Thursday, 26 January 2017

2016 - not the warmest year on record

It was not far off though. A mean of 16.33ºC for the year was marginally lower than 2015's 16.67.

A cool spring and occasional summer rain kept the maximum temperatures below those we have experience in recent years. Overall our mean of over 16º for the last three years, and close to it from 2010 to 2013 shows a definite warming trend. Ten to 12 years ago our mean was closer to 14º. Now I do not want to be alarmist and claim this is an indication of global warming, it is the result for one spot on the whole planet, although I accept that global temperatures appear to be gradually creeping up too.

The higher mean for recent years have come from higher minimums rather than higher maximums, and this has made life much more pleasant - not too hot in the summers and not too cold in the winters. We went from 9th February 2015 to 31st December 2016 between recording a minimum below zero. It has been very rare to record over 35º in the summer for the last few years, whereas the first few years after we arrived in 2003 gave us minimums of minus 6 on a few occasions each winter, and a maximum of 39º on a couple of occasions in the summer.

The olive harvest in 2016 was slightly lower than the previous year despite the trees still being young and continuing to grow. The exceptionally dry 2015 when I spent several months doing nothing but hand watering our 500 trees (losing two from dehydration) meant there was very little growth that year to produce the 2016 harvest. Nevertheless the big old tree in a very favourable spot next to the house had been given extra water through 2015 when it cropped exactly 59kgs, and with more favourable natural conditions in 2016, plus irrigation, managed to just top 60kgs. I have given it a fairly severe pruning because it was becoming too tall and very difficult to harvest the higher branches, so 2017 will not be a bumper year for it.

The annual pruning of the trees is behind schedule, because instead of beginning pruning immediately after harvest, I spent that time planting 814 almond trees. They are the self-fertile cultivar Soleta and I imported them from Spain. It was one of the cultivars bred by Sr Rafael Socias Company at CITA, Aragon and he was kind enough to have an email discussion with me regarding a choice of cultivar to plant. I had set myself a target of Christmas to complete the planting, and it was looking doubtful a week before that due to weather disruptions, but a few long days meant I planted the 814th about 20 mins before dark on Christmas Eve.

I then started on the olive pruning, but again, weather has delayed that (more rain today and much more forecast for the next two weeks) so I am hoping for a good spell of dry weather as the days lengthen over the next few weeks. Differentiation between flower and floral buds on the olives is about mid February and I like to be finished pruning before then. If I go on later I always feel as if I am cutting off fruit. I suppose we farmers are never satisfied with the weather. We need the rain, and we need the sunshine. We want both when it suits us and not at other times.


Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Cats

I am sure that many people reading this will be aware of Winston Churchill's statement "Dogs look up to you, cats look down upon you, but pigs treat you as an equal".

I think it is particularly true of cats. If they stay with you it is because they want to be there, and not from any sense of loyalty to the person who feeds them. Wherever we have farmed we have had cats. Never in the house, but always in the farm buildings. Cats are our vermin controllers.They always have ad lib good quality cat food and fresh water available. My opinion is that well fed cats will hunt for the fun of it.

Earlier this year our resident population of two females had a total of 10 or perhaps 11 kittens. I do not press them to be pets and the kittens always tend to run and hide when I am near them. The adults become friendly enough and seem content to be close without being petted. The numbers fluctuate from time to time due to natural causes and predators, but we have always managed to keep a few about.

At the beginning of July all of them simply disappeared overnight. No sign of anything. Then, at the end of September I had a sighting of one of the adult females crossing the river towards us. The level is low due to the long dry summer, and cats frequently cross it. Two days later both females turned up along with three, by now half grown, kittens. They settled immediately back in the large shed they had formerly occupied as their resting and sleeping place.

Obviously I have no idea where they have been, and not to sight them for about twelve weeks seems almost impossible if they were still in the vicintiy. I am out and about for most of every day and there is a good view of surrounding land from the house windows.

