Mercury Food and Wine articles No.9

Bowing to the will of the seasons.

These past few weeks I have been contemplating the last farming year from last May.
This is an interesting month in terms of the old farming calendar. May in the Southern hemisphere equates to November in the northern. April 30/ May 1 is the southern equivalent of Halloween in the North. This is the time that winter truly begins and is traditionally the last harvest.

For the farm this is the toughest time of the year. Last year we had a devastating hailstorm just before winter set in that wiped out our crops. At this time the days are shorter than the nights which slows down plant growth, so it was a while before the crops recovered.
In our part of the world May sees the last of the rain and the surrounding veld turns a tawny brown shade. The down side here is that this is the start of fire season. This is when fire-breaks have to be cut and burnt and one starts being vigilant to any wisp or whiff of smoke. The fire season climaxes in August, which is when we have had our most devastating fires. In the worst of which we nearly lost our home.

However, back to May and the hay harvest. This is one of the high points of the year. There is nothing like the smell of freshly mown hay and the sight of the baler laying its eggs of red-grass bales.

At the end of May our next problem starts. The grasslands and the bush start drying out and the wild life start looking further afield for green vegetation. They don’t have to look far before they find our fields. Every year is the same, I think I am going to outwit them and I end up being outwitted myself. Having fifteen or so Reed buck and Nyala on the lettuce fields at night does’t do productivity much good. Part of the Organic ethos is having to co-exist with our non-human neighbours. This does become difficult as the fields get devastated. No worries, this year the electric fence, the thorn bush barrier and the scarecrows will sort them out. I wish I could be that confident!

June 21 marks the winter solstice and from then the days start getting longer. The crops start to respond to the increased daylight and slowly speed up their growth.
September 22 marks the spring equinox and is celebrated as spring proper. Day and night are now equal and from here the days are longer and plant life starts to get vigorous. If we are lucky the rains may come and add to the exuberance of growth. This is a happy time on the farm. The antelope stop their depredations and the fire worries fade. The harvest is good and so are sales. As the weather warms so does the desire for salad and other greens.

This half of the year culminates on November 1,which is the start of summer. The farm is now bursting with life. The hard work really starts as the weed pressure now becomes intense. We do most of this by hand. If we are lucky the weather will be mostly benign however over the last year we had extremes of heat and long periods of misty, drizzly weather. This provides perfect conditions for mildew and other fungal pathogens to get amongst the crops. The lower light levels slow down the crop growth but seemingly not the weeds.

So we get to Christmas and the summer solstice. The demand for produce is at an all time high and harvesting and packaging is fast and furious. However if the growing conditions are not ideal, this time can be very disappointing as supply falls short of demand.

Just before Autumn at the beginning of February the misty weather clears but the hot days set in. Over this last year the mercury rose above 42C a few times. Considering that lettuce stops feeding if the soil temperature rises above 23C, this can set back a sensitive crop such as this.

The autumn equinox is around March 21. This is when we have some of our best weather. The days are cool, but not by much and the rains are gentler. However at this time one gets very wary to the colour of approaching thunderclouds, as this is when hail is most likely. Last year we were unlucky but so far this year we are OK.

So the organic year turns full circle, and we are on our way in the next years journey. I know this will be a better year.

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About Rob Symons

My name is Rob Symons. I live in Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. MuthiMuthi is my Zulu nickname which means tall tree. I am an Organic Farmer and an environmentalist. I live and work on Broadleaze Farm in the Mkondeni valley on the eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
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