Archive | December 2015

Desirable Tobacco

Dear Betty,

Evaporation 20th to 26th December 1-16, 5-6, 6, 5-7 ,5, 5, 5 While on the subject of weather, I read that parts of England have had 4 times their average December rain. I don’t know what that means in Choma terms (I hope to look it up before next week’s blog) but four times the average sounds scary.

With this drier than average season it is going to be a challenge to grow really desirable tobacco to repair our reputation with China. I have had to remind myself that we are all in this together: even if two out of the three merchants buy and market a high quality crop, if the third one should stumble, it could be enough for the Chinese to walk away. I have been alarmed by the attitude of some farmers, who don’t seem to take the problem as seriously as we should. If we use a chemical that is not approved, and if the Chinese find it (even at levels way below the accepted levels) it will be proof to them that we do not have control over our production and that too might be enough of an excuse for them to walk away. I really believe this is the year we may have to forego some profit to be CERTAIN of producing an acceptable product. If there is a chemical out there that you are tempted to use, but which is not on the approved list, fight to get it approved for next year, but don’t use it this year in the hope that you can ‘get away with it’. Evidence of non-approved use may be all that it takes.

Having said that, I think it is not too late to discuss (and modify) the recommendations on late top-dressings. I gather Michelle du Toit (who, after all, knows her tobacco) is recommending late top dressing of Calcium nitrate on certain varieties as a remedy for K and Z styles. This contradicts the TAZ guidelines for this year. Now there is no danger of residues from Calcium nitrate, so residues is not the issue – it is the smoking quality of the leaf produced. I think we all agree that a late top-dressing should be nitrate based, which leaves us with Calcium, Potassium, Sodium and Ammonia nitrate. I am not sure is Sodium nitrate is even available and the Ammonia might give too much N, too late, as the Ammonia has to first change to nitrate before it can be utilised by the plant.

So, Calcium versus Potassium nitrate? And how does that ‘remedy’ compare with reaping riper, curing more slowly and anything else we can try? Of course a trial would help us to learn, but doing a trial on the micro-scale that I do my trials would probably give us an indeterminant result and is also very difficult to do – following leaves through the whole curing/grading/selling process. This is very crucial knowledge and I hope we can get better, clearer guidelines before it is too late.

Best for now,



Puny Technology

Dear Agatha,

Evaporation from 13 to 19th December 6-1, 1, 4-1, 5, 2-13, 4, 1-39

I came across this paragraph in an article on Climate Change:

Even as flocks of jets began descending upon Paris for the latest talks, the delegates could see that the consequences of global warming had been setting in fast. Ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are shrinking with unexpected speed, Arctic sea ice is disappearing faster than forecast in computer models, and circulation patterns over vast swaths of the planet’s oceans are being disrupted. “The more we learn, the more we see that these processes are happening more quickly than we anticipated,” says Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor of earth system science at Stanford.

Then I had a discussion with my foremen as to when it would be prudent to switch off our irrigation, to save the remaining water for next year’s cattle and seedbeds, rather than use it all on the current crops. I pointed out to them how much stronger the weather is than our technology: it takes a 75kW pump (and all that infrastructure) 48hours to put 30mm of water on my 30ha pivot – which a passing cloud can do for me in 30 minutes (if it is so inclined)!

And then I went to Livingstone on Friday to meet an old friend who had been with me at Eagle School, then at Peterhouse and at University. He had grown up in Lusaka but had not been back since his family left to return to England after he had written his O-levels. As Simon and Chris Aston had also been at Eagle we met there for lunch and had a great time reminiscing. Chris showed me some tobacco plants, which would normally be well on their way to that maximum growth stage, but which were dying of a sort of hot-temperature syndrome. Burning soils, hyper-active fungi attacks and so dying plants. There is nothing that Chris can do to lower the temperatures (especially when he doesn’t have ZESCO 24/7) and not much he can do about the different pathogens. Although it was great to see my school friends again, I came away reminded that, as the climate changes our ability to mitigate its effects are going to be limited and probably inadequate. The problems that Chris is facing now in Livingstone could be the problems we are facing in Choma in as little as 15 years time.

On that bleak note, may I wish you all a Merry Muddy Christmas,


Paris Climate Change

Dear Zorba,

Evaporation 6 to 12 December 8, 8, 6-6, 7, 8, 5, 5-34 I don’t know if you are all aware of how lucky Choma/Kalomo/Zimba has been with rain (so far) but on Monday I drove to Lusaka and, from Pemba to Lusaka (and I am told north to Kabwe) they hadn’t had a planting rain.