All were rather thin but not in poor condition, except one of the adults had lost her tail. She now has a stump about an inch long. I was really pleased to see them back, because the rains have started today - as can be expected at this time of year, and vermin will be looking for winter quarters. I have 700 bales of hay in this shed, and rats and mice would create havoc by chewing through the bale twine.

Where they have been, why they went away, and why they chose to return will always remain a mystery I suppose, but cats being the free spirits they are, I can only hope they stay.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

2016 to date

2015 ended with warm and wet weather, resulting in our hottest year to date, with the annual mean at 16.67ºC. This is the third year in a row that temperatures have beaten the previous annual high. Despite the wet end to the year we also recorded our lowest rainfall at 492mm, which included 148mm in the last few weeks of the year. As I have previously mentioned, yearly distribution is as important as annual total, sometimes more so. Both mild and wet conditions continued into 2016, and we went through the whole winter without experiencing a temperature below freezing point. By early May we had passed last year’s total rainfall.

Temperatures fell below recent years’ ones in April, and the annual mean is below the last two years as of the end of July. We also had a fall of rain measuring 26mm on 6th July with a very prolonged bout of thunder and lightning. We have never measured more than 16mm for the whole of July before, and some years none at all. After last year’s watering problems I am very pleased to be switching on pumps rather than having to fill my boom spray tank and then go and hand water the trees as I did last summer. I expect to run short very soon, but the olives will manage until the autumn rains.

Unfortunately there was rather too much rain when the trees were in bloom and pollination was not as good as I had hoped for. Nevertheless, the trees are almost all young and many have a reasonable crop for their age. There are a few trees with no crop at all. I will only know for sure how things turn out when the harvest is weighed and sold. This wet weather had a devastating effect on people growing top fruits – apples, pears, cherries, peaches, apricots, etc. and whole crops were lost in many cases. I do not have a single peach on any of my trees or any apricots either. Only one tree is bearing apples, and I have a single pear and a single plum. Grapes also appear to have suffered badly with very little fruit set. Fortunately all these fruits are just for our own use, but I do feel sorry for those growers who rely on them for an income. All farming is the same I suppose – extremely weather dependent.

I did have a good crop of hay on the few acres I cut. So good in fact that I am desperate for space. The crop, two small fields, was double the average yield of other years. I do not have any bale collectors or pick-up equipment so I have to pick up individual bales by hand and then stack by hand. I carry 11 bales at a time in the link box and 642 bales meant quite a few journeys to the field and back to the shed. It was hot work, especially when I was stacking close to the roof, but Patrick came and helped me with the last hundred or so because rain was forecast - and it did happen. He more than earned his couple of beers after we finished. Without him it would have got wet. It would have dried again, but also been just another unnecessary little hassle. Everybody needs good neighbours.

The major project for this year is planting almond trees and I have ordered 850 for early October delivery. Hopefully I will be able to plant them all before the olive harvest begins towards the end of that month. There is a lot of work in getting the land ready for them – they will be planted on raised berms and I do not have a machine to form them, so some experimentation with Patrick’s mouldboard plough has resulted in quite effective berms once I sussed out how many furrows to plough and in which direction so as to maximise the finished height.


I am also reclaiming a few hundred square metres of land that has never been cultivated before, and that means moving a lot of stones and earth. Again no machinery to automate the job, so hand stone picking and using the tractor link box as a mini-bulldozer is doing the trick. It is not yet finished, but will be by the time I need to plant trees on it.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

A Vegan Farm

The following is a shortened version of part of my book How not to make millions – but still enjoy a rich rural life. I thought it might make an interesting blog for vegans and vegetarians to read.

I have never met a farmer who is a vegan. It rather runs contrary to the notion of what a farmer is, but, just to show that I am willing to try to help those who want to grow food by alternative methods to my own I have given some thought to setting up a vegan farm. I felt I should do this because despite my own views I accept that some vegans might want to produce their own food – and sales to other vegans could be a lucrative business. I know there are smaller scale vegan producers, but I am thinking in terms of a bigger farm.

