Many of you reading this will be familiar with the walks along paths that cross and skirt fields around Meppershall. Many of you no longer have any direct link to the farming operations that go on in the fields and in the farm office beforehand. Having floated the idea with Dick Bulley, the editor, I propose to write a monthly diary through the year ( a challenge in itself ) to explain what is going on at Polehanger, and why, and open up any current issues to do with food that may provoke discussion and healthy debate.
As I write, a week’s worth of accumulated snow is slowly thawing. When you read this it will be a distant memory we hope! The white blanket provides fascination and pleasure to young and old, evidenced by the various giant snowballs abandoned in the fields and the footfalls following paths and sledge marks down Crackle Hill.
Underneath the snow crops lie dormant but soon will be bursting into life when the soil temperature rises: the plants begin their race against time to get seeds set in the plant head before the next winter arrives. An arable farmer’s challenge is to work with this natural cycle, tweak it and help each plant to reach optimum seed production at harvest time.
As in all industries and especially the primary industries of mining, fishing, forestry and farming there have been significant changes in agriculture since the 1950’s when I was a child. There are now no dairy cows at all; there were two herds at Chapel Farm and Polehanger: no pig herds; there were two at Nuns Wood and Rectory Farm: no fulltime glasshouses or market gardens.
Today’s local farming focuses on combinable crops
The main soil type around Meppershall is a heavy clay loam ( compare this to the sandy soils in and around Rowney Warren at Chicksands or the chalk soils in the Chilterns ). This heavy soil suits the growing of winter crops: i.e. autumn sown biennial plants that need to be in the ground over winter. These crops tend to yield more than spring sown equivalents but they are also more costly to grow. You will have seen that most years the two crops surrounding the village are Winter Wheat and Winter Oil Seed Rape ( the yellow flowered sneeze maker! ). Growing continuous wheat or rape leads to a build up of soil borne disease specific to each crop so we practice a simple from of rotation over a three year cycle: Winter Rape, Winter Wheat, Winter Wheat. ( I will refer to the abolition of Set Aside in a future diary entry. )
This year, however, harvest was delayed significantly by wet weather in August. By the time it was completed it became impossible to prepare a decent seed bed for the next crop due to be sown by early October on those fields last harvested. You will notice that the land around the top of Crackle Hill is still just brown cultivated soil. We plan to sow Spring Wheat in March, instead of the originally planned second Winter Wheat ) again subject to the weather. The ground must dry out sufficiently to bear the weight of tractors and machinery without compacting the soil and to break down into a fine seedbed ( tilth ) that will settle around each seed to give the best conditions for it to germinate and get growing quickly.
If you walk around the foot paths through the spring and summer, watch the subtle weekly changes as the crops develop. The Rape will show rapid signs of growth in March and April even allowing for the slow start it got from being sown ( drilled ) four weeks late in the early autumn and it’s consequent susceptibility to wood pigeon damage through the winter. The Wheat will start to ‘ tiller ’ as each plant develops a number of shoots that will become stems bearing ears in the summer.