Wednesday, 24 August 2011

It's Not Pretty

There are weeks on PEI (and elsewhere I know) when nature's bounty overwhelms you. Fields are lush and green,  cattle are comfortably moving through pastures, and you desperately want to hold onto that sense of well being.  Towards the end of August that starts to change. Rain and wind start knocking down parts of maturing grain fields, forage fields are stripped for winter feed,  and potato fields all of a sudden start dying.

I remember the first time I saw a potato field that had been "killed down".  I thought don't these fields get sprayed enough controlling insects and late blight, is it really necessary to do this too?   WTF in other words.  I spoke to a couple of farmers I trusted, and an agricultural researcher, and they all told the same story.

There are two main reasons. The most widely grown potato is  a variety I've written about before called russet burbank  (you can put it in the search box at the bottom for more information). It's a long season variety that will keep growing until Santa comes if you let it. It simply won't grow the tough skin necessary for  harvesting  and storage unless it completely runs out of nitrogen, or the plant is killed.  (There are a few different methods: herbicides are the most popular, but a few farmers cut the plants down on small acreages).

The other reason explains why almost all potato varieties are killed down and that's late blight. The fungus spores can survive on live tissue, so if they come in contact with the potatoes being harvested, they'll be ready to reek havoc in storage or even the following season if they're on seed potatoes.  Killing the plants well before harvest means the late blight spores can't survive. Some researchers even recommend a copper spray before harvest as well to make sure the late blight spores are really gone.

I can remember covering a story of late blight in Newfoundland in the mid 1990's that had been caused by overwintering spores on seed potatoes from PEI. The crop was a disgusting mess of black fungus, and PEI's seed potato sector had a real black eye. When a researcher admitted in an interview that this could happen, he and I were roundly condemned for even mentioning the possibility.  I became convinced that whether I liked it or not,  even though it  breaks the spell of nature's beauty, killing down potato fields is a necessity.  My only hope is once  potato fields  are harvested they get some kind of winter cover crop, or straw mulch.   That's when farmers really say to their neighbours I care about where we live too.

I'd written about "dirty dairying" in New Zealand in the last post on supply management. This story came out yesterday.

Dirty dairying shocker
by Laura Mills •

A Whataroa farmer was yesterday hit by one of the largest fines in New Zealand history for dirty dairying. Potae and van der Poel Ltd was stung $120,000 for dairy effluent discharges, as a result of a West Coast Regional Council prosecution in court in Christchurch. It is the largest fine given to a West Coast farmer, and possibly the biggest in the country.

Mary-Anne Potae said this morning she was “still pretty much in shock” but accepted the decision and said they would not appeal.
The company was issued with abatement notices two years ago for dairy effluent discharges from three of their seven farms at Whataroa. Vickers Creek, and tributaries of the Whataroa River were affected.
However, the company did not comply with the abatement notices and the council took court action. It pleaded guilty to eight charges. Regional council consents and compliance manager Colin Dall said Judge Jane Borthwick told the court she considered the matter serious. The sharemilkers were dealt with separately but because of their inability to pay a fine, they each received sentences of 200 hours’ community service.
“She did an initial (fine) calculation, then pulled it back. The total was $120,000, the largest (farming) fine on the West Coast.”
Ms Potae said this morning her husband, Adrianus van der Poel, had farmed in the area for 25 years.
Lawyer Brian Burke said the couple had slowly added more farms since 1985 and now milked about 3000 cows in the Whataroa area.
“It was a family operation and it got too big to manage. They fully accept that they let themselves down and caused harm to the environment.”
A consultant environmental engineer had been employed to put in systems to ensure it would never happen again, he said. Although the couple was shocked at the size of the fine, they thanked the court for pointing out their shortcomings and accepted the decision, he said. Regional council chairman Ross Scarlett, a dairy farmer from Karamea, said the council had always had a conciliatory policy and an unwritten “three strikes and you’re out” rule.
“There comes a point where we have to take action. We’re not a draconian council. But we have to protect the reputation of farmers, and society as a whole demands quite high standards.”
Mr Dall said two more West Coast prosecutions were pending, although court dates had not been set. The company came to council attention because overflows from an effluent reservoir ran directly into a farm drain and on to Vickers Creek in high concentrations. Also, a stormwater bypass was left open so effluent reached an unnamed tributary of the Whataroa River in high concentrations. Earlier this week, Oceana Gold pleaded guilty to breaching its resource consent by discharging sediment into Devils Creek, Reefton, in another West Coast Regional Council prosecution.
The Australian gold miner was directed to meet with the council in a restorative justice conference to find a favourable solution. The council has said it wants the company to restore the creek, which was left lifeless as a result of sediment discharges.

1 comment:

  1. re: late blight: The Coffins are trying to develop blight-resistant potato varieties, but say they have had little interest shown by gov't researchers- why, o, why?
    Might be worth talking to them about that, Ian.