Whilst grassland (or the herbage naturally appearing due to non-cultivation) that is cultivated for a while and then allowed to return to a grazing area appears to have been around as long as there have been farmers, the  4 years grass/4 years cropping rotation is, I think, a little over 100 years old. It may be older but I have not seen it documented in detail before that. It is my favourite for a truly sustainable (that overused word again!) system of farming. Robert H. Elliott developed this way of farming at Clifton Park on the Scottish/English border and it is commonly referred to as the Clifton Park System. His book is available on line if you search. It is called The Clifton Park System of Farming and is well worth acquiring by anyone interested in maintaining the fertility of their land.

I regret I cannot advise a suitable location in many countries of the world, simply because I have only farmed in four. The land must be capable of growing grass without burning off in summer or killed by low winter temperatures and since there will be no livestock all land has to be cultivatable, with the ability to grow a wide range of crops. This restricts our vegan farm to favoured parts of only some countries, but it is essential to realise it will not work if the land is not suitable. Livestock cannot be grazed on ground unsuitable for cultivation as in a normal farm.

Size is not critical for the purpose of the exercise. Let us just assume it is big enough for everyone to recognise it as a farm. There is no upper size limit. We will further assume that it has been well maintained in the past so the land is in a good state of fertility, and that the new vegan owner has the knowledge and experience to operate the wide range of machinery and equipment required. It should be noted that this would be a labour intensive farm even with a full complement of modern equipment. Land in poor condition will take a long time to become ready to use the farm in a veganic way.

It is of paramount importance to maintain the Organic Matter content of the soil across the whole farm. I would split it into eight equal sized blocks, and crop each block for four years then four years in pasture in each rotation. It may not be possible in a stockless situation to have as many cropping years as pasture, so longer in pasture and less cropping may be necessary, with perhaps an increase in the number of blocks, but we will try 4 + 4. I say blocks because to equalise the size of the areas there might be a different number of fields in each block. That is not important so long as they remain within their own one eighth of the total area.

Additionally, since I would want to avoid buying nitrogen fertilisers if at all possible I would try having the pasture phases as a pure stand of white clover. I have no experience of using just clover for this purpose, and I doubt if many other people have either, but it is worth attempting if you are a vegan. White clover will persist easily for the time required; it forms a good ground cover and roots deeply. It is also easy to keep clover mowed short (sow a prostrate variety) as it would need to be in order to allow the mowings to be dragged underground by our friends rather than smother the living plants. It is also easy to kill out for the cropping phases. It would be necessary to buy any nutrients that soil analyses show are required, and also of course to replace those used by crops that are grown. This is to ensure it remains a sustainable system. I would prefer to test before and after the pasture phase to give an indication of nutrients removed during each phase. I would make as much compost as I possibly could.

What crops are grown will determine the machinery and equipment required. The first decision is probably whether or not to grow your own fuel oil. A lot of fuel will be used in the constant mowing of the pastures phases in addition to the cultivations and harvesting of the arable crops. I think I would grow my own, partly to be self-sufficient in fuel (some tractors can be run on straight vegetable oil) and partly to avoid using fossil fuel. A reasonable crop might leave a surplus to sell so there could still be some human food derived from the crop. I must point out, however, that I would never consume these refined vegetable oils myself. I have an inbuilt aversion to any food that needs a manufacturing process to make it edible. I also point blank refuse to consume food that is fortified with vitamins or minerals, and would never take supplements. I want my food to provide all I need. In suitable areas olives could be grown for human oil needs.

