At first glance, Otter Farm could be in Andalucia or Tuscany. Rows of olive trees stand to attention while the sun dances on their delicate silvery leaves. In fact this is Honiton in Devon, where environmental scientist-turned-farmer Mark Diacono planted 120 olive trees on his 17-acre farm five years ago. He’s one of a growing band
of British farmers who are profiting from the warming climate to grow new crops that were traditionally grown in southern Europe. In the next year or so Mark hopes to make his first olive oil, a culinary event that’s keenly awaited by foodies across the country, including a top London department store, which offered to pre-buy the entire production. For the moment, though, Mark is keeping cool; he says he would prefer to sell it locally to keep food miles to a minimum.
There are other goodies on the farm too: Mark is also growing apricots, peaches, persimmons, grapes, pecans, pomegranates and Szechuan peppers. It’s quite a departure from the grass pasture and cows that Devon is traditionally known for, but as he’s not from a farming background, Mark was not bogged down by notions of what could and ought to be grown. And he realised climate change was here to stay.
“When I was deciding what to grow I started with food books rather than plant books,” he says. “I listed the foods I most liked. There were forgotten foods, things that I’d enjoyed as a child but don’t find any more, like mulberries and medlars. Then there were foods that I really liked and that I thought we might be able to grow as the climate gets warmer, such as almonds. I then eliminated the
things that were plain tropical, like avocados, and was left with the crops I am now growing.”
When choosing his fruit trees, Mark decided on late-flowering varieties so that blossoms wouldn’t be hit by frosts. In the case of olives, he selected hardy varieties from Tuscany and Catalonia that are well used to rain, frost and even snow. “There was no point in getting olives from somewhere like Sicily which are used to endless sunshine,” he says. A few crops have perished, but Mark is undaunted: “The terrible thing is that climate change is a certainty, so crops can only get better.”
Given that the climate is also likely to be increasingly unpredictable, Mark believes it makes sense to spread the risk by growing a portfolio of crops. “It’s no good growing just one thing like in the old days,” he says. “Few farmers growing a single crop would have survived both the hot summer we had a few years
ago and last summer’s washout. It is important to grow a range of fruits. I call it edible insurance.”
The nice thing about these new climate change crops, like peaches and apricots, is that they are fruits that people love. “Fruit normally sold in the UK tends to be picked unripe to ensure that it travels well, so it rarely tastes of anything. Now that we are producing these crops here, we can change that.”
Mark remembers giving one of his first apricots to his neighbour, friend and fellow smallholder Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, last year. “I suddenly remembered that Hugh’s wife is French so she really knew how apricots should taste. I was pretty nervous,” Mark recalls. “Fortunately my apricots passed the test.”
The TV chef caught Mark’s enthusiasm and, with his help, is dabbling in a few climate change crops himself. Hugh has planted olive and apricot trees, as well as Szechuan peppers, which he’s already harvested – their peppercorns now flavour River Cottage’s renowned salamis.
“I am very excited that we are seeing the British larder expand dramatically. It will have much more variety,” Hugh told Countryfile Magazine. “We are now growing things that we used to import, which also helps on food miles. Some crops are doing really well, like English grapes. Ten years ago you wouldn’t have washed your car with English wine, but now sparkling and whites are winning awards all over the world. It’s not just farmers either: If we all had a climate change plot – or even a climate change window box – the food miles we clock up as a nation would be dramatically reduced. After all, many of our best-loved fruits and vegetables are not native to Britain, but imported from warmer climes.”
Of course it’s not just the Devonshire landscape that’s being redesigned by the warming climate. Farmers across Britain are taking advantage of rising temperatures, earlier springs and longer growing seasons to grow crops that previously would have been left to Mediterranean countries to produce. Unlike developing countries in the southern hemisphere that will be blighted by draught and floods, Britain stands to do well out of climate change overall – at
least in the short to medium term. For example, since 2006 the Tregothnan Estate in Cornwall has been producing Britain’s first ever British-grown, single-estate tea. At a tonne a year, it is a drop in the global teapot, but it is certainly enough to show that it can be done.
Britain’s wine industry is also beginning to make a serious impression, and estates like Camel Valley, also in Cornwall, have been scooping prizes. The UK now has nearly 400 vineyards, producing an average of 2.1 million bottles per year. “Farmers are starting to realise that there are real alternatives to traditional crops,” says Julia Trustram Eve, of the English Wine Producers Association.
In Norfolk and elsewhere, farmers are growing lavender which would previously have been associated with the south of France. In the southeast, Asda has teamed up with one of its growers to produce edamame (soya bean), which, until now, has been grown in China and imported frozen. The beans will hit the store’s shelves shortly, saving air food miles and freight costs.
But while some farmers cash in on the warming climate, others will inevitably lose out. Some crops may suffer or disappear, like Yorkshire forced rhubarb. Yorkshire has traditionally been a prime location for forced rhubarb because of its sharp frosts, which enable the rhubarb’s roots to grow strong. But growers are worried that as Britain warms there will be fewer frosts, which could affect rhubarb harvests in the future.
