April Gardening Newsletter

 Dear Fellow Gardeners,

I hope you won’t be disappointed, as this won’t be an informative practical gardening newsletter, but more a summary of my first few weeks of my Nuffield Travels. I was hoping to write a regular blog, but so far the schedule is very intense – very early morning starts and late arrivals in hotels.

If anyone would like to see some of the places I have visited, you can have a look by clicking at the following link – Polarsteps:

This is work in progress and I’ll try to add more information whenever I get time.

I’m so greatful to Nuffield Ireland that I have been selected as one of the 5 Irish scholars to explore agricultural innovations, observe trends and most importantly find out what the future of agriclulture will be. Geoff Dooley (chairperson of Nuffield Ireland) said the most important benefit of Nuffield is to give scholars a peripheral vision of farming. I get a great overview of all farming matters and perspectives from lots of different countries.

With a growing world population, a growing decline in soil health (and a loss of topsoil accounting to 25% of area) and more and more the problem of water availablility – the state of world agriculture is a very challenging one, but more on this later.

Before leaving on this 10 week trip, John Tyrrell (Executive Secretary Nuffield Ireland) organised meetings in Ireland to brief us about Irish agriculture and we met key players and policy makers – DAFM, Bord Bia, Ornua, Enterprise Ireland etc.


Week 1

On the 9th of March we all left to the Contempary Scholars in the Netherlands. There were over 80 scholars from 1Australia, New Zealand, Brasil, Uruguay, Ireland, Kenya, Tanzania, UK, US, Japan, Mexico and South Africa. This was an amazing introductory week which was excellently hosted by Karen and Roberta (from Ireland).
There was so much information and I’m in danger of boring you so just a brief summary or some points I observed:

The Netherlands:
In the Netherlands they do things properly, efficiently and never in half measures. A few centuries ago – peatland was drained so they could grow crops. When peat dries out it shrinks and the land started to sink. When you are at sea level already this is a big problem. More and more land was taken by what they called the “Water Wolf” and Lake Almere formed – a large lake that was connected to the sea.
Once agriculture expanded, the Dutch decided to reclaim back this lake and with canals, windmills and dykes they managed to drain the lake back out into the sea and reclaim large areas of fertile soil. So where we stayed for the first week was actually 6m below sea level. The first days I felt a bit apprehensive, but got used to it. There were a few massive floods in the past – a terrible one in 1916 and since then the Dutch have become the best water engineers in the world. Still I wouldn’t choose to live below sea level especially in this age of global warming.

Dutch agriculture is – as I said – very efficient – even too efficient. They are the second largest exporter of agricultural goods (after US). This is amazing for such a small nation. But the consequences are that they breached EU rules for nitrate and phosphate overload. But they can react quickly and efficiently – the cattle herd was reduced and other strict regulations are in place. Regulations in the Netherlands are very strict and according to the Dutch motto: “If there is a problem – you solve it”.

One of my room mates in the first week was Rick – a Dutch dairy farmer (conventional) milks 120 cows on 30ha of land – this means that he has 4 cows per hectare of land. In Leitrim a farmer would be lucky to be able to feed 1 cow per hectare. Rick’s land is still sinking – he is worried that soon he won’t be able to farm any longer.
Another room mate – Gus who is originally from Zimbabwe and now lives in London, farms 450,000 hectares in Brazil. To put this into perspective – Ireland has 4.4 million hectares of agricultural land. So he farms the equivalent of 10% of Ireland total agricultural land and he does it from London and flies over once a month.
Most of the Australian farmers also own in the region of 5,000 to 60,000 hectares. Apparently you can’t make a living if you have less than 2,000 hectares there. To put this in perspective: the average farm size in Ireland is 32.3ha, Italy has an average farm size of 8.8ha of land.

Farm Subisdies:
The Australians and New Zealanders work without farm subsidies and can’t understand the EU farm subsidy programmes. They feel it gives an unfair trade advantage for European farmers and that it leads to unproductive farms. I tried to argue that the role of a famer is also as a steward of the land and that many of these subsidies are linked to environmental measures and will even be more so in the new CAP. I tried to argue about Agriculture – being the “culture of the land” – rather than just mere agribusiness with its inherent problems. But still – they argue back that a business that can’t stand on its own feet is not sustainable and will eventually crash.
This is the beauty of this Nuffield Trip – we come from different cultures and different farming background and have all become friends. And I’m sure the discussions will go on and the horizon broadens.

Global Focus Programme –
Week 2
After a week in Holland we embarked on our trip. I’m travelling with 8 scholars (Australians, New Zealand , US and Wales) of completely different background (more on this in a blog). The first week we spent in Italy and depsite the freezing cold weather (even in Rome) we had the most amazing time visiting olive oil producers, parma ham processing plants, small organic farms and the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations) in Rome. We had an amazing meeting with key representatives of FAO and they asked if we will become involved in discussions with FAO as they want input from people on the ground.. I really love theItalian farming and processing sector. They do it with love and passion. Quality is the most important – you couldn’t get way with average produce in Italy. Itally also has its farming problems though – water. Water usage is in competition with between food production and houselhols usage. The Professors at the University of Pisa were worried about the governments inactivity. In some areas of Italy the groundwater has already dropped by 30m and this has caused a subsiding of land by about 3m and as a result some buildings in these areas have cracked and are abandoned. Another massive problem is sea water intrusion – where sea water is sucked into groundwater due to excessive extraction of groundwater. The researcher from the University of Pisa came up with good and even low cost solutions by building deep aquifers which collect any excess water during rain and bring it down into the groundwater rather than letting it run out into the sea (Managed Aquifer Recharge Strategies). Unfortunately their government is not acting on their suggestions and the problem will continue.

Week 3:
We then flew to Washington – still freezing cold and had meetings with farming representatives from the senate and USDA. I’ll cover some of these details in a blog – otherwise this newsletter will become far too long.

Now we are in Texas. We stayed in Fort Worth – also known as “Cow Town”. It’s still a real cowbow town with saloons, wide streets – the real Texas.
I must admit – I had some prejudices about the US and Texas, but Texas in spring is a beautiful state and the people are so friendly – even if takes time to understand their accent. We came across massive agri-business operations which impressed my fellow travellers but certainly not me. Farming is business there and there are hardly any regulations so you can just imagine what is going on. But then we saw one of the most amazing farms – JD Hudgins breeder of the most incredible Brahmin cattle. There was a drought in Texas from 2011 until 2015 and farmers were not allowed to use water for irrigation – this more or less closed down most agriculture and many cattle died or were sold during this time. The Brahmin cattle from JD Hudgins farm, however, survived. They originate from India and instead of panting- they sweat and are well used to hot conditions.
John Hudgins is now practicing regenerative agriculture which is quite a novel and unique system where improving soil fertility is the key to success. John said that for decades there were no longer any dung beetles in the soil and a couple of years after practicing regenerative farming he spotted a dung beetle in a cowpat. Full of excitement he rang his wife about the great news, but unfortunately she expected a little more from this excitement. He said if you get the dung beetles back your yields will improve by 20-30%.

This is all for now and sorry for the lack of gardening information, but still

Happy Gardening