The oil would be the first crop after clover, and if I did not grow it I would make the first crop a cereal. Perhaps half and half might even be a better idea. Wheat could be grown in countries where bread making quality is achievable without high nitrogen inputs. A failure to reach this quality usually means the wheat goes for stock feed, which vegans would not want to happen. The reason for using these two crops is that I would use a grassland mouldboard plough to turn in the clover, burying the clover top growth at the bottom of the furrow and leaving it undisturbed during the first year of cropping. Very shallow cultivations to prepare the seed bed are therefore necessary. Both the oil and cereal crops would benefit from the accumulated nitrogen from the clover growth. If the area is not suitable for bread making quality wheat, then an alternative cereal crop could be grown. The choice may be limited by climate but maize, oats or rye for human consumption are the most likely.

Throughout the cropping phase there will be a decreasing level of available soil nitrogen each year, so I would have years two to four growing crops that more or less allowed for this. I would avoid the very high nitrogen demanders such as cabbage and the oriental brassicas and some of the possibilities below are more likely to be grown in the kitchen garden. This is where I would have all perennial crops including fruit and nuts. Again another reason to choose a “soft” area. Many fruits and nuts need warm conditions.

Potatoes would be a good choice for years two and three, spreading the disease risk by growing some earlies as well as maincrop. I am making the assumption that vegans are also opposed to the use of herbicides and fungicides. I would use half my available second year arable land for the maincrop potatoes and use half my available compost on them. Leeks, all the leaf beets and beetroot fit in here too, and if you had the labour force available to harvest them, and the market, you could grow some on a field scale.

The third year I would grow only early and second early potatoes on the half of the land that did not grow potatoes the previous year and use the other half of my compost on these. This way one quarter of the cropping land is in potatoes each year – spreading the machinery over a long season. There is always a market for quality potatoes, they will use the compost to best advantage, and the whole area receives some compost in either the second or third cropping year. In year three the other half (that had potatoes the previous year) could take most of the non-cabbage brassicas plus squashes, pumpkins and lettuce. Year four is for the lowest nitrogen demanders – a big range, beans, all alliums except leeks, and all the root crops except potatoes and beets. Even less demanding of nitrogen are garlic and peas. Then back to pasture.


Whilst I do believe this would work for individual vegan farmers, and using correct fertilisation techniques would make the yields undoubtedly better than organic farming and more on a par with conventional farming, it is still a low productivity farm because the land is only producing food for half the time. The same system with grazed livestock produces food every year, so the vegan system is not a good one for feeding the whole world.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Olives and Olive Oil

A little information about olives and olive oil. The most common mistake is the advice that “all olives begin as a green fruit and turn black when they are ripe”. Absolute nonsense. It is as wrong as saying that all apples turn red when ripe. There are several hundred distinct cultivars of olives in existence. They are called cultivars, not varieties. This is a botanical technicality that many people ignore. It is important to botanists, professional horticulturists and others to distinguish between the two, but most of the world happily ignores it, and I am sure the vast majority are not even aware there is a distinction. Look up the differences if you wish – you may end up confused. So far as olive growers are concerned the importance is that a cultivar will not come true to type if grown from seed. In other words you cannot take the pits from your favourite olive tree and grow lots more of the same cultivar. You need to take cuttings. This applies to all cultivars.

Whilst many of the cultivars do indeed turn black when ripe there are a considerable number that do not. Some ripen to a dark red, including the Cordovil de Castelo Branco which I grow, and others a brownish colour. There are at least two white cultivars that I know of – one each on the islands of Crete and Malta. There may well be more of which I am ignorant. It does not help when supposed authorities on olive cultivars refer to all olives that have a dark colour when ripe as “black” including the Calletier of Niçoise Salad fame, and known as Taggiasca in nearby Liguria, Italy.

As with wine, many factors influence the taste of olive oil. The land, the olives, the season, the timing of the harvest, the skill of the maker all contribute to the finished product and so oils have a wide range of colour and taste. There is no “best” oil, and there is no “best” wine. Like most things in life, it is a matter of personal preference. I drink a lot of wine, and there are some I do not like. Similarly, I have had olive oil in the past that I do not like either. It just happens that all Portuguese olive oils I have had suit my palate – just one of several reasons I live in Portugal rather than another olive oil producing country.

