During the past few years the flight from the land has continued to accelerate. The Irish Farmers Journal predicted that within the next decade the number of farms will be down from 100,000 to 20,000, and 80,000 farmers will be forced to leave the land – everywhere doom and gloom. Farmers wonder where it’s all going to end, even those who are still making a good living say the joy has been taken out of farming and moan about the filling in of forms, the Catch 22 situation with subsidies and expensive chemical inputs.
Many feel trapped and see no way forward and reluctantly encourage their children to pursue alternative careers no matter how strong their love for the land may be. However, this feeling of hopelessness is not shared by everyone. A few weeks ago I attended the Conference of the Soil Association at Cirencester Agricultural College. The mood among the capacity audience of over 600 delegates was optimistic and upbeat. Sainsbury’s sponsored the conference as they have for four years now, and reiterated their support for the organic movement, and confirmed the amazing 40% growth in demand for organic produce yet again, in the year 2000. In fact in the UK, the major supermarkets are vying with each other to sponsor organic events. Waitrose, together with the Mail on Sunday You Magazine sponsor the prestigious Organic Food Awards.
Three Government Ministers attended the Soil Association Conference. The Rt. Hon Michael Meacher, Minister for the Environment, Nick Brown Minister for Agriculture, and the Danish Minister of Agriculture- a dynamic gutsy woman called Ritt Bjerregaard. She explained how 20% of Denmark’s milk is now organic . The surplus milk on the home market is now being exported. Is it possible we will see Danish Organic milk on the shelves over here, instead of Irish organic milk which the market is crying out for. I was bringing milk from Glenisk in Co Offaly because I cannot get a supply of organic milk closer to home. Another interesting fact from fascinating Ritt Bjerregaard’s speech- Denmark has banned the use of pesticides and herbicides for use in private gardens or public parks.
The Oxford Farmers’ Conference on the same weekend was less than three-quarters full – no government minister attended, and God knows the conventional farmers could have done with the support.
Is there at last a realization, as the Danish Minister and other speakers were of the view, that sustainable agriculture and organic farming are the only way forward, and the only route out of this sad mess that agriculture has got into.
This is a similar view to the one articulated by the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder some weeks ago, when he addressed the German nation to break the devastating news that there were indeed cases of BSE in Germany. His message was loud and clear. ‘This spells the end of industrial farming in Germany – we simply have to find a new model.’
The new Minister Of Agriculture from the Green Party Mrs. Kunast, is determined to put the interests of the consumer first, but she warned this will mean that consumers must be prepared to pay more for less intensively produced food. At present the prices paid to farmers and food producers particularly for staples, are forcing them to cut costs and intensify further. In this situation we are all losers – it is simply not possible to produce really wholesome flavourful health-giving food for half nothing. Pushing yields beyond natural limits results in everything cracking as we can clearly see with BSE, Salmonella, E-Coli, Camphylocbactor……..
Those of you who are concerned about these matters may want to seek out a book called ‘Another Turn of the Crank’, written by Wendell Barry who was cited by the New York Review of Books as “perhaps the greatest moral essayist of our day”. He, like many others, fears for the future, unless we radically rethink our ways. In his book of six essays he reiterated his wish to restore local life by means of local economies. Even though the book is written from an American perspective, what he writes is also relevant to Ireland. After the second world war; there was a huge change in how land was farmed, both in the USA and here. What should have happened was for us to have carried on refining established practices and correcting, where necessary, any fertility deficit. What happened instead was that an agenda was adopted that called for a shift from the cheap, clean, and, for all purposes limitless energy of the sun to the expensive, filthy and limited energy of the fossil fuels. It called for the massive use of chemical fertilisers to offset the destruction of topsoil and the depletion of natural fertility. It called also for the displacement of nearly the entire farming population and the replacement of their labour and good farming practices by machine and toxic chemicals. Land was being wasted, farmers were finding times exceptionally hard and rural communities were breaking up through lack of employment. No one, with the exception of the businesses who supplied the machines, fuels and chemicals, benefited. As the ‘supposed abundance of cheap and healthful food is to a considerable extent illusory’ not even us, the consumers, were gaining. Patently, to carry on ploughing the same furrow would be a madness particularly, as Mr Berry predicts, soon there would be pitiably few farmers left able to earn a decent living. ‘If they will not control production and if they will not reduce their dependence on purchased supplies, they will keep failing.’
