Friday, 8 July 2016

Raising more questions than food

In June I wrote a post in praise of straw and I still love using it, but I've had a light-bulb moment.

Looking around the kitchen garden I'm a bit disappointed with how some of the crops are growing. Once I'd realised that the soil on the smallholding needed much care and attention to become rich and fertile and that this wasn't going to happen overnight, I started to make as much compost as I could to help enrich the soil over the coming months (and years) and we bought in some local topsoil to use in raised beds. I've mixed the topsoil with compost, composted bark and potting compost to try to increase the volume and quality of the topsoil.

But something isn't quite right. Plants aren't growing well, they have quite yellow leaves and are struggling to put on growth. As an emergency measure I bought some organic plant feed to give them a boost and for a few of the plants this seems to have been just the tonic they need. For others, it has made little difference and around half of the squash plants and most of the cannellini beans have died or possibly they have been eaten.

I've been wracking my brains for the reasons for this and then one morning I woke up thinking that perhaps the straw that I'm using as a mulch is causing the problem. We buy the straw from a local farm and it occurs to me that it isn't an organic farm and perhaps (it's only a perhaps because I really don't know) they use glyphosate or a similar herbicide to finish their barley before it's harvested and maybe this is the problem.

If you don't know about the use of glyphosate, it's an eye opener to learn about. As I understand it, the way it works is that it is sprayed onto crops like wheat and barley a few days before harvest. It's basically a chemical compound that is used as a weed killer and works by forcing the plant to grow faster than it can maintain, so it dies from exhaustion. It's been sold in garden centres etc. as a weed killer for our gardens as products like Round Up. When it's applied to our food crops it makes them mature fast and then the crop is harvested before the plant dies. (Here's a link to Wikipedia's entry about glyphosate).

I'm not going to make a comment about it's use except to say that we are choosing to live with as few chemicals as possible on our food and in our home. Here is the EU press release fact sheet about the most recent decisions on glyphosate use. It's use in public parks, public playgrounds and gardens is to be minimised (workers applying it usually wear protective clothing!) and its use pre-harvest is to be minimised. But of course, it is up to member nations to apply these recommendations and our in/out status could mean that the UK won't be applying these EU regulations at all.

Anyway, I need to do a lot more research as it looks as though many herbicides do not break down and just stay in the straw and soil. I can't tell you how much I have sworn in the last few days as I have realised that far from feeding my soil, I may be poisoning it!

But there is no point in me panicking before I have all the information that I can find (and understand), so next I need to speak to the farmers at the farm where we have been getting the straw and ask them what chemicals they use on the straw while it's growing and prior to harvesting. Then I can make a decision about whether we continue to use their straw on the smallholding or whether I need to remove it all and dispose of it and find an alternative, organic source of mulching material.

And what of the straw that we use for the poultry bedding? This comes from a different source and again, I need to ask the same questions. The birds don't eat the straw, but I do add the used straw to the compost heaps. One simple answer would be to look for a local organic farmer who sells straw. And this made me think about the spent grain and hops that we are getting from the local brewery... has that barley been treated with Roundup too? It's not an organic beer that is made there. Questions, questions!

I have a love/hate relationship with light-bulb moments. Having a realisation that can change the way we do things is a double edged sword, the benefits could be valuable, to our food production and to our health, but the process of the change-over can be a pain in the proverbial. I will of course blog about what I find out and the decisions that we make about using the straw on our smallholding, but right now, I need a cuppa!

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