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Grow your own motor fuel: new challenge for farmers

Friday 06 February 2004

Our countryside correspondent John Sheard welcomes the arrival of a new research unit in Yorkshire which will help farmers grow non-food crops. But, he says, it is not before time

ONE OF the drawbacks of writing about countryside matters over the decades is that the same old problems keep cropping up time and time again. So you either ignore them, and possibly miss important developments, or keep banging on about them - and bore your readers to death.

Grow your own fuel

This week, for instance, I could be writing about a new report due for publication on Monday into the vexed problem of affordable housing for ordinary rural folk - a row which has been going on since the 1970s and is still without solution.

Or about the way big business ignores conservation concerns because the row over thousands of hedgehogs being killed by the McDonald's burger chain's abandoned McFlurry ice-cream cartons is still going on after two years, with the food chain - already under severe attack for causing obesity world-wide - stubbornly refusing to change the carton design.

Instead, let's talk about woad - the stuff ancient Brits painted themselves blue with - or the wonderful thought of running your car on the produce of your farm or allotment.

For this week, I received a welcome letter announcing the creation of the National Non-Food Crops Centre at York University, another subject I have been banging on about for years. Now, perhaps, I am no longer a lone voice in the wilderness.

We all know that farming has taken an awful battering in recent years from a dreadful combination of factors: food scandals, foot and mouth, criminally incompetent civil servants, woefully ignorant politicians and rapacious supermarket chains.

But included in that long list is also the unwillingness of farmers to change their ways: they have continued to over-produce unwanted food surpluses whilst expecting a large part of their bills to be picked up by the taxpayer.

It has been almost impossible to get the vast majority to consider the fact that there are potentially profitable crops which the country desperately needs - but are meant for industrial use, not food.

That woad I mentioned earlier comes from a plant which produces oils much used in the dye and cosmetics industry to produce colours which, at present, demand to use of highly toxic chemicals. And it was dye works, above all others, that were the worst polluters of the textile industry which killed stone dead many of Yorkshire's major rivers.

Coriander, the herb we sprinkle on our curries, also produces highly desirable oils for industrial use and grows readily in Yorkshire - I know because I have a neighbour who produces it by the market-stall-load.

Fast growing willow trees are being grown in many parts of the country to fuel power stations which, with new technology, produce very little air pollution. Nice idea that: grow your own electricity.

And there are dozens of experiments underway into using vegetable oils from plants like oilseed rape as a substitute for diesel oil, the fumes from which hide many of our Dales villages under an acrid fog in the busy holiday seasons. One man is already running his car on the waste from his local fish and chip shop!

There are literally thousands of potential uses for plants which would give our farmers a decent living, save on costly imports of fossil fuels, cut greenhouse gases and help keep our countryside productive but tidy

There are purists I know who hate the livid green of oil-seed rape fields but I welcome the dash of colour. I remember days when cornfields were red with poppies and hay meadows alive with dozens of species of wild flowers - before the introduction of selective weed killers painted the countryside a monotone of green.

And fields full of coriander in the valleys of the Yorkshire Dales would be most welcome: I could get as much of the stuff as I wanted for decent curries and Chinese dishes - and its scent on the breeze would be just wonderful.

So I hope any farming readers will pay attention to the arrival of the National Non-Food Crops Centre at the aptly-named Innovation Centre at York University. This could be the future of agriculture in the 21st Century. Let's give it a try.

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