I think I have discovered why one of my websites is not so good at predicting the weather! Meteoblue allows you to put in your co-ordinates – which I did for Siachitema abou 18 months ago, when I first learned about the site (from Derek Carle). Just this week I noticed that it was looking 2 degrees East of Choma, which is a long way away. So I tried to re-enter the co-ords (thinking I had originally made a typo) and now it insists on going 16 degrees NORTH! (No rain predicted there). So if you are using Metroblue please check that it is actually using your co-ordinates – and then let me know how you did it.

You are probably all aware that the world has agreed a Climate Deal in Paris. The best article I have seen on it is this one from The Guardian  The deal isn’t really worth the paper it is written on because, as this article points out, agreeing a 1.5 deg C limit is meaningless when there is already enough carbon in the atmosphere to take us closer to 3 degrees. Think of it like this: it has been a hot night so you go to sleep with no blanket over you, later, when it gets cold, you pull the blanket back, but you don’t get INSTANTLY hot, it takes time. The same thing with the Earth. We have spent the last 100 years pulling a carbon blanket over the Earth (and are STILL doing it), we have started to get warmer, but we have by no means reached the balance point for this thickness of blanket. Physics tells us that balance point (at 400ppm CO2) is somewhere 3 degrees warmer than now.

So, we ALL need to give SERIOUS thought to how we are going to reduce our carbon emissions, because the Activists are coming. Coal is the place to start, as it will have the biggest quickest impact.

On a different subject, I kept back some bulls last bulling season to introduce to the breeding herd after 2 months, when the other bulls may have been tired. There is a SLIGHT improvement in the calving rate to coincide with those fresh bulls, but certainly not enough to get excited about. I also wonder if we are using too many bulls. In multi-sire herds we are advised to keep 1 bull for every 25 cows, but I have been putting my new bulls in with the cows when they first arrive (so as to avoid dangerous fighting) and have been getting 60 calves from this one bull. Tina and Steve tell me they got 100 from one of their new bulls. With the collapsed price of beef (in $ terms) bulls may be one area where we can cut corners until the wheel comes around again, and we get better prices.




Paris Climate Talks

Dear Yves,

Sorry I skipped last week – here is two weeks worth of evaporation: from 22 Nov to 5th December 5-10, 4, 10, 10, 7, 10, 11, 0-11, 4-1, 1-3, 1-6, 5, 5-2 2

I am sure you are all aware that there is a conference taking place in Paris right now on the future policy on Climate Change. What I was NOT aware of, is that each country arrived at the conference with their INDC – Intended Nationally Determined Contribution. Well I don’t know about Nationally Determined – determined by one or two ‘experts’, probably foreign, and certainly decided without ANY public debate, that I am aware of. I managed to track down a copy of our INDC and it is the usual load of blah, blah, blah mostly pleading for about $35 bn in aid to help us achieve these goals. Our contribution is (apparently) mostly based on agriculture to mitigate our use of fossil fuels by expanding our forests and using ‘smart’ agriculture to capture more carbon in our soils.

I am sure many other countries will also be claiming to do the same – using agriculture/forestry to ‘mop-up’ after fossil fuels. Not only is this technique likely to be very difficult to verify, but it will probably be totally ineffective in dealing with our growing use of fuel. There was nothing in the INDC about public transport policy in the towns (to replace all the cars that we have recently imported.) and very little about promoting solar power. So I suspect that the Paris conference is not going to come close to an effective policy.

I had a surprise visit from Richard and Lisa Duckett on their way through to breakfast with Mary Counsell. Richard confirms that many other people have this problem of gum-tree blight. I am sure we are going to see more of it. A change in the climate is going to suit new pests (like the yellow cane aphid) and we are all going to have to be on the lookout. We also discussed the new craze of planting Brachiaria. My ‘bible’ Tropical says that it is mostly suited to a much higher rainfall than ours. I am planting a small trial plot in my seedbed site, but I think we are going to have to be VERY careful about how we spend money on our cattle. I think the strengthening of the Kwacha (from the K12.6/$ when I cashed in my barley income, to K10.4/$ – when I drew wages) is going to be temporary. Even if they bring back legislation to stop foreign currency bank accounts, it is not going to change the supply of dollars into this economy, so we can expect a further weakening. This will mean a lower beef price (in $ terms) and much less margin to spend on novel foods.

One final observation: My tobacco ridges are broad, fairly flat-topped with a narrow furrow between them. Piers Counsell’s are the opposite – a narrow /\ ridge followed by a broad furrow. His is a much better crop than mine, but I don’t for a minute believe it is because of the ridge shape. When the climate becomes less hospitable, this might be a detail worth looking at.