Food and farming joined

At the beginning of the sequence of covid and then brexit we saw the fragility of our food chain demonstrated in the most telling way by empty shelves in the supermarkets and perfectly good food rotting in lorries. At the time we resolved that we would switch our shopping towards high standard and locally produced organic food as soon as we could. It’s been a year but after a lot of research we’ve found an organic farm shop that’s only ten minutes drive away and sells fresh meat and fish too on Wednesdays. These all come from the immediate locality. The veg are not so local because there are a lot more livestock and dairy farms locally than there are market gardens, but then they’re all labelled with their place of origin and we grow a great proportion of our own veg in any case. There are two organic veg outlets five minutes walk from the flat. The fish come either from West Country inshore fisheries or further afield for the offshore catches. Staples like grains and beans can easily be found in Bath which has a strong alternative food tradition. Is it all more expensive? – honestly yes – but that’s because the hidden cost of intensive food production and distribution are never counted in the ticket price, (although still we pay through the nose in terms of poor health, environmental damage and pollution), and of course we still buy a significant amount of food in a supermarket that’s worker owned and demands high welfare standards from its suppliers. You can’t let the perfect drive out the good, as the saying goes, and to an extent the higher price is mitigated by the fact that we never willingly waste any of it. Our tiny food waste recycling bin is only emptied a couple of times a week at the very most and one of these days when funds permit we’ll try out bokashi composting and/or build a worm farm up at the allotment. What’s for sure is that eating is – or at least should be – as much an ethical issue for omnivores as it is for the most committed vegan.

But there I go sounding a bit worthy. The best news about shopping locally is the fact that it creates a lot of local jobs and you can have a conversation with a person who really cares about what they’re selling. Today we joined the queue for the fish van and overheard a conversation he was having with a customer about the way the Brixham trawler skippers were re-jigging their markets after brexit. Then, when our turn came he was delighted to tell us that our smoked mackerel – the darkest I’ve ever seen – were smoked in Arbroath, and the smoked haddock (OK I love smoked fish) was processed in Peterhead where this particular supplier would only smoke the largest fish. In the butchery no-one even raised an eyebrow when I asked about mutton, and the butcher told me they only occasionally get hogget. You’ve really never tasted lamb until you’ve eaten hogget – lamb in its second year. We were given a leg by a smallholding friend and it was simply the best flavoured lamb I’ve ever tasted. We even found out that they make all their own faggots; no-waste butchery on the very farm the animals are raised on, and the great thing about a proper butcher is that you can often buy the cheapest cuts at incredibly good prices. In the food section there’s even a refrigerated Jersey milk dispenser, and unless this sounds like a bit of a promo, we tried the sausages last week and neither of us particularly liked them. However there’s another local butcher on our river walk and he makes the best we’ve ever tasted. Ask yourself when was the last time that food shopping was this much fun?

As we left the shop we found this family of pigs with a whole paddock to themselves. The piglets were a little shy and scooted off behind the ark when they saw me, but it seems to me that if you’re going to eat meat at all it should be produced on farms like this and lead a naturally fulfilled life in the open air before being humanely slaughtered. Traditional mixed farming is certainly one part of a sustainable farming future; producing excellent food while returning fertility to the ground. I go back often to Michael Pollan’s excellent advice – “eat food, not too much, mostly veg!”

Snow tomorrow ?

img_4900This is the season where the weather can be all over the place, and today as we walked down to the allotment we noticed the automatic greenhouse vents were open.  It was no more than 5C with a cold north westerly wind blowing and the ground was still frosted, but the sun was intense and a very little 6’X4′ greenhouse can soon heat up even in the winter. If we were on a mission it was mainly to get the three recently finished beds under cover before the snow. They need to warm up ready for the early plantings, but in addition I wanted to clear the way to build the hotbed, the wormery and the last two raised beds, as well as get rid of a few of the really nasty weeds – like bindweed and couch.

img_3596If we do get a substantial fall I’ll need to go up and clear the nets of snow.  In the past we’ve seen very strong steel frames bend under the weight. I received another photo this morning of the rapidly growing pile of very fresh and hopefully very hot horse manure that my friend Annie is saving for us and so I sorted out a dozen empty compost bags so we can transport the manure back in our little car.  Really I’d love a pickup – we had one many years ago and I loved it – but Madame very properly reminds me that you can’t take grandchildren out for the day in the back of a pickup. Warm clothes?  No probably not.