In Herefordshire, Edward Thompson who grows blackcurrants – a fruit native to our northern climes – is also worried. “In order to grow healthy berries the plant must remain dormant through the frosty weeks. If the plant awakens too early the buds can get killed off. The warming of our winters and springs could seriously affect blackcurrant crops in the future.”
The biggest losers, though, will be low-lying coastal farms, especially in East Anglia, which will face flooding as sea levels rise. Sea levels around the UK are already about 10cm (4in) higher than they were in 1900 and are predicted to rise by up to 80cm (32in) in some parts of England by the 2080s. The worst-hit area is likely to be East Anglia, where 37 percent of England’s outdoor vegetables are grown. Some experts estimate that 86 percent of the fens might become unviable for arable farming and rising temperatures will also make life tough for farm animals. Water shortages could be a problem, and temperatures may not be cold enough to reduce pests, diseases and weeds, so all three will increase and spread northwards to previously unaffected areas. New pests and diseases will almost certainly start to appear too.
The challenge ahead
If these sound like dire and fanciful predictions, they’re not. Farmers are already noticing changes, such as earlier growing seasons, extreme weather events and increased droughts. A survey carried out in September 2008 by Farming Futures, a body set up by the government to advise farmers how to handle climate change, found that 60 percent of farmers surveyed in England said they were already affected by climate change, and more than half expected to be affected in the next 10 years.
To survive, farmers will need to adapt, and soon. The old ways of doing things won’t work, so standing still is not an option. There will be certainly be challenges, some of which we can’t yet predict. But if new crops like home-grown apricots and grapes start to brighten up our larders, both the farmers producing them and we consumers will be some of the lucky winners. Fancy a British olive anyone?
FRUITS OF GLOBAL WARMING – Mark Diacono’s tips on 10 climate change crops you can grow
History: The first apricots came from China or Siberia. The Romans loved them but could not grow them in northern Europe. Apricots reached Britain in the 13th century.
Varieties: The most common variety is Moorpark, which is a hybrid between plum and apricot. Also try Tomcott.
Cultivation: Needs a cold winter period to rest and warm summers to ripen the fruit.
History: Native to the Mediterranean, olives have been grown in Crete since around 2500BC. By 571BC they had reached Italy. Olives have never been grown commercially in the UK until now.
Varieties: Go for tough Tuscan varieties such as Leccino, or the French variety Cailletier.
Cultivation: Plant in a sheltered spot in full sun, in deep, fertile, well-drained soil.
History: The Romans brought wine grapes here and many vineyards were later maintained by monasteries. Today there are nearly 400 British vineyards, producing more than two million bottles of wine a year.
Varieties: The most popular commercial varieties are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Bacchus.
Cultivation: Plant in warm, sunny position, trained up a trellis or against a wall.
History: Native to South America, the pineapple guava looks like an avocado and tastes like a cross between a strawberry and a pineapple. Grows to small tree with leathery leaves. Not previously grown commercially in the UK.
Varieties: Go for named varieties such as Mammoth and Triumph.
Cultivation: Grow in good soil and a sunny, sheltered site.
History: Unknown in the West until end of 19th century, when it was introduced from Asia as a decorative climber. Despite its name, the kiwi is not native to New Zealand.
Varieties: The most widely available is Haywood but it’s not self-fertile, so you’ll also need a male like Atlas. Also try Blake, which is self-fertile.
Cultivation: Needs a warm site, preferably against a wall.
PERSIMMON (SHARON FRUIT)
History: Popular in China and Japan, where they were first seen in 1776. Now grown in California and French Riviera.
Varieties: Go for a European variety, like Fuyu, which does well here, or Kostata and Mazelli. The American persimmon is also good.
Cultivation: Needs a warm wall and well-drained soil to produce good fruit.
History: This is the outer pod of the tiny fruit of the flowering tree that is sometimes known as Chinese prickly-ash. Native to China and Taiwan, it’s actually a spice rather than a pepper.
Variety: Go for Zanthoxylum simulans or Zanthoxylum schinifolium.
Cultivation: Hardy and fast growing, this is one of the most trouble-free climate change crops.
History: Originally from the Middle East, an almond was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, dating from around 1324BC. Introduced to Britain in 1548.
Variety: Go for late-flowering varieties such as Mandaline and Ferraduel to avoid frost damage. Both are self-fertile.
Cultivation: Needs enriched, well aerated, light soil. Don’t plant almonds near peaches as they may hybridise.
PEACH AND NECTARINE
History: Originally from China, peaches only reached Britain in the 16th century.
Varieties: If your garden is sheltered, try Peregrine, which has a yellowish-white flesh. If not, try Rochester or Bellegarde.
Cultivation: Peaches need well enriched, well aerated soil. They also like loads of compost annually and must never be waterlogged. Don’t plant near almonds, as they may hybridise.
History: Natives of North America they are widely grown in Canada, at the same latitude as Otter Farm. Pecans reached Britain in 1629, but have not been grown here commercially – until now.
Variety: Choose northern varieties such as Campbell and Deerstand.
Cultivation: Once established, pecans are fast-growing, but they do like hot conditions.