“Eating is an agricultural act” – or how to use those Christmas book tokens!

The headline quote is a characteristically sharp observation by Wendell Berry, one of my favourite writers and quoted by Michael Pollan who adds that Wendell Berry could, equally appropriately, have called eating a political act as well. This reflection begins and will probably end in books, so having promised a list a few days ago I’ve decided to publish a very provisional one today that represents my personal meander through the question of farming and food. I’ll head the list with Michael Pollan because his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was among the first to be published, and was groundbreaking in the way it embraced the whole of food culture from producer to consumer. As a critique of industrial food it’s brilliant, but as a critical friend he addresses many of the questions that sceptics might ask of the alternatives he considers – which, after industrial food production, are – industrial organic food; “beyond organic” farming – basically pasture based livestock production; and foraging. I’ll start the list with this book because I was directed back to it when I started to read Tom Philpott’s new book “Perilous Bounty”, which looks at the state of American farming two decades after Michael Pollan’s research began.

It would be easy to imagine that my reading has focused entirely on American agriculture, but the next four books are UK centred – although in agricultural terms where the US has led, the UK all too often follows to its cost. The feedlot and giant milk production units are here in the UK already and increasing in number.

My third book is Simon Fairley’s “Meat – A Benign Extravagance” – a forceful, evangelistic and highly entertaining book on the virtues of mixed farming. Fourth (and these are in no particular order), Chris Smaje “A Small Farm Future” and finally a couple of more technical books; Dieter Helm’s “Green and Prosperous Land” is an economist’s take on reordering farming and building a greener economy and Tim Lang’s “Feeding Britain – our food problems and how to fix them” is a comprehensive survey of UK food policy, what’s wrong with it and – as the title says – how it could be fixed. Finally James Rebanks new book “English Pastoral” has the advantage of being written by a proper hill farmer and it’s a highly readable book, just like his last one.

There are so many other books on the subject ranging from deep ecology through green spirituality and practical handbooks to monographs on single ecological challenges but I’ve mentioned these particularly because I spent 25 years working in farming parishes and I’d be confident to recommend any of these books to the farmers I came to know and respect even though I had many reservations about what they were doing.

Overseas readers will need to know that the Potwell Inn, virtual though it may be, is firmly situated in the South West of England whose soils are nowhere near as suitable for arable farming as they are for grass. The temperate climate, and soils all favour the production of grass and so (since humans don’t have rumens) by far the most economical use of the majority of the landscape is grazing which allows cattle to turn sunshine into concentrated food that we can eat. And so there is an inescapable focus on meat and milk production which, when it’s done intensively is undoubtedly a cause of real environmental concern.

I’m interested in food security and so the lorries, thousands of which are stacked up against the closed border in Dover today, represent the almost 60% of food that we import and the fragility of the supply line – in one news report. Therefore if we’re to increase self-sufficiency to a much safer 80% it seems inevitable that we will have to make the most effective use of all the land we have and play to our strengths. Sadly, (vegans and vegetarians may think), the future will have to include a significant amount of traditional (and rotational) mixed farming because much of the South West is unsuitable for the kind of large scale grain and pulse production that would be needed to avoid importing huge quantities of protein food. The point about the ecological catastrophe that’s bearing down on us is that it’s universal. It doesn’t respect borders.

Incidentally I noticed an article in this week’s Farmers Weekly on a similar track, discussing whether lupins could replace imported soya as a protein food for cattle. Personally I think the future lies in eating much less meat and feeding cattle on grass which they’ve evolved to digest, rather than concentrates that keep them in a perpetual state of stress and digestive disorder. The irony in the article came when I saw that the breakthrough has come through the licensing of several new weedkillers, one of which is called “Nirvana”. Is that some kind of sick joke?? I quoted Wendell Berry only a couple of days ago saying that intensive farming takes a solution and turns it into two problems. There’s only one way of ending industrial meat production and that’s to eat less meat and only buy the best and most sustainable meat as occasional treats. Those who argue that such a move would mean meat for the rich and starvation for the poor miss the point that:

  • (1) once the subsidies are removed from industrial farming, the prices will converge, although they’ll never meet.
  • (2) We will have to address inequality within any green new deal.
  • (3) The environmental benefits will be felt universally.
  • (4) The potential health benefits of ending the reign of junk food are almost incalculable.

