Pelee islandis a pretty random place to end up, but thanks to Blake for taking me there. It is a 90 minute boat ride from the mainland, which means the 300 people who live there are pretty isolated. The name is well known in Canada because of the Pelee Island Winery.Bruno Friesen is the winery’s manager, and is a plant growing obsessive (hopefully he won’t mind me saying that). When he finishes the day job of looking after 600 acres of vines and 500 arable acres, he goes to his private garden where he grows 2000 strawberry plants, tomatoes, chillies, garlic, etc etc. He loves it.
You couldn’t accuse these guys of being fixed in their ways. There over over 60 cultivars of grapes being grown, both red and white. Until a few years ago most of the arable land had been rented out, but now they farm it all themselves. This land is in continuous soybean production, although it is effectively double cropped with cereal rye, which is either used as a cover crop, or sometimes kept on until harvest if it is a good stand. This way they can keep their own seed, which saves a lot of money as it does not have to be shipped in.
The theory behind this system is that the deep rooted rye extracts a lot of nutrients from the subsoil (unusually, this is made up of a 50cm layer of crushed coral), which is then available to the soybeans that follow it. Something is working, as they are getting yields 50% higher than is normal for the island.
Another effect was excellently demonstrated here – better than I have seen it before. I took two pieces of soil from 50cm apart, one from the bare soil, and one from under the mat of dead rye (as in the picture two above). The above picture shows incredibly clearly how much extra moisture is retained in the soil profile with the residue protection. This has to be worth a significant amount of yield in a dry time.
These guys also use a crimper roller to terminate the rye. It seems to work very well in thick crops, but when they are thin and short the effectiveness is much reduced.
A small portion of the vines are certified organic, and they have come up with a novel way of producing fertiliser. Fields of permanent lucerne/alfalfa are cut 2-3 times a year, and then composted. Some of these fields are also certified organic, but in Canada they can use a non-certified field as long as it has had no chemical applications in the last two months. I don’t think the Soil Association would go for that one?
It takes around 12 months for the composting process to take place, and it has to be turned and watered regularly. They weren’t sure of the exact yield, but there is only enough to use for replanting young vines. The nutrition is so good in this compost that instead of taking 6 years to start producing grapes, they now only take 1-2 years, which is pretty amazing.
The real killer for Pelee island is the shipping. Anything they produce must be very valuable compared to its bulk, to minimise the proportion of haulage cost. Grapes obviously work, as do soybeans. Maize is too bulky. They are now trying out Goji berries and Sea Buckthorn. I didn’t know that any non-leguminous plants could fix nitrogen, but there are a small number, Sea Buckthorn being one of them. You learn something every day (hopefully more than one thing actually). Here’s another fact – one Sea Buckthorn berry contains the same amount of vitamin C as a whole orange. Wait for that one in the pub quiz.
Sorry for the lack of detail here, but due to jet lag and generous hospitality I’m a bit behind on blogs so having to wiz through them a bit…