If you are not prepared to weed and look after a tree for the first three years of its life, you might as well not plant it. Almost all commercial tree plantings are weeded with an annual dose of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Round-up). It’s a broad spectrum, systemic herbicide, killing everything it touches right down to the roots. In the 1980s, we were told that glyphosate had low mammalian toxicity, and was quickly broken down by soil bacteria into harmless residues. 40 years later, we have used over six billion kilograms of the stuff globally, but it has proved to be anything but harmless.
For decades, shareholders of Monsanto (the original patent holder) made huge profits from ‘the world’s most popular herbicide’, before Monsanto was bought by fellow agrichemical giant Bayer for $63 billion in 2018. Bayer now faces lawsuits for tens of billions from glyphosate’s causal link to blood and liver cancers. I almost feel sorry for them. Tragically, there is a 10-15 year lag between exposure and symptoms, exposing the inadequacy of our (largely unchanged) testing regime for pesticides – and indeed novel chemicals in general.
To weed our trees, we use damaged veg boxes and sheep’s wool insulation, covered with about 15kg of compost around each tree. A team of three can mulch around 40 trees per hour – making it ten times as expensive as glyphosate. Set against that, the wool and compost will slowly break down to feed the trees over the critical first three years, the mulch conserves moisture in a dry summer, our team might live longer, and the soil and stream below will not be polluted. From last year’s planting of 2,500 hazel and walnut trees, over 98 per cent are bursting to life.
Nut agroforestry, or more specifically silvopasture (animals grazing under widely spaced trees), is still too risky commercially for all but the most die-hard enthusiast farmers. It brings substantial benefits in terms of biodiversity, reduced soil loss, and sequestering carbon, but needs a helping hand to make the economics stack up until we can prove viability at scale. We are planting many trees independently – and to help us do more, in the absence of any support from Defra, we are encouraging Riverford customers to ‘Refer a Friend’. For every new customer, we will plant a tree on organic farmland; the money that we would have spent on marketing can instead go to farmers, to cover the cost of the trees and the first year or two of weeding. Visit riverford.co.uk/refer to get involved.