” …. all of which is to say that a successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer, but a new kind of eater as well, one who regards finding, preparing and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore”

Michael Pollan – “The Omnivore’s Dilemma

So without resorting to a long piece that I’m completely unqualified to write; it seems to me that we have an urgent need to develop the skills we’ll need to invent or more likely rediscover in order to achieve a sustainable and ecologically safe food future, and perhaps surprisingly much of the emphasis will have to be placed on changing our food culture on the consumer side. I’ll reserve the philosophical and spiritual aspects to this to another post, but practically speaking we’ll need to bring the teaching of growing, harvesting, cooking and preserving back into the mainstream as Michael Pollan suggests.

We’ll have to hugely increase the provision of allotments by local authorities because these are the laboratories for a greener future. Anyone who has experience of growing their own food, even in small quantities, will quickly learn to recognise quality and pay less attention to price. Informed consumers make better, greener buying choices and waste less. Allotments can be much more productive than the equivalent area of conventional farms.

We’ll also have to build a huge network of local food and farmers’ markets to reduce food miles and completely overhaul the agricultural colleges to address a wholly new ethos; turn agriculture and horticulture into a better paid and better regarded occupation and offer training at local colleges to give people the skills they need to get the most out of gardens and allotments. Finally we need to grow more fruit and veg – much much more of them. One of the tragedies of the CAP was the subsidy paid to established fruit farms to grub up their trees, only to pay them some years later to replant them.

Food security really is possible without resorting to ever more intensive and destructive chemical farming and the destruction of the environment; but as I’ve been arguing, the change in our food culture will need to be huge and it will demand leadership and vision that is nowhere apparent in our present political system. But the thought that it’s our Christmas lunch that’s rotting in the back of a lorry on a border somewhere ought to focus our minds pretty sharply.

And if I don’t get the chance to write again tomorrow have a very happy christmas if that’s your thing; and if it isn’t – do enjoy the next few days!

Rainy day – I hate rainy days!

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_1080345“Hello” – I say, as I shuffle up the garden in my baggy corduroy trousers with my two ancient laboradors following – “I’m worrying about my hyacinth.”

I daydream in bed, listening to the wind and rain buffeting the windows and knowing from the outset that this is it for the day.  All there is to do is to watch the hyacinth growing in its special pot and know in the depths of my heart that it will flower sooner or later and I shall have to paint it, or rather finish painting it. Madame is peacefully asleep but I make tea anyway open the shutters and muse aloud about the weather. More tea, then strong coffee – why on earth do I drink stimulants when what I need is something to send me to sleep until the sun shines? Back in bed I read fitfully and take a wild and fruitless leap at a conversation.  “It’s like living with a tornado when you’re in one of these moods”, she says.

Every rainy day needs a plan. The campervan battery needs replacing but I can’t do that in the wet. We need to go to the garden centre to get more seed sowing compost and some extra modules but the Christmas bonanza has started in earnest and you have to fight your way past Father Christmas and the intoxicating smell of cinnamon candles to get to the gardening bit – bah humbug! Finally the idea of baking the Christmas cake floats into my mind.  Up again, I discover a huge cache of half-full packets of dried fruit none of which is full enough to make a Christmas cake and much of which is beginning to crystallise – this is what happens every year and instead of throwing the old ones away and buying new, I will get lumbered with another stash exactly the same size next year. Wouldn’t it be good to buy them loose?

And then in a typical bit of mission creep, I decide to make a Dundee cake as well and so it goes …..

Sainsbury’s, it’s clear, is suffering from brexit already. Things are unexpectedly missing and there are notices appearing about supply interruptions. Barring the possibility that the identical aspiration to make Christmas cakes today has struck half the population simultaneously, I’d say that some shelves were suspiciously empty. I set out in search of dried porcini mushrooms.  They were missing from their usual spot and even the customary label was missing. I asked one of the assistants who did a search for me on her handset – “They’re on hold” – she blurted out; not “sold out” or “impounded by customs” but “on hold”.  Which sounds suspiciously like one of those sharp suited London types is frantically trying to renegotiate a post-brexit supply from the porcini groves of Putney.  This will end in tears. 

