The View from the Hill 20th February 2022
Our first calves of the season arrived last week. As 55 plump cows munch happily on hay and silage from stewardship margins and pasture, indoors, waiting to produce a new crop of calves, their older offspring continue to march through cover crop and turnips outside, waiting for warmer weather and grass growth to wave the magic wand of compensatory growth, and transform them from scruffy and slightly muddy individuals with incredibly pongy breath, into rippling hunks of shiny beef by mid summer.
Would the establishment of a premium market for pasture fed meat split the farming community down the middle? We would love to retail our own beef and lamb as premium pasture fed, but when 50 beefies fatten over a two month period in summer, and 250 lambs all reach their best in January and February, we would have a continuity problem. It is fine to proclaim the benefits of pasture fed, but how do we keep the nation fed for the rest of the year? Fresh is best of course, so freezing is not the answer on such a huge scale. These arguments need to be taken on board by those who would criticise our industry for climate/health reasons. Ask 10 vegans or vegetarians why they have chosen that route, and you will probably get 10 different answers, some of which might not stand up to scrutiny if we could find out how and where the vegan diet is produced. It all points to the continuing need for rational calm debate. Over 55% of the UK is permanent pasture, humans can’t digest grass, but ruminants can turn it into food that is climate friendly, nutrient dense and packed with essentials.
Several days have been spent recently attempting to separate the various seed mixtures we grew last year in our experimental bi-cropping field. We grew 6 different combinations, some have proved easy to separate, such as beans with linseed, where there is a huge difference in size and density of the two species, oats with peas were also not too difficult, but when it comes to oats with vetch, or beans with peas then the job gets really tough. We have used our own ancient Rutherford ‘shake’ cleaner, and have also hired a bulk cleaning rig from our regular seed cleaners Evans and Pearce, which uses air to separate seeds and chaff, but neither are able to achieve the impossible. We have obtained useful samples of peas, oats, vetch and phacelia, but the others will have to remain forever mixed. The bi-cropping theory is that a mixture of species growing together can be healthier for the soil, and the diversity can bring protection from diseases to the foliage as well. More care will have to be taken with pairing choices this year.
A trip to the Oxford Real Farming conference had been planned for the first week of January, so when it went virtual for covid reasons, a couple of mates who suffer a bit of a paddling habit, suggested we still went to Oxfordshire, but dressed rather differently, and that we should take a couple of boats with us.
The Thames rises in Gloucestershire, quite near Cirencester, although there is some dispute about exactly where, it is a moveable feast, depending how much it has rained and where the water table is. It becomes navigable before Cricklade, which is where we began our trip, next to the cricket club. It had rained quite a bit over Christmas, so the river was still quite full, though its level doesn’t vary a great deal, regulated as it is by weirs and sluices. Having purchased a licence, we felt entitled to employ the services of the lock keepers as we passed, who were unfailingly friendly, though some were less keen to open lock gates for us than others, so we sometimes had to drag the canoes out of the water and carry them around the locks. It wasn’t long before one of our number managed to get a ducking when he couldn’t bend enough to get under a low concrete bridge, annoying for him so early in the day, but very entertaining for the rest of us. Halfway through the morning we noticed that a section of the river had burst its banks, so we paddled off into the field only to find ourselves surrounded by maize stalks, and no hint of a cover crop to stabilise the soil. Let’s be frank, this was not a good advertisement for responsible farming, the soil will be washed into the river, along with attached nutrients such as phosphate, and cause huge problems in the water, the silt covers the gravels so important for fish and other aquatic life, and the phosphate causes algal blooms which starve the water of the oxygen so vital for healthy water life. Our cluster group on the Dorset Stour has had many presentations on the importance of keeping soil and phosphate out of water, and any sensible farmer understands that letting his productive soil wash into the river is pure madness. How can maize be so valuable that it justifies such loss of soil down the river?
Further on down the river towards Lechlade, we met a group of wild swimmers, on their way to take a refreshing dip in the river, cheerful, and dressed in an assortment of brightly coloured gowns, did they really know what they were about to cover themselves in? Only a few days later the national media took up the story of how much sewage finds its way into the river from Thames Water treatment plants when it rains hard and the plants can’t cope with the volume of sewage, which gets diluted by rain water. Wessex Water, in our own region, is not very different, it is easy to find information in the public domain about how much outflow emits from their riverside treatment plants through the year. It’s not pleasant to recall the much trumpeted privatisations of the public utilities in the 1980s, which have resulted in them being owned by enormous international corporations more interested in paying dividends to shareholders than upgrading ageing and inadequate infrastructure. It begs questions when we find the water companies trying to offset their pollution by paying farmers to reduce their applications of manures and fertilisers and grow cover crops.
For those still mystified by last month’s picture teaser, sadly no correct answers have been received, the close-up shot of little round orange fungi was in fact from a cow pat, and to those who would claim that our cowpats are unhealthy I would unleash a resounding raspberry.
Found in a gallery in the Victoria and Albert museum in London, this lovely picture by John Herring Senior shows a form of traditional arable farming from before the days of no-till. 1855.
And an idyllic harvest scene from a couple of decades earlier, by P de Wint.
The real purpose of the trip to the V&A was to visit an exhibition of the work of renowned Dorset potter Richard Batterham. The route to Room 146 took us through long galleries of art and ceramics from around the world, architecture, decorative ironwork, and almost every element of human culture you can imagine. One of the most spectacular areas is the Cast Courts where you can find casts and copies of some of the world’s most inspiring objects, such as Michelangelo’s David, and a section of Trajan’s column. (The original stands in Emperor Trajan’s Forum in Rome).
On arrival in room 146, we were able to see how the V&A has presented Richard’s work to the the world.
Richard Batterham (1936-21) was one of the most revered studio potters of his time. In 1959 he married Dinah and they settled in Durweston, where they brought up their five children and together built a new pottery in the early 60s. Richard spent the whole of his life creating many thousands of beautiful pots, he always carried out every stage in the process of making, mixing and preparing his clays and glazes himself, to create a range of pots, jugs, caddies, teapots and numerous other items, many of which will be familiar to friends in the area who are fortunate to own and use such items. The pots speak for themselves, but the story behind them, of Richard’s work and dedication to his passion, is fascinating.
Richard and Dinah were both kind, friendly and popular people in the village, and in the long years since Dinah’s death, Richard continued to play his part in village life. It was a pleasure to know him and it is a real treat to own and use his pots every day. He was a truly remarkable fellow, whenever one would visit him at work in the pottery he was always happy to take time out for a catch up, and then without missing a beat he would return to creation of his timeless and beautiful pots. I like to imagine the archeologists of the future unearthing Richard’s pots in thousands of years time, as we do now on the farm find fragments made by others, long ago. He certainly left his mark on this earth.
There are two short films available about Richard and his pots, each is approx 30 mins, and both are well worth watching. The first: Richard Batterham – Independent Potter, is a delightful, gently paced ‘interview’ of Richard at work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tN3hRRIO4-c
The second: Richard Batterham – Master Potter, is similar but different, and includes observations and comment from students of his work, including David Attenborough. The main film begins 3 minutes in: