Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Weather Extremes and Smallholding Resilience

by Adrian Patch
Like many smallholders, I had been waiting for the seemingly non-stop chain of winter storms to end, and have welcomed the last couple of warm and rainless weeks that have allowed the land to finally dry out and become workable. This last fortnight has been a time to play catch-up with tasks such as vegetable bed preparation and planting of trees and soft-fruit. The wettest winter since records began, though, is just one of several periods of extreme weather that we have suffered over recent years; the big-freeze and snow, drought, rain, last spring's long spell of cold easterly winds, more rain, storms, more rain – all have had a significant impact for those working on the land.

The last couple of years have seen me increasingly thinking about how I can prepare my smallholding to better ride out and recover from these events (and other challenges) – in short, how I could make my smallholding more resilient? Resilience, the ability to recover and bounce-back following trauma and adverse events, is a term used in a range of areas: describing resilient people, resilient economies, etc. – 'resilience' is fast threatening to replace 'sustainable' as the Zeitgeist buzz-word. Some notable US publications have recently introduced resilient approaches to farming and gardening. Applied to smallholding, a resilience-based approach can lead to changes in terms of the livestock kept and how they are managed, the crops grown and how they are grown, as well as a whole range of other aspects of how the land and business are managed. Farmers and smallholders have traditionally been an adaptable lot, but much useful knowledge has slipped from memory and practice in recent generations. Many 'old ways' are currently being revived, methods from other cultures adapted, and new approaches developed, particularly by those within permaculture circles.

Much of my 'resilience-thinking' at the moment, perhaps unsurprisingly, concerns water and its management. As well as having constructed mini-swales to capture rain and aid the establishment of tree and soft-fruit plantings, I am planning larger scale water and earth works. I am aware that I need to plan for drought as well as excess rain. In this regard, I shall be building on one particular success of my approach to date. One of my first projects was putting in a couple of long windbreaks of Italian alder, and I used willow as a nursery crop (protecting the young alder on its exposed site). Like the alder, I chose willow for many reasons and have made multiple uses of it, using mixed pollarding and coppicing. Last summer, during the pleasant hot/dry spell the willow was invaluable in feeding my sheep and cattle – supplementing the pasture which had slowed right down in the near-drought conditions. The use of tree-fodder is an example of an old farming practice that is enjoying a renaissance, with scientific research highlighting which trees produce the most nutritious fodder for livestock. This week I have been putting in more willow to provide shelter and boost the fodder/drought-insurance for the ruminants.

A permaculture approach to land management makes a wide range of principles, tools and design options available – because of this, it can sometimes be difficult to see the wood for the trees when tackling a large/long-term project. It can be challenging to think simultaneously about the big issues of design and the micromanagement options – as well as deciding where to begin. Looking at crop selection, a resilience-approach has encouraged me to think not only about crops' tastiness and nutrition, but also about their multi-functionality (for human and livestock food, as well as other uses), adaptability to a changing climate, store-ability, suitability for seed-saving/ease of propagation and likelihood of success in poor/short seasons; it has also driven my thinking on issues such as water- and earth-works, livestock selection and management, and business strategy/planning, including how produce is marketed. A resilience-based approach (along with an adapted version of Yeomans' Keyline Scale of Permanence) has proven especially valuable in terms of prioritising action. In sum, thinking about resilience has enabled me to draw tools from the permaculture toolbox in a focused and strategic way, addressing the issue: 'how do I build a resilient smallholding?'

Adrian Patch is running a series of courses in 2014, focusing on resilient smallholding and permaculture, including Permaculture with Livestock – for Permies. For details see his website: www.moorwholesome.co.uk

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