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Seed Week 2019 – Brown Envelope Seeds

When I look at the soils on my farm, I note that it is easy to put a spade into the woodland and make a hole for a new tree, but in the grassland it is much harder. This is not surprising when you think that cattle walk around on it all summer. However the worst soil on the farm is where I grew a garden in the past, by rotovating a piece of pasture, until all the grass died, then grew seed crops for a couple of years before letting it to return to pasture. It is gradually recovering from this abuse, as the animals fertilise it, the more vigorous grasses take over from the weeds, and presumably the underground flora and fauna migrate back from the surrounding field. The field was white with mushrooms this year, except for the part I had ‘gardened’. I recognise that this is not the right way to do things.

If I want to preserve ‘good heart’ in the land and grow crops for food or seed, no-till is the obvious way to go. No dig gardening is popular and has been practiced for decades. Ruth Stout’s book, ‘How to have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back’ was published in 1955, and Charles Dowding’s methods have gone mainstream in the last few years. So it is clear that it is very possible on a small scale, but is it possible on a field scale? Possibly the first no-till manual – One Straw Revolution. It was written by Masanobu Fukuoka in 1975. https://onestrawrevolution.net I read it in the 1980’s but presumed no-till wouldn’t work here. However last year I found videos of the organic no-till system in Rodale https://rodaleinstitute.org/science/articles/demonstrating-the-use-of-roller-crimper-technology-and-starter-fertilizer-in-no-till-organic-corn/ and I follow a Belgian organic farmer on Twitter called Alfred Grand who also does no-till organic using the roller crimper.  I started asking some of the more experienced field scale crop growers here, whether they thought it was possible and most have been doubtful. Andy Workman, who, in spite of being organic, was nominated for cereal farmer of the year last year, said he didn’t think he could do with out the plough to kill vigourous cover crops. I have heard that the roller crimper, introduced by the Colchesters in KIlkenny is not working too well because of the limited windows of dry weather  needed to kill the cover crops. So far, it seems, organic no-till systems here have copied the systems used in warmer drier climates.

The seeds we grow now reflect the agriculture systems in which they developed.  Our digestive systems, soils, and their flora and fauna, have developed alongside these seeds. We are in a symbiotic relationship with them that has for the last 10,000 years depended on us harvesting and minding seed from cultivated soils. Can we ask those same seeds to produce in a no-till system? No, but like farmers who have been destroying the top-soil, we can encourage them to change. We can try new cover crops that can cope with our winters and can be killed in spring by mowing rather than ploughing. We can select crops not normally autumn sown, for survival.  We can save the ones that seem to be adapting and re-sow them.

Last Sunday, St Patrick’s day, was the first pleasant day we have had for a while, and I wandered up to the seed field to see how the overwintering crops were getting on. I had sown green manures in October when the seed crops had been harvested.  Because it was late the only thing that established itself was the rye, but a few things had self seeded. In the polytunnel there was a carpet of parsley, dill and orache. Outside there were parsnip and radish seedlings, and in the grass around the cultivated patch a lone crimson flowered broad bean. They gave me hope.

I was 60 last year and my working life is finite. I could spend what is left of it growing and selecting crops for seed that would do well in a cultivated garden or field. Or, I could try and develop a no-till system along with an associated suite of seeds.  It took Fukuoka 30 years to perfect his no-till rotation in Japan, I’m not sure I have 30 years, but what if we worked together….

Madeline McKeever – Founder of Brown Envelope Seeds

www.brownenvelopeseeds.com

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