Re-imagining our food supply

Every town ringed by ‘micro farms’, many specialising in ‘heritage’ produce, all involved in education and re-introducing us to the potentially restorative power of nature. Eden Project founder, Sir Tim Smit, has a dream… 

I AM imagining every village, town and city having its own farmers’ market – probably taking place on a more than once-per-week basis – and not just for the promise of being a pretty visitor attraction.

That said, the increased footfall that a farmers’ market might generate has the potential of injecting new energy to the high street, particularly those that are currently a bit ‘down at heel’.

Besides their potentially regenerative role in saving the high street, farmers’ markets would exist, in the main, to provide an outlet for local farms.

A huge canon of fruit and vegetables – which are nowadays described as ‘heritage’ – are now no longer available to the general public. And I am hopeful that these farmers’ markets might result in a resurgence in these so-called heritage varieties just as there has been a rise in craft beers and artisan gins.

If you look at the craft beer sector, it is being driven, to a large extent, by young people setting up on their own, as SMEs, and not by the large players, though there’s an inevitability that the large players will sit up and take notice.

I have found young people are smart, entrepreneurial and concerned, and I have no doubt they might embrace heritage fruit and vegetables with the same enthusiasm they have taken to craft beer and artisan gin.

Growing things is utterly crucial to our well-being. And knowing about the soil is what Lewis Dartnell postulates in his book, ‘The Knowledge – how to rebuild our world from scratch’, where he imagines how civilisation might recover from an apocalypse.

His argument is that today’s main crops are almost wholly useless as a means of recovering from an apocalypse because of their dependence on fossil fuel inputs, for fertilisers and pesticides.

That is, for me a powerful observation, notwithstanding the risk to wildlife if fertilisers and pesticides are allowed to run off the top soil and into water courses.

And Dartnell goes on to say that the crops that don’t need these inputs, and are potentially the most resilient, are the ones from two or three generations ago. 

Having myself tasted goodness knows how many different ‘heritage’ varieties, my interest in them is not some form of old-fashioned sentimentality. 

It’s not that everything in the past was always better – that is simply not true: try eating Victoria-era peas. 

But I am interested in them because they offer interesting tastes, not to mention their nutritional benefits that I believe are being increasingly proven with each passing day.

I am personally testing this with a 60-acre plot that I have set up in Cornwall, where I live, devoted to old apple trees. So far, I have found them to be very hardy, perhaps not yielding as much as more modern crops, but delivering a much bigger punch in terms of taste.

Which takes me back to farmers’ markets. As well as being an outlet for (organic) ‘heritage’ brand growers to sell their produce, farmers’ markets are also an opportunity to educate people about the food they are eating.

At the farmers’ markets I see in operation, you can’t help but notice customers and stall holders talking to each other all of the time. 

So long as the food on sale is demonstrably better than what you might find in the supermarket, I don’t see why the produce on sale at a farmers’ market would need to be any more expensive than the competition, especially if long-distance transportation is removed from the equation and you are able to sell direct to the public rather than via a wholesaler.

Sadly, for most of us, farming is little more than part of the supply system. We are mostly as detached from farming as we are an online store. There’s something ‘other’ about farming, that it is someone else doing it.

I have been involved in discussions about introducing natural history into the school curriculum and am arguing strongly about introducing lessons on how to grow and also how to cook. 

I think our food supply system has allowed itself to become antiseptic and we – as a nation – don’t know enough about what we are eating.

So, let’s imagine again every village, town and city hosting their own regular farmers’ markets. And let’s imagine too a proliferation of micro farms, many of them specialising in ‘heritage’ brands. 

You can imagine a ring of such micro farms sprouting up around every farmers’ market that they serve. It enriches our sense of place when you have producers of local food, drink and crafts coming to sell their wares. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we used to call it ‘alternative’, the idea of nature and wildlife being integral to our well-being. 

Now, during the pandemic, we recognise that it is much more mainstream. 

And not just mental well-being, but our physical well-being also, as the aerosols and phytophenols that you find within vegetation are potentially good for improving digestion, brain function, and blood sugar levels, as well as protect against blood clots, heart disease and certain cancers.

Research now is wave upon wave of recognition that nature and wildlife ought to be integral to our daily lives.

I run my life by inviting social jeopardy: I accept every third invitation I receive, unless it clashes with a domestic obligation. I accept, so that I meet people I didn’t know I needed to meet, to potentially challenge my lazy certainties. I don’t want to become that middle-aged person completely certain in their wrongness. 

So, I like to challenge myself, constantly. The idea of every village, town and city being ringed by micro farms each exploring heritage fruit and vegetables and having an outlet, in the local farmers’ market, is because I have been fortunate to have spoken to many smart people.

Therefore, moving this thinking on, these possible micro farms would need to co-operate with each other, to make sure there is a 365 days-a-year supply of seasonal crops – hopefully reducing our need, as a nation, to have food shipped or flown in from hundreds, possibly thousands, of miles away.

I am also involved in a project, near the Eden Project, where I am trying to create a co-operative of growers – growing ‘heritage’ European vegetables, which are very rare – which will, among other things, run a teaching kitchen.

I think we need to rediscover the word, ‘farming’. It’s not for someone else to provide, it should be potentially for everyone to be involved with – which, in passing, should help reduce the loneliness that many farmers suffer from. 

Which is why I advocate farms offering education, and also a place where people can go to carry out volunteer work, for personal, restorative reasons.

And why also I strongly advocate ‘city farms’, where part of the urban landscape is turned into farming space – which also has educational and social functions, the latter testing the notion of ‘citizenship’, when you bring people together in common pursuit of a goal.

If you look at the French city of Nantes, you might be struck by the ‘citizen energy’ sparked, widely acknowledged, by the city’s former director of green spaces, Jacques Soignon, who helped turn Nantes into a ‘city in a garden’, with the result that Nantes has to be one of the coolest cities in the world, and certainly my favourite city.

A whole culture was developed, not least by giving permission to street art springing up all over the place – which is a lot different to tagging graffiti. If it’s okay for a park bench to spontaneously appear on a street corner, it then becomes okay for other civic-minded initiatives to also appear. But without the attendant bureaucracy often found in the UK.

Within the recent dialogue in the United Kingdom of turning cities into a series of self-sufficient villages, these ‘city farms’ will also supply into their local farmers’ market.

I say all of this, mindful that our food production in the future might be delivered – at incredibly cheap prices – by cutting-edge science, such ‘cellular agriculture’. That trend could make food production even more antiseptic than it currently already is, albeit you might find heritage ‘brands’ of livestock emerging alongside the ‘big boys’ delivering our lab-grown meat.

Turning urban land into farming land is going to be mostly a political decision. Meanwhile, turning agricultural land into a series of market gardens – for our smart, young people to get involved with – is probably mostly a financial question.

So, if I have a dream, it is for something like the National Lottery to be buying agricultural land at present use value and letting our young people simply get on with it.

The farmers’ markets will then spontaneously spring up, to provide a place for sellers and buyers to come together. 

Sir Tim Smit is a Dutch-British businessperson, founder of the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan, both in his now native Cornwall.

Photo courtesy of Ben Foster/Eden Project

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