Nuts and rationality

I will never see the walnuts in full production, but have been sustained 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.

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.


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  1. Yes, yes, yes! I’ve been on the hunt for UK produced nuts and there a very minimal suppliers so very much looking forward to a harvest down the track. Also on the hunt for some organic UK cold-pressed rapeseed oil but no luck finding it. Seems we have field everywhere with the yellow flowers spread across the countryside but we import other oils rather than making from our own. Hoping availability of this will increase too 🙂

    1. Before covid and the reduction in the food ranges from Riverford there was a rapeseed oil they sold produced by a grower somewhere a bit north. Don’t remember the name but it obviously exists. Hope this helps

  2. My late uncle was passionate about walnuts and planted lots round the place. They should start producing nuts soon. I need to resurrect the annual squirrel shoot! That was his favourite event of the year.

  3. I’m passionate about walnuts too and have a harvest of about 150 kilos a year of the French ‘Corne’ variety, which renders excellent oil. Apart from taking the walnuts to a local mill to be pressed, I have started making walnut cookies to support a new local grocer’s, which sells a range of organic cereals and flours. I’ve never used any chemicals in my garden. The chickens and Indian Runners no doubt help to keep up the fertility.

  4. Please read in full before dismissing me as one of the ‘save the fluffy bunny brigade’…..
    I enjoyed this article as always when I read it after it appeared in our veg box this week but was troubled by your words around the prospect of reaching for your air rifle to see off squirrels. The human animal, from its position within the foodchain must protect its food sources – yes. Grey squirrel, have earned themselves a poor reputation – yes, through an association with the depletion of numbers of native red squirrel, but it was man’s doing in introducing them to this country.
    BUT , unless I’m mistaken, what came over in your words Guy was a boyish glee in killing. If so, this puts you not so far off the mindset of, for example, those who blast birds out of the sky on their migration back here from Africa, and the numbers are staggering. From Isabella Tree’s book Wilding, written in 2018, we learn that, for turtle doves alone, 100,000 are killed by the guns of Malta each season, 800,000 as the birds cross Spain. Increasingly the threat of loss of biodiversity and mass extinction is being identified as matching if not exceeding the threats associated with climate change.

    You are an intelligent person Guy who I know cares about the environment, and restlessly looks for solutions to problems – but giving way to an instinct to ‘cop a squirrel’, doesn’t seem to fit with that and is disappointing.

    1. Thats a good point Lorna. Have you watched The Biggest Little Farm film? That has the same attitude. You should work with nature so it can find it’s own balance rather than you having to shoot anything. Thanks for the reminder. Going to add that point to a doc for farmers who want to rent land off me. 🙂

    2. That’s good to hear…every step counts. Will take look at the film – looks good.

  5. Hadn’t realised quite how mad the nut growing world is, so well done! BUT I hope those ‘old complex pastures’ are not very biodiverse already. Unimproved (that is flower rich) grasslands have been hammered by modern farming and, in some cases, by tree planting (because the trees shade out the grassland flowers). 97% of unimproved grasslands in England and Wales were lost in the 1900’s so any that are left are very special. It may seem strange but trees planted in the wrong places can lower biodiversity rather than raise it… Also, good luck with the squirrels!!

    1. That does seem counter-intuitive, but I guess when you see barren forests used for biomass it makes sense, like this really interesting Guardian investigation shows.

      Like anything, it’s got to be in the right context for it to work, and a one size fits all solution is a bit of a fallacy.

      Batty Bex, what’s the key to planting trees in the right place?


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