The expression “first cold press” is totally meaningless. All virgin oils produced under the regulations of the International Olive Oil Council, which includes all of Europe and many other countries, are obtained from a single pressing of the olive paste (pulp and pits combined) without the use of heat. Heat and solvents may be used later to produce refined and industrial grade oils. Those countries which do not belong to the IOOC, such as USA, make their own rules.

The next falsehood, and a favourite of producers of vegetable seed oils, is that olive oil, and particularly Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO), cannot and should not be used for frying. Again, absolute nonsense. Virgin olive oils have smoking temperatures at least as high as other non-refined oils. Almost all vegetable oils in shops are refined, having undergone an industrial process to produce the oil. Personally, I would not use them. For the same reason I would not use margarine or other refined vegetable spreads – only butter.

Seed oils only came into being about 100 years ago, and whilst animal fats had been used in those areas where the olive does not grow, olive oil was usually the only fat available for everyone around the Mediterranean basin. It is still used for all methods of cooking.

Consumers should be aware that due to the greed and criminal activities of some people there has always been fraud involved in the sale of olive oil. Several reputable tests by food authorities and others in recent years have consistently revealed the continuation of this fraud. The information is on the Internet for those who want to check.

How do you know that you really are buying EVOO or VOO, and it is made from olives (and only olives) grown the country where the label says it originates? Unfortunately the buyer is relying on the honesty of everyone involved in the production and bottling of that particular oil, so there is no way to be certain without having it tested. This is out of the question for the average consumer, but certain countries and certain bottlers are known to be more reliable than others when it comes to honesty of production.


I do not make my own oil, because the cost of setting up a mill and oil producing equipment is prohibitive for my quantity of olives,  but I buy the oil I use from the man to whom I sell my olives. I trust him and I know that the oil is made from olives grown by local growers. I am also more than happy to use VOO and not EVOO. If you can do so, buy direct from a mill. If not then I recommend you buy Portuguese oil in preference to any other. Obviously people who grow olives in other olive oil producing countries will recommend that you buy oil from their country. The choice is yours.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

A very short story

A boy went to study at St Andrews University. There he met a girl who had the name Catherine as one of her Christian names. They married a while after they both graduated.

Some time later they had a son and gave him the name Alexander as one of his Christian names. Then they had a daughter who was given the name Elizabeth as one of her Christian names. Water from the River Jordan was used for the baptism.

Who was the boy’s father?


If you answered Prince Charles you would be correct, but you would also be correct if you said it was me. Everything listed above that happened to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge also happened to my son and his wife – but one year in advance on every occasion. 

Friday, 27 November 2015

2015

I know it is not quite the end of the year, but it is a long time since I last posted, and the year end is going to be rather busy so I decided to write a synopsis of the events of 2015 now, at least in so far as my tiny piece of the earth is concerned.

It began very dry and rather cool although overnight minimum temperatures were just under freezing point with -2ºC being the coldest. It continued to be a year of low rainfall and it may well be the lowest annual precipitation since we came here in 2003, but 150mm before the end of the year will take us past the lowest we have so far recorded and that was 2004’s 541mm. We thought rainfall was generally under 600mm because that was what we received for the first 5 years we were here – with the exception of 2006. The last six years have been somewhat better. Of course distribution throughout the year is really of more consequence, and 2006 was also very dry, but 539mm in October and November of that year resulted in a total of 983mm. A misleading figure.

The weather has been the reason for the long delay in making another post. I was frantically irrigating so long as the water lasted, but supplies for irrigation ran out at the end of June. The next three months were a constant long day after long day battle carting water to the young olive trees to keep them alive. I lost four of the most recently planted and the crop from another three slightly older, but fortunately managed to get enough to the rest to keep them alive. Mature trees, with a similar mature root system, can withstand these few months without rain. That is the great advantage of olives; they will grow under arid conditions once they attain a reasonable size. They might not crop particularly well without supplementary water, but they will survive. For anyone familiar with real droughts as in Australia etc. it should be noted that we experience a few months of dry weather each summer, and there is always some rain in the autumn and winter.