All is not lost, however; or rather; not yet. There is time – just, but only if we mend our ways. First, farmers must change their ways and learn, or learn again, to farm sustainably. The second change involves us all as it calls for ‘co-operation between local farmers and local consumers. The long-broken connections between towns and cities and their surrounding landscapes will have to be restored.
Could Farmers Markets be part of the answer? – find out next week.
Root vegetables are at their absolute best just now.
Moroccan Spiced Carrot Soup
2 tablesp olive oil or 30g (1oz) butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tablesp. grated ginger
1 teasp. ground cumin
1 teasp. ground coriander
¼ teasp. cayenne pepper
750g (1½lb) carrots, roughly chopped
1.5l (2½ pints) chicken or vegetable stock
1 teasp. honey
2 tablesp. lemon or orange juice
salt, black pepper
Heat the oil or butter in a heavy-based pot. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, cayenne, carrot and potato and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium low heat until the vegetables are soft, 10 minutes.
Turn the heat to medium. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Adjust the heat, partially cover and simmer gently until the potato is tender, 30 minutes.
Leave to cool slightly. Puree until smooth with a hand blender or in a food processor. Stir in honey and lemon or orange juice. Thin with water as needed. Add salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into warm bowls and serve hot.
Carrot and Parsnip Soup with Ginger
Omit the cumin, coriander and cayenne. Replace half the carrots with 2 chopped medium parsnips. Cook as directed.
Roast Winter Roots
Serves 4 as an accompaniment
1.25kg (2½lb) mixed root vegetables (see below)
1 head garlic, separated into cloves, but unpeeled
½ teasp. crumbled dried rosemary or 1 teasp. finely chopped fresh rosemary
½ teasp. balsamic vinegar
4 tables. Extra virgin olive oil
coarse salt, black pepper
Any roots or combinations of roots will work for this recipe. To minimise differences in cooking times, you will need to cut the fast-cooking vegetables into slightly larger pieces than the slow-cookers. Choose from:
Carrots, halved lengthwise
Medium parsnips, quartered lengthwise
Celeriac, peeled and cut into wedges
Shallots, whole and peeled
Onions, peeled and quartered but still attached by the root end
Swede, peeled and cut into wedges
Jerusalem artichokes, halved
Preheat the oven to 200C (400F) Gas 6.
Place the vegetables and garlic in a single layer in a roasting dish. Sprinkle with rosemary, vinegar, oil, salt and pepper. Toss well to coat. Roast until golden and tender: 40 minutes to 1 hour.
Creamy Parsnip Gratin
750g (1½lb) medium parsnips, cut into 5mm (¼ inch) slices.
175ml (6 fl.ozs) double cream
125g (4oz) gruyere or cheddar cheese, grated
salt, black pepper
Cook in boiling water until tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, 5-8 minutes. Drain well. Leave to cool.
Preheat the oven to 200C (400F) Gas 6.
Layer the parsnip slices in a buttered baking dish. Pour over the cream and sprinkle with cheese, salt and pepper.
Bake until the topping is golden and just crisp, 15-20 minutes.
These recipes are from Planet Organic Cookbook by Renee Elliott and Eric Treuille, published by Dorling Kindersley.
Celeriac with Turmeric
2 celeriac (about 1kg/2lb)
3 garlic cloves, crushed
5 tablesp. extra virgin olive oil
¼ teasp. turmeric
salt and pepper
2 teasp. sugar
juice of 1 lemon
Peel and wash the celeriac and cut into pieces of roughly the same size. Put them into a saucepan with the rest of the ingredients and enough water to cover.
Cook, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes over a low heat until the celeriac is soft and the liquid is absorbed, turning the pieces over and raising the heat, if necessary, to reduce the sauce a little at the end.
This recipe is from Tamarind and Saffron by Claudia Roden, published by Penguin Books.