A Naroques

Return to earth – what’s in a teaspoon?

A few years previously, I knew nothing of all this. Finding out about climate change had led me towards wider questions of sustainability. As part of that I began to discover the reality of industrialised agriculture.  Whilst in the middle of pretty grim reading, I’d chanced upon a remark from an American journalist “if you don’t like the system, don’t depend on it”. Searching for answers as to how I could make this a reality, I came across a man called John Seymour. He was a master of the many arts necessary to be self sufficient and the seasonal life he described was one full of wonder, physical work and deep satisfaction.

I had Seymour tucked in the record bag whilst playing at clubs and festivals all over the world. When things are at their peak, words can’t describe it; waiting in the wings, full of anticipation the crowd going back as far as the eye can see. On stage thousands of hours of effort and occasional despair come good in a unified moment of energy. Then come the after parties, the smoke filled dressing rooms, the sense of the night ahead. Beyond the music, it had opened the door to seeing at first hand the lives of what one magazine recently called the Happy Few.  When you’re riding high, everybody wants you on their yacht parties,  in their private jets or sounding tracking their multi-thousand dollar table service. What struck me was the restlessness.The couple who had one jet now needed two; last year’s yacht needed to be larger, the party bigger and more extravagant. In reality they are people stuck in the same endless aspirational loop as everyone else, just on a different scale. Back home in rural France, I’d have a chat over the hedge with the neighbour whose family have lived there for 300 years and who doesn’t have a passport. “There’s more to see in the fields around my house than I’ve got time to look at properly in my lifetime”.  I was struck by how he just lived. He doesn’t work in order to escape on holidays or to buy stuff. He’s got ambitions and objectives for his farm, but happiness comes in the day to day process.

It was with his help that I turned over a corner of old pasture land at the end of the garden and planted my first seeds. It seemed incredible that a few months later there was beautiful tasting food on the plate. Abundance from so little. If you put a seed into good soil and add moisture, there’s no one more motivated than the plant to grow and produce the edible portions you’re hoping for. It just happens. The first time I walked into the greenhouse and found it full of tomato seedlings , the smell stopped me in my tracks. I was 30 years back in time, a long forgotten memory of my nan’s little greenhouse in Barnsley, watching her arthritic hands prune at light speed.

Things changed when I planted these seedlings into my newly made beds. I was working as the neighbours did – tilling the beds with a rotavator. Little did I know that turning the earth causes thousands upon thousands of weed seeds to germinate. They can lie there in darkness sometimes for hundreds of years until, brought to the surface, they seize the moment to grow twice as high as your tomatoes in a week. This was less of  problem for the neighbours, a generation of farmers that had been sold the magic bullet of weed killers and thought nothing of using the same on their food. But for me it meant pointless hours hacking through jungles of invading plants. Eventually through experiments too long winded to repeat, and which in any case can be avoided by going straight to the right book (Charles Dowding), I ended up with a no-dig system where the earth is never turned over and always covered by something , either your veg or what’s called a cover crop in between seasons. With a little planning, the kitchen was soon full with fresh food year round, and lots of it. You only need 8m x 8m to grow all the veg for a family of 4. The original planners of the English Garden Cities knew this, and had organised groups of houses around food growing squares. What health, community and independence had their plans not been overruled.

There’s a deep rooted, primeval satisfaction about sitting down to a meal you’ve grown yourself. Once you’ve done it, you can’t go back. A life without growing my own food quickly became as impossible to imagine as a life without music. It goes beyond the taste, the simple pleasure of being in the garden or of watching things grow. Like music, it’s an emotional pull. The rituals of food and music, with us since the beginnings of humanity.

My vegetable production expanded and I managed to get a license to sell at the biggest weekly market. Moving the roadblocks out of the way and loading in for the first time was an intimidating experience. Between 7am and the opening bell at 8, huge tables laden with bread and wine appear and a raucous pre market breakfast gets underway. I’d been on the go since 5, picking and agonising over how many of my salads to pull up, not wanting to run out but not wanting to waste them. Following the advice of expert veg grower Elliot Coleman, I picked them onto a bed of ice cubes and kept just enough on display with the rest in a cool box behind. The difference this makes between you and the competition by 11am on a hot morning is massive.  Settled in a decent spot between the egg man and the apple juice lady, within a couple of weeks I had grandmas coming back to buy salads saying they tasted like salads used to taste like. Inspired, I began the search for farm land. I wanted to scale up in part from a desire to attempt resistance to agro-industry on a bigger scale, but mainly to be able to fully live off the land so I could justify spending all my time outside and growing because I loved it. Two years later, many thousands of euros down and staring at a field completely invaded by thistles, all of this looked rather naive.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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