Bella Hall: Planning ahead means looking back

To be able to reflect on the year just gone is particularly important in farming – to assess which areas were a success and why and to analyse what didn’t work so well and how they can be improved upon. It’s essential for progress, especially when many elements of farming are cyclical and fundamentally the same every year.

Dave even keeps a diary to help with this, recording most events of farming life, sometimes in great detail. It’s an incredibly useful discipline.

Generally, it feels like we make progress year on year and, with this in mind, I decided I should look back at the column I wrote at the end of 2009 for a comparison.

2009 had been successful on many levels. I had used terms such as our “best ever” harvest and reported the maze to have been our “most successful” to date. All in stark contrast to the year just past, which has been a struggle from start to finish, resulting in a poor harvest and, at best, an average maze season. What can have happened to our careful planning and attention to detail?

The answer, of course, is the usual. The weather. Last year I reported that it had been “on our side”. In 2010, it most certainly had not been. To put it in technical terms, it stuffed things right up. In farming, planning is not always enough.

So as we look forward to 2011, we do so with some optimism. Surely we will see less extreme meteorological conditions. Last year was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, wasn’t it? Global warming or not, every generation can remember extreme weather occurring from time to time. We can try to prepare against these extremes and modify elements of our farming in a bid to lessen their impact – we, for example, will continue draining our wettest fields.

We will look again at the quality of our soil and its balance of nutrients that help to sustain the plants in a dry growing season, as we experienced last spring and early summer.

We still believe the crops we grow are the right ones, but we need to stay open to ideas and try new things.

It will be interesting to see how successful the parsley is. I keep suggesting that with global warming and the fact temperatures are set to rise, maybe a few vines over at Reydon would be a good idea (purely in the interest of adapting to climate change, of course). I am told the soil is not good enough, too sandy.

Commodity prices remain strong in our traditional crops, hopefully pointing to a good year for the arable enterprise. As we are a mixed farm, this is always tempered by the rise in feed costs for the dairy, coupled with milk prices under pressure. Sadly, another local dairy has closed; a continuing indication of the pressure the sector is under.

At the maze, the planning process for the theme and design are already underway – but one thing I won’t be basing it around is the royal wedding (unless they decide to honeymoon in Southwold, of course).

We’ll also be providing some form of covered shelter for visitors, as the marquee blew away twice during the summer – the second time irretrievably so.

My tea hut is small and can only provide limited refreshments so I would love to have some kind of more permanent structure that would have a bigger kitchen and accommodate tables and chairs and toilets. As well as requiring planning permission, there is also the cost to consider (and at the moment the maze is only open in the summer holidays). What kind of investment is realistic and justifiable? It will all require careful consideration.

On a personal level, I will be continuing my part-time cover-teacher job until at least the February half-term. The lady on maternity leave is still due to return either then or at Easter. If she decides not to return, I will have to make a decision whether to go for the permanent post or not. Juggling that and the build-up to the maze during the summer term would be interesting. I have enjoyed my job so far and it fits in with my children’s lives.

There are many plans to be mapped out and decisions to be made. My New Year’s resolution is to see more of my family, who are all spread out around the country.

This year there will be several milestone birthdays (including one of my own) in the family, so there will be plenty of reasons to make the extra effort.

I’m not sure whether my ‘milestone’ birthday calls for celebrations or commiserations.

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