In Britain widespread flooding during the spring and summer of 2012 had followed a significant drought in 2011, which coincided with weather related shortages on the world grain markets, and UK farmers reported over £1 billion in losses to agriculture in 2012. This was followed by a cold spring with heavy snow in late March 2013, all of which combined to have major impacts on all agricultural sectors in Britain. Weather had significant impacts on agriculture in recent years such as the summer floods of 2007, the mild wet winters of 1990-91, or the prolonged drought of 1975-76. With global climate change being a likely cause behind the increasing erratic pattern of weather and a with greater incidence of extremes, agriculture in the UK is vulnerable with consequences for food security. Coupled with economic uncertainty with Brexit, and the question of how upland farmers will be supported, a new approach to food production looks to be necessary. There is a predominant view that the lowlands will see an intensification of production whilst the uplands will be managed “for the butterflies”. It is also equally possible that financial interests see an opportunity to increase moorlands for shooting with their associated burning and impoverishment of the landscape, or an opportunity for more commercial monoculture conifer plantations.
However, there is an alternative vision for the future already on offer. Having seen examples of market gardens and exotics grown at high altitude in the Yorkshire Pennines, it was apparent that agroecological practitioners might have innovative solutions to the impacts of severe weather. Research dating back to the 1950s has shown the benefits of shelter belts in modifying the microclimate, increasing soil temperature and humidity, and reducing wind speeds. More recently evidence from Wales and Scotland has shown that runoff can be reduced through the planting of shelter belts or woodland, reducing the level of flooding.
A study was devised to look at how growers on the margins (including mixed farms with livestock), conditioned by the more severe climate, made innovative changes; the aim was to investigate what methods worked for them. Lessons learned from the Marginal Lands could potentially be used elsewhere, at the same time underpinning the value of low impact sustainable methods. If cider apples and pears can be produced at over 330m in the Welsh Mountains, and chillies and asparagus peas can be grown on the Shetland Islands, then there is a greater potential for diversification than might otherwise be thought.
This study, called The Marginal Lands Project, has a focus on the upland and islands of Britain, areas which are accustomed to severe weather conditions. In effect, these are all in areas officially classed as Disadvantaged for Agriculture. The project asked participants about the adaptations they have used for coping with excess rain, wind, cold and heat, lack of light and drought; participants were also asked about longer term adaptions in the form of the choice of crop varieties or types that were grown. The problems include indirect issues such as soil compaction and what measure were used to avoid/mitigate against this.
A series of questions on adaptations were put to 23 smallholders who are all located in marginal land areas. The Marginal Land Project site locations includes some of the Scottish islands (Shetland Islands and Lewis), Scotland, Pennines, Welsh Mountains and Welsh Marches, together with one exposed, hilltop site in south east England. All location have at least one challenge in terms of climate, soil and topography. Each question asked about the participant's response to weather challenges, and each weather challenge was addressed in turn, as well as multi annual responses, in the form of the use of particular crop types or crop varieties.
The 23 holdings all vary in size from garden to small farm, and differ in terms of their function whether a commercial business, fulfilling an educational or community role, or a combination of these. All the holdings are growing fruit or vegetables in areas surrounded by rough grazing or pasture. All contributing holdings use agroecological methods, and have been selected by an invitation via parent organisations such as the Agro-Forestry Research Trust or Land Workers Alliance or local organic food networks, or by direct invitation through the network of demonstration sites of the Permaculture Association, or individuals linked to Nourish Scotland.
The responses were compiled into a Knowledge Base, using an index for rapid access. The Knowledge base lists the various solutions to dealing with extreme and severe weather, with links to more detailed commentary and photographs.
