Is it worth growing potatoes?

I'm growing a range of crops - including potatoes

I’m growing a range of crops – including potatoes

I used to think that the best crops to focus on growing were those that were either unusual (and thus difficult to find in the shops) or expensive (so that I would save money by growing them). As a result I have, over the years, produced kilos and kilos of peppers and purple sprouting broccoli, and significant amounts of oca and chilli peppers. However, as I have become more and more interested in reducing my impact on the planet, I have come to realise that it’s also important for me to grow crops that I eat lots of but that require large inputs of chemicals when grown commercially.

Potatoes are a typical example. It’s hard to find information that is completely up to date, but PAN (the Pesticide Action Network) have a 2007 fact sheet that outlines the pesticides that are used in Britain during commercial potato production. It includes the following table:

Pesticides used on British potatoes (source: http://www.pan-uk.org/pestnews/Issue/pn75/pn75%20p18-22.pdf)

Pesticides used on British potatoes (source: http://www.pan-uk.org/pestnews/Issue/pn75/pn75%20p18-22.pdf). NB ‘ware’ potatoes are the ones we eat

The fact sheet provides lots of additional information including:

During the vegetative phase ware potatoes are sprayed on average 14.5 times and are treated with 19.4 different products; fungicides are applied most frequently. Seed potatoes are sprayed 10.7 times with 17.5 products; again fungicides are applied most frequently.

The author of he fact sheet emphasises the impact of these chemicals on human  health, but it’s important to remember that the majority of pesticides have a large carbon footprint in their own right, have impacts on the environment directly and have to be transported over great distances. In addition, commercial potatoes are treated with other chemicals to increase their storage life.

So, despite their relative cheapness and the fact that I can buy local potatoes direct from the producer, I am still growing some of my own. So far this year I have not applied any chemicals  and I am growing blight resistant varieties, since blight is the most damaging disease in most years. The result is healthy plants and abundant tubers from both containers and  those growing direct in the soil. I’ve planted a range of varieties from first earlies to maincrop, in order to prolong the season and minimise the time I need to store them . In previous years I’ve only grown earlies (because new potatoes are so expensive), but I think that my current approach is successful enough for me to want to repeat it next year. Of course, the maincrop may not do as well as Colleen (the variety I’m currently eating), but the tops, at least, are growing well.

So, I’m celebrating the humble potato and savouring yet another crop with food metres not food miles.

-oOo-

This post was inspired by comments made by Wade Muggleton during my most recent visit to Station Road

The drought ends

I have been trying to be very un-British recently and not write about the weather, despite the fact that it has been of particular interest to me.

Pair of butts collecting water off the roof of the house at the back

Pair of butts collecting water off the roof of the house at the back

As I have mentioned previously, we try not to use mains water to flush our toilet. This saves us a little money, because our water is metered (not everyone’s is in the UK), but is mainly about saving energy. All water treatment requires the input of energy, so by using untreated water in the toilet cistern, we reduce our carbon footprint. Most of the time we use rainwater, which we collect in several water butts and an IBC from the roofs of the shed, house and greenhouse, but when we are getting low, we also use water from showers. We haven’t got round to collecting it from the washing machine yet, but that will probably happen.

Anyway, rainwater usually supplies all our needs in this respect, after all west Wales is generally quite soggy. But not so far in 2013. Today is 12 April; we had some rain this morning and showers yesterday, but before that the last time it rained was 22 March. That’s 19 days without any precipitation… not much evidence of those April showers we hear about. Similarly, there was a period in February/March when it didn’t rain for 22 consecutive days!*

The IBC, collecting water from the shed roof and now raised up on a couple of pallets

The IBC, collecting water from the shed roof and now raised up on a couple of pallets

The early dry period was most welcome because it allowed us to use up all the water in the IBC (or at least transfer it to other receptacles) so that Mr Snail-of-happiness could lift it up onto two pallets in order to increase the head of water, thus making it much easier to drain. But as the dry spell continued and our water stores declined we started hoping for rain. Then about three days ago we reached the point where the only water we had left was in the 5 litre bottles that we use to store it in the bathroom. We knew that once the last 40 litres was used up, we’d have to turn the mains back on to the toilet.

And then it rained… providing us with another few days worth. Rarely do we need to celebrate rain here, but we did yesterday and today. Tomorrow the forecast is for heavy rain – we are rejoicing. Fingers crossed for torrents of the stuff… and then we’ll be happy for the sunshine to return.

-oOo-

* We write a description of the weather every day in a diary – it helps us interpret the output from the solar panels and is turning into a really interesting record. Soon, we plan to get a little weather station so that we can add numbers to our descriptions.

Water off the greenhouse roof

Water off the greenhouse roof

Water butt at the front of the house

Water butt at the front of the house

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