We did not receive any really hot weather, four days at 36º being the hottest, but the nights were warmer than most years and this has resulted in the mean temperature for the year being above any previous one. 2014 was the hottest we have recorded and this year is on track to beat that, although a cold spell next month could reduce the annual figures, just as a lot of rain could alter that annual total.

Fortunately we received sufficient rain prior to the olive harvest to allow the fruit to reach a good size. Allowing for the young ages of the trees I was well pleased with the result. The quality was excellent and we sold every olive we picked. My wife and I picked 941kgs of olives individually into buckets held around our necks with bungee cords. This is the way to achieve the best quality. It also meant we did not need to run the crop over the grader to remove twigs, stems and damaged fruit.

If quality is down I need to accept that I can only take oil in exchange. I was also especially pleased that two old trees (that I retained when we grubbed out an old orchard) both topped 50kgs. A few years ago I would have considered that impossible, but as with all other crops I feed them liberally and control insect pests and fungal diseases. Many “authorities” around the world consider fertiliser should be restricted. I fertilise to replace nutrients removed in the previous year – prunings as well as the crop have to be taken into account, and the trees also need to grow and produce the current year’s crop too. Just like animals, plants need to be fed, watered and kept disease free if they are to thrive.

I kept the two trees because they had yielded consistently well in the first few years we were here, and had estimated crops of between 20 and 30kgs every year. The boxes we use for containing the olives between picking and delivering to the buyer hold 17kgs when full, and they are manufactured in such a way that each box is equally marked in three parts. If I want to know an approximate weight harvested from a particular tree it is easy to start a fresh box for that particular tree – and hopefully need another one too.

2014 showed a heavy crop on both so I decided to accurately weigh the crop from each tree. The result was 38.24 and 40.22kgs. The heavier yielding tree is quite a bit bigger. This year they yielded 53.33 and 59.00kgs. The bigger one was originally 58.98, but it is very difficult to hand pick every last olive on a big tree and when I had completed the weighing searched the tree for missed fruit. Sure enough there were a few so I managed to reach the 59kgs. I noticed two olives still on the tree yesterday, but I am not prepared to organise things for two olives. Next year will not be so heavy because I have reduced the height of them both, and pruned some branches that would lead to overcrowding in the canopy next year if left unpruned.

I built a picking platform (with safety rails) to fit in the box for the three point linkage of the tractor – along the lines of the platforms often referred to as “cherry pickers” and which you see being used to assist with putting Christmas lights in place in towns, or for maintenance of street lighting. I do not have the height lifting capacity of the machines used for these purposes and I do not need it. The platform I stand on is about shoulder height from the ground and sufficient that I harvested all trees without the need to use ladders, bending over branches too high to reach comfortably. Tree height will be kept to this maximum.

The lack of irrigation, and the necessity of keeping the olives alive, meant that the kitchen garden was a disaster. A few tomato plants kept themselves alive and that was the sum total of this year’s garden harvest. Weeds, as always, managed to keep going, and the garden is currently in a mess. Hopefully I will be able to get back to more normal management of the place over winter.


The last thing to suffer from my summer of water carting was getting in wood for the heating stove. Fortunately we have not yet had to light it, so it should be a short season for its use, and I do have some wood already prepared, so I just need to keep pace with its use and we will get through. I am still using the stumps of old olives we grubbed out a few years ago. I bust these up into suitable sized pieces with a heavy block splitter and steel wedges. Heavy work, but it is a better workout than using my home gym.  I am sure I will live longer by doing this type of work – and, of course, following the Mediterranean peasants’ usual diet of lots of meat, animal produce in general in fact, and plenty of wine.  Olive oil, fruit and vegetables are also consumed, and I have the extra of generous helpings of butter at every available opportunity.