Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Slow Food UK - You ask, they answer

Interesting Q&A from Slow Food UK this week on the Guardian's Green Living blog. I managed to sneak in a research-related question about new farmers at the top.

Go here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/green-living-blog/2010/jun/28/you-ask-slow-food

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

'People really like the things I grow, and it's a good example of how small-scale farming can feed communities.'

This article is a couple years old but somehow it popped up in my Google News Alerts this morning. Anyway, it's the first time I've seen it and thought it was an inspiring story, a good example of how a knowledge of food production can help to overcome other social and economic disadvantages.


Thursday, 3 June 2010

Vote Bee!

For those of you outside the UK, perhaps a very short preamble is needed. Since full jackpot wins on the National Lottery are relatively rare, the money earned from ticket purchases but not distributed in payouts is distributed to various arts, science, health, education and community projects. Some initiatives can receive extra funding through the annual 'Good Causes Awards', which are voted on by the public.

I'd like to encourage everyone to vote (you can do this even outside the UK) for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust's application for £49,000. As many of you will already be aware, we face a very serious ecological threat from declining bee populations. While the science of colony collapse disorder is still developing and full of uncertainties, the need to protect bee species and habitats is urgent. Bees are the most efficient pollinators we have, making both managed agriculture and fragile wild ecosystems dependent on their continuing work.

Please vote for the Bee Conservation Trust's important project here.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

I Contadini Nuovi - Raw living at Il Granello

Romano selects herbs for the market

Though the focus of my research has always been on new farmers, or contadini nuovi in Italian, some farmers I've worked with are much 'newer' than others. Romano and Elisa Manni are a young couple with three children who relocated to rural Emilia-Romagna three years ago to begin an entirely new life as farmers. Romano had previously worked as a marine geologist and spent much of his working life offshore, a lifestyle he felt was taking a toll on his family commitments and real ambitions. Elisa, originally from Bologna, trained as an environmental engineer, another career requiring regular dislocation. A few years spent in Puglia in the south of Italy gave them time to incubate some ideas as they tried to find a path that would combine family stability with their interests in ecology and botany.

After long periods of fruitless searching for an affordable home with enough fertile land to accommodate organic agriculture, Elisa and Romano eventually discovered the property that would become Azienda Agricola Il Granello, squeezed between high Appenine hills about 20km from Bologna. The house was badly neglected and the land was worse. When they arrived their two hectares were completely smothered by weeds, requiring a total restoration effort. This is still a work in progress that will take a lot time and plenty of help from WWOOF volunteers. Still, they set to work immediately and have achieved an impressive amount in the short time that they've been here.

Their main focus is on herbs, both medicinal and culinary, and they grow a staggering variety of them. In the week I spent working with them I was introduced to several varieties of sage, multiple types of mint and many versions of thyme, marjoram, chives, tarragon, basil and parsley. They also grow potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower and zucchini as well as unusual varieties of lettuce, chicory and other greens. In addition to their vegetable and herb production, they keep hens, geese and ducks for eggs, raise rabbits and chickens for meat and have some of the oddest pets I've encountered anywhere in Italy, with a special mention going to Pancetta the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig and the miniature Tibetan goats (actually used for grazing around the perimeter of the property to keep unwanted growth in check).

It's an impressive transformation of what was simply a vast field of weeds just a few years ago. There's still a lot of experimentation going on, and Romano admits that he never knows how a plant is going to take to their emergent ecosystem. He repeatedly emphasises that you can only learn so much about agriculture through theory – you need to get your hands dirty before any of it starts making sense, and you'll inevitably find outcomes different to expectations. Just under half their property still needs recuperated, and the organic methods they insist on are labour-intensive and time-consuming.

Il Granello was a massive task for a young family to take on, one that a lot of people would probably write off as an impossible fantasy. Their efforts, however, are paying off. WWOOFers provide an immense help, and their big country house can host up to four volunteers at time. During my week with them I seeded, weeded, cut herbs, fed the animals, transplanted seedlings and helped organise their stall for the Wednesday and Friday markets in Bologna. Organised by a local farmers' association, Campi Aperti (Open Fields), the market has been a major financial lifeline for the family. Their unusual herbs and vegetables sell well and they've had swift success in stamping an identity onto their produce. The challenge for them, says Romano, isn't finding people who want to buy their produce – it's producing consistently and in quantities that can satisfy demand. Their stall at the Campi Aperti market was noticed by the coordinator of Bologna's Mercato della Terra, a weekly market in the city sponsored by Slow Food. Vendors must demonstrate a strictly monitored commitment to high-quality food, with many specialising in rare or 'endangered' products. Preparations are being made by Romano and Elisa to start selling at the Mercato della Terra in late May.

