May 2006

View from the Hill                                      29th April 2006

What are the chances of a sunny bank holiday weekend?  I remember last year that we had a bit of rain at the Georgian Fair in Blandford.  Everything is pretty dry again at the moment, April looks like it will be one of the driest on record, and with so little rain over the winter months, what awaits us this summer, a damp one or a drought to bring on an early harvest?  Most of our spring crops are well established now, growing fairly slowly in the dry and cooler than average conditions.  Only the sunflower crop remains to be planted in the next couple of weeks, we have 60 acres planned, between Travellers Rest and Websley, they are being brown on a contract for the RSPB, fingers crossed that we will get them harvested before Christmas.

A recent trip to Cornwall left me pondering over the contrast between the Cross-compliance rules we farmers are now subjected to, whereby we are told when and where we can feed our animals and drive our vehicles on our fields during winter, to prevent soil erosion; and the china clay industry, where massive holes are dug in the ground to extract several million tonnes of china clay each year, and the spoil is simply dumped in massive heaps around St Austell, which resembles more of a post nuclear war battleground than an attractive rural landscape, which it must have once been.

It is interesting to note how much damage has been done to the beech trees remaining in the forests on Shillingstone hill by the thinning operations recently carried out to remove the last of the fir trees.  The timber is worth so little that the whole operation needs to be done quickly and efficiently with large machinery if it is to be worth doing at all, and the down side is a bit of collateral damage.  The same principles apply to farming; the trouble is that if farmers appear to make a mess in their quest to make a living, it is laid out for all to see, unlike forest operations which are mostly safely shielded from view!

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting an elderly lady who was travelling around the area with her son, looking for the farm where she had spent two years as a land army girl in the early 1940’s.  The farm turned out to be Shepherds Corner.  Miss Thomas, as she was then, remembered Mr Gifford, who was the farmer, and Miss (Helen) Gifford, as well as Mr Ernest Upward, who was the foreman, and with whom she and her fellow land girl lodged.  Unfortunately she could not remember who milked the cows in Durweston then, but she did remember doing plenty of tractor driving, and in the wet weather often went into the barn to stitch up sacks, and if it was cold, they would stuff straw into their boots.

I have been interested to discover lately how much wheat it takes to drive a mile.  If converted into ethanol, the wheat from one hectare of the crop is more than enough to drive an average car around the world.  Approximately half a kilo of wheat will take you one mile, the same amount that would make a 2 lb loaf of bread, or feed a cow sufficiently to produce two pints of milk.  You can even use wheat, or barley or oats, to heat your home.  We have just been on an expedition to investigate boilers which can burn grain, there are quite a few different designs on the market, mostly made in Scandinavia.  In many cases they are simply wood-pellet boilers that have been adapted to burn grain.  The important thing to note is that around 2.5 kilos of grain, worth about 20 pence, produces the same amount of energy as one litre of heating oil costing 34 pence.  Also of course, it is more environmentally friendly, the CO2 it produces on combustion is only as much as was fixed from the atmosphere while the crop was growing.  Oil from under the ground when burnt releases CO2 which was captured from the atmosphere millions of years ago.

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