Saturday, 8 July 2017

the mystery of the missing straw

As I drove back from the supermarket this morning past the freshly combined lettuce farm the thought crystallised that I had not seen straw bales in any of the fields.  If I'd missed seeing them in just one field, and if I hadn't been out for a couple of days, I might have believed that they had been collected up, but I couldn't have not seen all of them in any of the fields.  I can only assume that the combine was working like a mulch lawnmower and chopping the straw into little bits to be ploughed in with the stubble in due course.

That would make sense.  Any soil, and certainly sand, is all the better for added organic material, and as there isn't much livestock reared around here there probably isn't that much demand for straw.  Several years ago I heard of straw from north Essex being transported up the A1 to Yorkshire to feed biomass boilers, in some quota driven and subsidised green energy scheme, and thought then that it couldn't possibly help the environment overall to drive straw a couple of hundred miles in order to burn it.  With any luck tighter rules on subsidies have put paid to that particular silliness.  If you don't want straw for animal bedding, and don't have a handy biomass boiler, then using it to build up your soil would be a good use for it.

If only I ever saw the farmer other than in passing, him in his Range Rover and me in my Skoda, I could ask him.  I expect he would be happy to tell me.  When I have met him he has always seemed very nice, but I almost never do meet him.  Once on Open Farm Sunday, when he drove us around the polytunnels in his Range Rover.  Once at a party for the locals hosted by our now deceased neighbour.  Once when I flagged him down to give him some leaflets about the Essex Wildlife Trust's barn owl box project, and his expression of fear turned to palpable relief when he discovered I wanted to talk to him about owls and wasn't going to complain about some aspect of the farm.  The last time I saw him not in his car was probably at our neighbour's funeral.

The farming community seems almost hermetically sealed.  We saw a little of our late neighbour, the retired apple farmer, and I know a bee farmer who did conventional farming in his youth, but apart from that I think I have visited the home of one farmer socially in nearly a quarter of a century of living surrounded by fields, and that was the partner of an ex colleague and the acquaintance lapsed as soon as they ceased to be an item.  And he was a working farmer.  One of the reasons why his relationship with my friend foundered was that he spent about twelve hours a day on his tractor, six and a half days a week.  When it comes to the landed gentry we are about as likely to be invited into the home of an inhabitant of Stamford Hill's Orthodox community as to be asked to dinner by any of the gentlemen farmers.  One thing the Archers' scriptwriters got right was Glebelands, the modern housing development in Ambridge sometimes referred to in passing, but whose inhabitants don't get speaking roles.  They wouldn't. None of the farming characters, the Archers and the Aldridges, would know any of them.

It is a pity.  Somebody ought to write an idiot's guide to farming, for people who aren't planning to take it up themselves but would like to be able to recognise and understand what is going on around them every day in the countryside.  I would write it myself if only I knew any farmers to collaborate with.

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