The Subaru loaded for the Campi Aperti market in Bologna

One of my main research questions concerns how associations such as WWOOF and Slow Food facilitate back-to-the-land migration. It's been something of a revelation to see it put so clearly in the Il Granello example. I'm finding the value of these networks constantly reinforced, enough to make me despair at the thought of where people like Elisa and Romano would be without them. The word that keeps coming to mind when I think of their situation is 'raw', though I hope that doesn't sound critical or even undesirable. They depend on the simplest forms of market trading for their sustenance, not to mention amenable weather and plentiful help from volunteers and family. Plant seeds, hope they'll grow, sell the result at the market, carry your weekly earnings home in a cashbox... This is a tense existence, but they've managed to stay positive and optimistic throughout.

Elisa sets up the Il Granello market stall

I'm very grateful to all the WWOOF hosts I've stayed with so far and haven't had a bad experience yet. I've learned loads from everyone and have always come away with a lot of admiration for what they're trying to achieve. I particularly want to salute Romano and Elisa, though, who've created a worthy and potentially very successful project from origins riven with disadvantages. Also, another special mention goes to Romano's parents, who arrived from Puglia for the week in a car crammed with incredible Pugliese treats – cakes, biscotti, sweets, cheese, fresh homemade pasta, marinated anchovies, octopus salad, limoncello and more. La nonna's cooking was some of the best I've ever had, and somehow magically served whenever I was at my hungriest. Grazie mille!

Saturday, 1 May 2010

AP article about WWOOF

The Associated Press published a good overview of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms yesterday. Despite its exclusive focus on US farms, there are strong similarities with what I've been doing in Italy.

Read it here.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

On decapitating my dinner...

Until I turned 26 I'd been mostly vegetarian for 13 years. I abstained from fish until I was about 18, and once I became a pescetarian I still avoided meat until I was converted by a roast duck breast in orange sauce. A delicious one. I don't regret spending so long without meat, nor do I feel guilty about consuming it now. The meat industry-sponsored lie that vegetarianism is unhealthy has no factual basis at all, while militant vegetarianism is both fatally unrealistic and often equally bereft of meaningful first-hand information.

One challenge that vegetarians often ask of carnivores is whether they would be prepared to kill their own dinner. Since I started eating meat again, and perhaps because I came to it later in life, I've tried to educate myself about the processes of livestock rearing, slaughter and butchery so that I can make well-informed decisions about meat consumption that favour humane and sustainable methods. I'm still hugely ignorant of the butcher's art, so I want to know exactly where certain cuts come from, what happens to the leftover parts of slaughtered animals, and which methods of killing are best for all parties. Inevitably, this includes exposing myself to a bit of gore. Through exposure I've become more educated and less squeamish, and it seemed an appropriate next step to participate in a killing, to not only witness but become participant in the delivery of death that gives us meat.

I don't believe that every person who eats meet should necessarily have to kill their dinner, mainly because this is unrealistic. It's akin to demanding that vegetarians only earn the right to eat vegetables once they've grown their own. However, few would dispute that growing your own provides a lot of educational and gastronomic value, prompting consumers to appreciate the risks, inconsistencies and economics of food production, not to mention almost always providing optimal freshness and nutrition. The same values are imparted through participating in livestock slaughter, with the added benefit of providing a real insight into the ethics of meat production. Depending on others to slaughter and prepare meat assumes a degree of trust, and where free range and organic produce is concerned, we may rely too readily on certification systems whose stamps of approval rub salve on our doubts. It is entirely possible to raise certifiably free-range, organic chickens using highly mechanised, industrial methods. These meat products may meet official welfare standards (often agreed after consultation with industry lobbyists) but would they meet your personal ones? There's no better way to find out than taking part in a slaughter yourself. As I said, I'm not so extreme as to say that anyone unwilling to do this is unworthy of the right to eat meat, but it should least bring them to question why they would ingest something about which they have such little intimate knowledge. What, truthfully, does passing the dirty work onto someone else actually bring the consumer? If the answer is willful ignorance of uncomfortable facts, then I think it is right to challenge their consumption choices because these decisions have real impacts on the environment, rural economy and animal welfare.

