Wednesday, 3 October 2012

FOOD WEBS


In France there are food markets in every town at least once a week, usually more like twice. The market holders are well practiced at unfolding bountiful, colourful displays of food early in the morning and then folding them up again before siesta time. They are an army of people each producing vegetables, meats, breads and cheeses on a small scale and selling them to dedicated customers. Instead of consumers flooding to supermarkets, which are colossal businesses with rows of tills where the cashier has no involvement or meaningful endorsement of the products they are selling, at the street market you can buy the product from the person who made it. In this way the power of the transactions are spread out creating a web of social and monetary exchanges, this is human scale rather than industrial scale shopping.

To me this is an example of a culture with a deeper involvement in food; more people getting their hands dirty and staking a claim on what they put into their mouths either by making it themselves or by taking it from the hands of the person who did. It seems to me, that in England the general overriding attitude to food is more passive. It is quite normal in our society to go to the supermarket and buy products that are made in bulk quantities or prepared to the point where our involvement is minimal.

According to something I heard on BBC Radio Four’s The Food programme it was the Industrial Revolution that caused Britain to forget it’s fresh food production skills and loose it’s infrastructure of fresh produce in preference for packaged and processed goods. At that time the convenience of packaged and preserved food was seen as the only sensible way forward. Who wants the inconvenience of dirty, fresh perishable food, the Victorians must have thought.

Of course preserved foods have their place but choosing to exchange money for the freshest food possible and support smaller producers where possible helps to spread out power between more people. These exchanges are on display regularly at every French street market. Surely this is evidence of a healthy resilient system, minimizing reliance on distant, large and anonymous businesses and building a food culture with pragmatism, social interaction and traceability at its heart.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

LIFEHERDING


Analogies between life and goat herding sound like something that you would find in a poem by 13th Century Sufi poet Rumi. But I learnt an approach to life from the goats that has stayed with me and that I have already tried to put into use.

On some occasions I worried that the goats were going off in a direction in which they shouldn’t, I couldn’t see over the peak of the hill and I called and whistled as if to say to the goats ‘come this way’ but sometimes they didn’t. The herd generally stays together and moves around as a grazing group, it is hard to watch how this happens, because it happens slowly in little incremental movements. The animals just seem to be in tune with each other and if you whistle gently to guide them they might look up at first and not seem to be responding but then they slowly move, almost as a rolling body bit by bit. But sometimes when I thought I needed to move them and they weren't responding I would say to the dogs, ‘go and get the goats/ va chercher les Alphachèvres’ but they didn’t, they just looked at me, so I tried louder and stronger, with more pointing and they still didn’t and just looked at me and then looked away. In this situation when I finally climbed my way to the top of the hill or the centre of the thicket to see if everything was ok, it usually was. It then occurred to me, once this had happened a few times that maybe there was something they knew that I didn’t. There was, they know the landscape better than me and as long as I could guide them away from eating in vineyards or olive groves all was well. And then when this was the case and there was a good reason to move on they did actually listen to me as if they knew they were pushing their luck and were just waiting to be told.


Countless times in life, I have felt like I am trying to herd my life in the way that I think it should go and felt like I was being ignored. As in goat herding, maybe I am learning that my essential nature knows the landscape of this world more than my ego-mind does and even if I shout and point and make a fuss, when it is irrelevant, it just falls on deaf ears and some sort broader intelligence has the upper hand. What I learnt in goat herding but haven’t grasped in normal life quite yet is when to make a fuss and when to let it be. If I can’t see what is coming or what is important I just don’t know whether the lesson is to keep protesting or to go with the flow. On my last day herding the goats, my successor who I was showing the ropes kept asking me if the goats were ok because at points we could hear from their bells that they were way off to one side out of sight in the woodland. I knew that they were ok and it was then that I realized I had learnt the lay of the land and had learnt to trust the animals and knew that I could find them or guide them in the right direction when it was necessary. It is my aim to understand the lay of the landscape in life in the same way and to be able to practice the same trust daily.

Between now and starting writing this piece I did a quick google search for ‘Rumi goats’ and unbeknown to me there was a Rumi goat poem which has some relevance, here it is:

The Lame Goat
You've seen a herd of goats
going down to the water.

The lame and dreamy goat
brings up the rear.

There are worried faces about that one,
but now they're laughing.

because look, as they return,
that goat is leading!

There are many different kinds of knowing.
The lame goat's kind is a branch
that traces back to the roots of presence.

Learn from the lame goat,
and lead the herd home.

--Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273)
(translated by Coleman Barks)

 





Monday, 17 September 2012

OUTSIDE THE PLAN


Contrary to my plans I find myself in Nice, in the city. It is warm and throngs of tourists are spread across the pebbly beach, scattered in the bright blue sea and sitting in bars, restaurants and coffee shops. The atmosphere is busting and happy, these are holidaymakers enjoying the sunshine the food and the city.
If I had stuck to my plans I would still be half way up the mountain that over looks this city right now. As it turned out there was not much to do on the farm up there after the morning milking and the farmer was not very communicative, welcoming or sociable, so I decided to leave. The final straw was when I was left to do the milking alone without warning and the 12 goats on the milking platform got their heads out of their feed troughs and started stealing each others food and turning around so the suctions teats popped off their udders, it was chaotic and stressful and looking back almost funny. I knew that if the goats were not milked until there was no milk left that it wasn’t very good for them but I had not idea how to get the stubborn goats back into their positions and carry on. It was in that moment that I wondered why on earth I was here, working with these annoying and obstinate animals! But I decided to blame the farmer and not the goats and fled to the city.
 

So now I am in a land of tall buildings, narrow street, buskers, trams and people weaving in and out of the tables and chairs that line the pavements. It feels a million miles away from the countryside, the open space, the rough ground and the agricultural lifestyle. But one depends on the other and food is a link between them.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

NEXT STOP AND DEHORNING


After three weeks on a farm of Rove goats that are a breed that produce milk of high quality but not in great quantity I was led to believe that Alpines the breed on the farm of my next three week stint would produce extensively more milk maybe even three times the amount. I therefore thought there would be lots to do and I therefore imagined lots of people to do it! After being at the end of a 4km of bumpy track in the middle of nowhere for a long while with very little company (apart from the dogs and the goats) I was looking forward to a more sociable time. Bustling atmosphere shared dinners, conversation, wine… that sort of thing. As it turned out both of these expectations have now been proved false. There is very little milk coming from the Alpine goats here in the Cote d’Azur, at the moment, there is very little to do here, and there is not very much company and this farm is at the end of a hair-raising road that climbs 800km above Nice and about sea level.

The first thing that appears obviously different about the goats is their lack of horns, in a purely aesthetic way they look much less striking and much less majestic. Where their horns would have been there are bumps, stubs or stunted growths, growing in strange angles attempting to be horn-like. From my research it seems that the arguments for dehorning; cutting the horns of the goat when it is young, are that when the goats demonstrate their goat-like behaviour, bucking each other and playing, they can potentially hurt or damage each other. In my experience this was not a problem on for the Chevre du Rove. The arguments against dehorning are that the horns are sentient and sensitive and cutting them can cause a lot of pain and distress for the animal.

Whether it is the fact that these goats are dehorned, the nature of the breed, the difference in lifestyle or that quality of attention they receive from the farmers the alpines here are more docile, less intelligent and less engaging than the Rove Goats. And to reflect that instead of producing more milk, they are producing less, leaving not much work to do. At the last farm I understood that when the troupe where accompanied in the park, as they were in the afternoons by myself, the farmer of other woofers, they ate a lot more than when they where left to their own devises. When they were alone, if they finished eating, they might sit down to digest and ruminate, whereas if they were accompanied, when they had finished eating they were led on to another place to keep eating, therefore produce more milk.

In the UK the majoring of egg laying hens have the tips of their beaks removed to stop them pecking other birds, the people who would see this banned say that the trimming is an unnecessary mutilation that causes pain and is only viewed as necessary when the animals are kept in inadequate environments. Instead of beak trimming, other things can be looked into such as breeding, choice of feed and providing high perches for birds to get away form bullies in the flock. In the same way as with dehorning practices maybe the answers lie in alternative methods, departing from conventional approaches and promoting the livelihood of the animals.

In biodynamic farming the horns of cows are used for preparations that enhance the wellbeing of the horticultural crops. The horns are seen as instruments that make a spiritual connection with the ethereal world. My only two reference points for horned and dehorned goats lead me to respect this approach.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

PEOPLE PLANET POUNDS

The farm where I am currently working is a tenant farm that is located in a natural park in Les Petites Alpilles, the Little Alps. This is an area, which does not get much rain and is mostly wooded so in the summer there is a high risk of fire.

The story of the farm is that the landlord advertised for a goat farmer who would graze their animals in the park so that they would eat the foliage, to keep it under control lowering the risk of fire. The farmer who won the position is my hostess her business is producing specialist high quality organic cheeses, from the milk she gets from grazing her goats in the park. The goats eat the foliage, that is unpalatable to any other agricultural animal-as far as I know at the same time safeguarding the landscape.

To assess the sustainability of an enterprise you can look at the affect it has on people, the planet and pounds, or in other words the social, environmental and economic impacts. This approach is called the ‘triple bottom line’ and can be a way for businesses to move their focus towards sustainability and away from solely making money. But sometimes a balance between people, planet and pounds is already there inherently.

Although the story of this farm is strung between those three concerns there will always be imbalances within that, for example, that the farmer lives in a basic homestead while the super rich landlord lives in a converted abbey. And that the cheese, produced as a local speciality is so highly regarded that it is transported all the way to Paris and is served in a 5 star hotel.