It’s finally rained in my corner of Ireland and god knows it was long overdue. A natural spring that supplied water to cattle on almost half the farm dried up days before the drought ended.
Luckily, heavy rain came just in time, but it reminded me to dig a few ponds and store water for future use.
Dry summers like the past can become the norm and water must be conserved for when we need it most.
We were warned, and I can only thank the forest gods that I didn’t plant many trees this year.
Any seedlings planted last spring would certainly have perished in the drought that followed.
We need to look into the past, relearn history and see how farming systems practiced centuries ago have stood the test of time.
The ancient Celts used a solar calendar to mark the beginning of each season. They then celebrated with four different agricultural festivals.
Imbolc marked the beginning of spring, followed by Beltaine, Lughnasa and Samhain. The Lughnasa Festival is now enjoying a revival of sorts and perhaps the current Plowing Championships are a modern version of our past.
Today, “pagan” is understood to mean “non-Christian,” but in its direct Latin translation, a pagan is simply someone from a rural area. So, strictly speaking, all peasants, including me, are pagans!
These pre-Christian farmers knew a thing or two and while they believed in the gods of nature, they also understood the need to conserve organic matter and the essential role it plays in keeping the soil fertile and healthy.
What happened in between? In recent years we seem to have forgotten much of what our ancestors knew, and we are only now re-learning the importance of keeping the soil healthy.
My father had little faith in new grass species and kept telling me the importance of tending mixed species and preserving old pastures, the importance of clover, and how deep-rooted herbs provide the minerals to keep livestock in peak condition and thriving .
He believed in low-cost, low-effort agriculture and respect for the fragility of the soil.
He made a lot of money, and if he were around today, he might have smiled to see how all the advice we received on tillage and pasture management in the 1960’s and 70’s and almost up to now has applied to the were turned upside down.
Our almost total reliance on chemical fertilizers – along with our use of cocktails of herbicides and pesticides – has proven to be a huge mistake, and the whole focus is now on regenerating the soil and restoring the essential fungi and bacteria that keep it alive and keep it productive sustainable cultivation of corn and grass.
Words like “sustainability” and “biodiversity” are so overused these days that we almost lift our eyes to the sky when we hear them, but they are more important than ever in the current times of climate change, costly inputs and declining soil fertility.
Charles Darwin knew all about the importance of earthworms and the vital role they played in enhancing and maintaining soil life. So why were we encouraged to practice continuous tillage until the same earthworms were virtually gone?
The use of cover crops and the practice of growing canola or turnips and letting sheep graze them before returning to another corn crop was an essential part of good farming, but we continued to till and till without returning organic matter to where it was was most needed.
Big changes are afoot, however, and the recent spike in fertilizer and fuel costs has been a wake-up call for us all.
In a way, we are simply relearning what our ancestors knew for thousands of years. Such wisdom has been ignored for too long in our rush to be “modern”.
Today, according to the Met Éireann, the autumn months are September, October and November, but ancient Gaelic tradition held that autumn began in August and ended in September.
Perhaps this is another indication of climate change, but we can still revel in the beauty of the waning year so aptly described by John Keats when he wrote his ode to the “Season of Mists and Gentle Fertility”.
Mind you, I would question some of Keats’ lines when he writes “Bend the mossy cottage trees with apples and fill all the fruit to the core with ripeness”.
Which fruit? Some of my trees actually produced a good harvest, but the blackbirds were so hungry during the drought that they even ate the cooking apples.
Hopefully next year they will repay me with their glorious contributions to the morning choir.
Joe Barry is a farmer and forester on the border between Meath and Kildare
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/forestry-enviro/joe-barry-what-we-can-learn-from-centuries-old-farming-systems-that-have-stood-the-test-of-time-41990815.html Joe Barry: What we can learn from centuries-old agricultural systems that have proven themselves