I was offered a chance to help with the slaughter of five chickens on my second day at Cascina dei Frutasè. Simone, Bruno's elder son, had to choose five of the fattest of their couple dozen chickens and kill them for use in the family's restaurant, with leftovers eaten in the house. I'd built up the event to signify something important, some rite of passage that would leave me forever changed. In actual fact it was over quickly, five chickens squawking and pecking one minute, all dead about half an hour later. I wasn't profoundly changed by it, so can't offer any reflective wisdom. It's just a mundane farm task, one that nobody really likes but is essential in a food economy that places a high value on top-quality meat. First they're alive, then they're dead. The best I can offer is to explain how it happens:

Simone brings me into the coop and casts about for the largest birds. They're given plenty of space to cluck around outdoors, but all are kept inside while the best ones are chosen. There's a slight sense of panic as Simone and I move around, and the chickens do appear to express fear, especially when Simone shoots his arm out to grab a chosen bird by the legs. The captured chicken is quickly turned upside down, where it goes into a strange kind of repose as Simone carries it out of the coop by its feet. Possibly frozen with fear, or maybe just confused, it remains completely still, wings folded tightly, while Simone fixes a little noose around its feet. I carry the bird by the string and we go outside, to a mesh fence where several hooks await. The bird is hooked onto the fence by the string around its feet, and Simone shows me how to hold its wings. It will jerk and panic, he warns, and its wings need to be held tight to prevent it from spraying blood or injuring itself further in its last seconds. We lift the wings up and I hold them together where the joint meets the shoulder. I instantly recognise this part of its anatomy – it feels exactly like a naked chicken wing you'd prepare to cook: a large joint, thin layer of skin and tender meat beneath. I don't know why but this is the strangest moment of the whole experience, my hands recognising a consumer product while my eyes see a living animal. Simone takes a very sharp knife, used exclusively for slaughter, and explains that he needs to slit a vein in its throat, not an artery, or else the blood will spray and squirt. He begins sawing into the red skin of the chicken's neck while the bird remains silent and still, as if it knows there's no point in resisting. Success is marked by the sound of a sizeable tear into the skin, followed by the steady flow of blood onto the concrete block below. It comes fast enough to give the chicken a quick death but, as Simone had hoped, flows smoothly rather than splutters. Its fight or flight responses kick into gear and it tries to flap its wings. I hold it steady, hating that I'm winning such an unbalanced fight but conscious that its fate will be worse, its death more gruesome and prolonged, if I allow it to flap away, hanging upside down with its throat cut. I look more directly at it before it dies and see it mechanically opening and closing its mouth, trying to take breaths that will never come. Its body swells and deflates, still searching for air, still employing its instinct to keep living, until it all stops, forever.

The whole process, from capturing the chicken in the coop to taking it off the slaughter hook, hasn't lasted more than a couple minutes. There's no doubt that those last moments of its life are awful, having been lifted from relative freedom to captivity and dispatched by a knife to the throat. I can't pretend that I can sense animal emotion, so I won't offer anything as glib as a reassurance that it led a happy life. I have no idea what chicken happiness would look like. What I can offer is an invitation to look into the condition of birds in high-density factory farms if you find what I've written above, or these photos, upsetting. What I can infer about animal emotion would hold that the freedom to walk in open space, eat a mixed diet and experience regular sunlight is something that Bruno's chickens are naturally inclined toward. Factory farming gives animals a death which is probably no more or less traumatic, but subjects them to a traumatic life.

I understand why the up-close reality of animal slaughter is upsetting. It asks us to confront death and our complicity in causing it. As meat eaters we are complicit in death on an enormous scale, and though I wouldn't expect everyone to kill an animal to prove their worth as a carnivore, I would insist that our choices about meat are considered with these factors in mind. If they make you uncomfortable then you may want to rethink those choices, because the more distance you put between yourself and the source of your meat, the uglier the processes which bring it to your table are.

All photos were taken by me, just after the slaughter and during their preparation for butchering.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Farewell to my farming buddy

Laura's health hasn't always been the greatest while we've been in Italy, and on a recent trip back to Glasgow she decided to stay behind and get some treatments done. She's made a big improvement in many respects, so it's proving to be a good choice. She's also been offered a job in Glasgow, meaning she won't be faced with perpetual unemployment after returning from my fieldwork. Again, it makes sense for her to stay. So it looks like I'll be going back and forth between Scotland and Italy a little more than originally intended, and hopefully Laura will get a chance to come and visit me a couple times over the summer. The trick would be for me to find a WWOOF host between a beach and an airport...

Sensible as it all sounds, I'll miss having a buddy to do this with, especially as Laura was proving a dab hand with the slop bucket and manure shovel. But she's convinced that cleaning a chicken coop is a job best experienced only once. After that it just becomes routine.