But it doesn’t take long on the allotment before an ethical dilemma creeps in, trolling me at the back of my mind.  We’re aware of all the downsides of bonfires and we compost the overwhelming majority of our household and allotment waste but after 50 years of trying every which way of killing bindweed and couch without chemicals, a very slow bonfire is the only one that’s 100% efficient.  Round here they’re called ‘burnabouts’ or sometimes ‘couch fires’ and the trick is to get a really hot fire burning in the incinerator before adding the matted wet roots. img_4896For the first couple of minutes it kicks off but very quickly it settles down to not much more than a whisp of smoke and steam.  It’s rather like burning charcoal – after a hot start you restrict the access of oxygen and then, with a bit of judicious topping up and maybe some wood chips sprinkled in now and again, it will burn immensely slowly for a week and reduce the weeds to ash that then goes straight on to the compost heap.  I know that some people swear by stacking it up and wrapping it in black plastic, or – even worse – just chucking it on the compost heap and rendering the whole heap a nursery bed for weeds. Sometimes you just have to do the least worst thing you can think of.

We at the Potwell Inn tolerate perfectionists – after all nobody’s perfect – but we resist being nagged into a state of paralysis, and when in doubt we turn to the evidence before we explore our feelings.  So yesterday I was innocently browsing on a farming website to try to find an answer to my question ‘what would happen to British agriculture if we all went vegan?’ and to my immense surprise I discovered the comments section had been infested with trolls who were pouring the most vicious abuse on farmers in general as if they were ‘all the same’.

I’ll pass on any comment about the trolls – they have to live with themselves and that can’t be a lot of fun.  But here’s an interesting fact, a real fact about which it’s completely imposible to get emotional because it is the case. I’ve seen it suggested that if all the farms turned their land over to growing pulses and vegetables we could save the planet from the coming environmental crisis, avoid the ecological crisis which is its twin sibling, and stop climate change in its tracks.

If you take a look at a map of the UK marked up according to the quality and function of its available land, you see immediately that virtually the whole south west, with its high rainfall and warm weather, is mainly suitable for mixed and dairy farming. You couldn’t convert it all to growing pulses even if you wanted to because the land just isn’t suitable. If then you look at all of the hilly land, so that’s most of Wales and Scotland, again however much we need soya and lentils we couldn’t grow it there.  The only land which is perfectly suited to arable crops is (no surprise) the flat fertile land in the south east. So if mixed dairy, sheep and pig farming were to disappear overnight it would barely add more than a few thousand acres to the available arable land, cost tens of thousands of jobs and increase the 40% of our food that we already need to import just at the time when it seems likely that the cost of food will rocket.

I loathe industrialised farming and we try never to buy its products so in no sense do I want to ‘defend’ industrialized extraction of the soil’s fertility and the impoverishment of the environment.

The only way forward is to abandon perfectionism and move forward on whatever fronts we can. Yes we all need to eat less meat if we’re not already eating no meat at all. That’s a good outcome that can only happen if we refuse to demonize people with alternative views.  The future needs to be ‘caught not taught’.  So low intensity mixed organic farming – both rural and urban wherever feasible – with grass fed cattle is worth pursuing over and against intensive pig units and cattle ‘feedlots’. Some will argue that it would put the price of meat beyond the poorest and that’s true so long as we refuse to utterly transform our whole economic system.  Market gardening around the big urban conurbations can save many food miles. Allotments are so productive they can be expanded wherever there’s a space, with all the health and welfare advantages they provide. Most people are not even cooks, let alone chefs, and so we’ll need to introduce a whole new generation to the skills we need to make palatable sustainable food unless we want the food manufacturing processors to gain ownership of veganism and vegetarianism and sell it back to us. We need to offer mentors and affordable courses for new allotmenteers. The battle’s hardly started and certainly not lost but there’s nothing to be gained from preaching from the high moral ground, and a world to be won by embracing farmers and small producers and above all buying their products thoughtfully.  Some years ago I met John Alvis, a dairy farmer and cheesemaker from Lye Cross Farm near Cheddar, at a Young Farmers meeting.  I was deeply impressed by his thoughtfulness, his commitment to educating children about farming and cheesemaking, and his whole approach to land stewardship. Why make an enemy when you can make a friend?

On the right, below, the site for the 6’X4′ hotbed in the space beween the espalier Lord Lambourne apple and the greenhouse. Hopefully the adjacence of a little heat to the apple tree may offer a bit of protection against late frosts. Theories, theories – we’ll see how it turns out. If Annie’s muck refuses to heat up, it can go into the compost with more seaweed and some of the straw I got hold of when I was going to try to make a hotbed with straw and urine.  The very mention of using our urine on the allotment makes some people so queazy they stop nicking our stuff altogether.  I think we might put some signs up – what about

all crops are regularly blessed with human urine – please help yourself!