove’s mantra of ‘public money for public goods’, under the current rules, planting hazel trees would actually cost us £180 per hectare every year in lost grants. A review of those rules was cancelled due to Brexit. Despite my deep scepticism of carbon off-setting, entering that murky market would be one answer.
I suspect we will still be arguing about how to reward for environmental services and charge for pollution even as the last hectare of melting permafrost belches its methane into the atmosphere. Perhaps we will just plant our hazels anyway.