And so, for a breath of reality to the Farmers Market in Green Park Station.  We like going there because it’s a good place to get some sense of what our vegetables are worth – quite a bit is the answer – although one farmer is still selling sweetcorn on the cob – probably not very sweet today, more like fodder maize.  Farmers markets aren’t the complete answer to all our woes, but they’re certainly a step in the right direction. We’ve three independent bakers, two really good butchers, a man who sells game, a fishmonger, artisan cheesemongers and any number of value added food stalls.  You can even buy cannabis oil products but I hate queuing. Today there was a newcomer with a fabulous display of fungi. It was like being in France again, and he had dried porcini mushrooms.

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The dreadlocked couple on one of the bread stalls had obviously struggled with the effect of the wind on their wood fired oven because all their loaves were baked several steps beyond perfection, but it didn’t seem to matter to the crust loving customers.

Farmers markets are a bit more expensive than supermarkets, but the upside is that you can talk to the producers and get the measure of them before you buy, and the difference in the price could probably be expressed in animal welfare and/or organic standards. But the biggest advantage is that they’re local – I think the furthest travelled food on sale today was the kimchi – up from Salisbury.  What it all boils down to is a personal choice, would I prefer to eat organic free range beef maybe a couple or three times a year, accepting it as an occasional luxury? or carry on as usual turning a blind eye to the abuse of animals, the environmental impact of intensive food production and the terrible quality of mass produced food.  Local and small scale food production creates many more real skills and jobs for local people who spend their money locally. And I’m not away with the fairies imagining that we can change the world by thinking nice thoughts – we must make the polluters pay for their mess and pay their taxes like the rest of us.  We will have to legislate too, if it’s going to work, and of course the industrial farmers and their chemical industry supporters won’t be very happy about it – tough!

Without wanting to pick a fight, the choice isn’t binary – either vegan or feedlots, but exploring the possibility of less impactful lives and engaging with (willing) food producers to discover what we can jointly do as producers and consumers. The face to face interaction of a farmers market is exactly the right place for this to happen and I would dearly love to see the whole of the undercover part of Green Park Station turned into a giant continental style food market. But for now, there’s no choice but to go to a supermarket for some more currants and sultanas because I didn’t get enough.  The Dundee cake is just out of the oven and smells fantastic, and when we get back we can put the rest of the fruit into a bowl to soak with some brandy until I make the Christmas cake tomorrow, when the clocks go back and it gets dark at lunchtime but at least the sun’s going to shine.

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At Bath Farmers Market

One of our Saturday morning treats is to go to the market –  http://www.bathfarmersmarket.co.uk –  and wander about spotting some favourites. Some of the stalls only show up fortnightly and some are occasionals so there’s always something to see. But the regulars are reliable – butchers, bakers, fishmongers and greengrocers plus some of the best cheeses and deli – all locally produced. There’s a really good atmosphere and organic produce is always available.  Just imagine, if every small sized town or large village could organise something like this it would support local small businesses – especially startups – reduce food miles, build new human networks and challenge the hegemony of the supermarkets. If you think that’s a romantic dream, ask yourself why the big supermarkets are chasing to keep up with traceability, little farmer biographies (are they real?) imitation sourdough breads and ‘artisan’ gins.  Why would we be satisfied with the phoney if we could get our hands on the real and actually talk to the producers?

In particular there’s a stall run by a local organic group where anyone can sell their surplus produce and share the proceeds. That could be a boon to allotmenteers like us who often have surpluses of extremely good but perishable crops. The essence of this is not to attract car drivers from 50 miles away but to encourage them to set up their own markets and exchanges. We’ve seen the way that microbreweries are being bought up and sucked into the corporate beast, and that can’t be the way to go.  Upscaling artisan industries merely repeats the mistakes of the past, and equates profit with value. We need a broader set of values and a different mindset for a new kind of entrepreneur to implement them.  Values like slow, local, inclusive and respectful of local community aren’t backwards looking romanticism but revolutionary and challenging. Local businesses that implement these values are often driven out by predatory supermarket practices and the result is unemployment, waste and pollution. I had a long converstaion with a struggling dairy farmer several years ago and he said that in order to enforce price cuts on farmers, one big supermarket was importing cheaper milk from Eastern Europe to drive down the price.  How can that be right?  In a market economy it’s buying decisions that can make the world a better place.