There is a wide range of responses to excessive rain and waterlogging ranging from the use of raised beds, swales or tree planting; there were also more individual solutions such as using marshland for water storage and runoff protection, or the use of a roof of guttering for strawberries. Soil compaction was avoided with methods such as no-dig cultivation, raised beds, or the use of lightweight horse drawn equipment. Erosion was tackled with increased tree cover, and the use of swales. A major problem associated with mild winters and humid, still conditions, is the outbreak of moulds. Whilst a fairly obvious adaptation was the ventilation of polytunnels, as well as planting resistant varieties, there are other solutions such as automatic phone warnings for blight.
To combat cold temperatures, as well as using of fleece, hotbeds were used to heat up the interior of polytunnels. Frosts were combatted with the use of water tanks as heat storage units, or planting is delayed because of a risk of late frosts. One idea is to allow a clearing for cold air to drain out of a site. Heatwaves in the marginal lands of the British Isles is a relatively rare problem, though mulching and shade were common responses. Another solution is to use a keder house which encourage more even temperature than a greenhouse or polytunnel. Milder spells could present indirect problems such as rodents, and so natural predators were cited as a response.
Generally windy conditions in most sites meant that nearly all sites had responded most frequently by increasing tree cover or hedges to dissipate the wind. Where this option was unavailable, such as on the Scottish islands (where considerable time would be needed for hedges or trees to get established) netting was used. Strong gales (on occasion over 100 mph) meant that equipment and polytunnels need strengthening and securing; shorter varieties of crops/tree root stock offer another means of resilience, as well as using specific planting methods.
With most of the Marginal Land sites being located in the north and west of the British Isles, cloudy conditions predominate, and several participants took this into consideration to maximise light on site, by reducing shade. Reflecting light from walls to increase light was another solution.
Despite most of the sites being in areas of high rainfall, drought can be a problem, particularly if there is not a reliable mains supply of water. Drought has triggered a response from most participants, leading to various means of increasing water storage in tanks or ponds, and through rainwater harvesting. Amongst other methods of water conservation, minimising losses of moisture by mulching of the soil reduces evaporation.
Making significant changes to a land holding requires investment, as costs was the most frequently cited barrier, followed by difficulties with planning regulations – some of which could be highly localised. Access to land is a problem, with high costs of owning, or there can be conflicts of interest if the land is leased or used with permission of a landowner. Damage can be incurred from external sources such as livestock or wild animals, and fencing can incur a considerable cost.
Most adaptations have been to the main persistent challenges, such as high levels of rainfall and wind. Participants have been highly responsive to heavy rainfall and associated problems of waterlogging, erosion and soil compaction. Greater problems were encountered by responding to moulds from damp, still conditions, and only windy sites had an advantage. Like lowland sites growing fruit and vegetables (less so salads) is impacted by exceptionally prolonged wet weather during the summer growing season, though this is relative: what is a normal rainfall for most Marginal Lands sites (i.e. well above 1000mm per year) is exceptional for areas traditionally devoted to horticulture (e.g Eastern England, which typically has 700mm per year). Whilst most sites are geared towards predominantly cool conditions, there were still threats from late or early frosts, which in some cases has limited the length of growing season. There have been several innovations in dealing with drought which has forced an upgrading of water storage on several sites. For a combination of weather challenges, selecting a hardy or local variety of crop has reduced vulnerability to the weather.
The flexibility of growers, coupled with a sensitivity and set of responses to the local climate and variability in the weather has meant that growers can provide a range of fruit and vegetables in challenging conditions. Whether they are able to supply a market depends on the local demand, fulfilling a niche that supermarkets may not have covered. The Marginal Land Projects shows that there are opportunities for further research. There is a potential for the techniques used by agro-ecology practitioners in marginal lands to be adopted by conventional farms or by demonstration sites. If losses from poor weather can be reduced using these techniques, this would present a compelling case for a more widespread adoption of agro-forestry, permaculture and organic methods. It points to a potential for a more mixed land use with benefits for biodiversity and for reductions in flooding. The micro-climatic benefits could be further investigated, and the concept widened beyond the confines of the uplands and islands of the British Isles.
© Dorian Speakman 2017.