Wassail to our farmers

LAST Sunday I went a-wassailing. With about 100 other people, all wrapped up against the sharp January wind, but loving the wintry pink evening sun, we drank warm cider, sang traditional songs, hung our pieces of toast on the bare branches and banged saucepan lids and frying pans to drive away the bad spirits.

As we walked up through the orchard, planted with many different heritage apple varieties, we were not only invoking ancient spirits to protect the apple harvest, we were also wishing for good spirits to protect us and the people and places and things we love.

It’s a harsh environment out there and it’s getting worse, in this brave new world of alternative facts, Brexit, climate change denial and America/you/me-first isolationism.

Listening to the Radio 4 Today programme item on the possibilities of a new UK-US trade deal was chilling, as the American farming spokesman put an arrogant gloss on the “science” behind America’s factory farming systems.

You have to travel widely in the US, spend a lot of time in markets, country stores and supermarkets and talk to people, to get some grasp of what would lie in store for Europe if the trade barriers come down on food and farming products.

You will find cheap food everywhere you look – pallid chicken or turkey, tasteless beefburgers, milk with minimal or no fat that is little more than cloudy (taste-free) water, yogurts that are overly sweet with a metallic, acidic edge, vegetables constantly bathed in cool water to look beautiful but with little flavour,  special offers of vast bags of fruit or veg that will go off long before they are consumed.

A few years ago, we travelled through the Dakotas and met a farming family with beef cattle out on the prairie and a large bee-keeping operation producing excellent honey. Every year they send hundreds of their hives over to California, to be spread through the fruit and nut-growing orchards of the great valley between Sacramento and Los Angeles.

Here in the fruit basket of the USA, you drive past mile after mile of peach and almond trees and vine fruit bushes on land as hard as iron and bare as the desert. No weeds, perish the thought; no grass; no sound of birdsong or twitter or rustle of insects. Parched by a long drought, denuded by herbicides and drenched in pesticides, many of the trees are dying.

In some of the orchards you see beehives and here you may see more signs of life; and just occasionally you pass a few miles of greenery and birdsong in the occasional organic orchard where groundcover is protecting the soil and beneficial insects are helping the crop.

You would think this is so glaringly, screamingly obvious that all the fruit farmers would rethink their systems. But of course the orchard that is thriving is independently owned whereas the others are in hock, one way or the other, to global corporations, agrochemical businesses, food conglomerates and international retail brands. They can’t change the way they farm or the whole edifice will crumble.

Which wouldn’t be a bad thing if it meant a return to proper, animal-welfare, soil-aware, bird and insect-friendly farming, producing rich harvests of delicious tasting fruit and vegetables. (Dream on.) .

For meat, similar issues apply in terms of conglomerates and global agrochemical brands. The ecological damage is vast, from pollution by the horrible effluents of huge pig factory farms to the inhumane “feed-lots” where thousands of cattle mill around on churned up dead soil, jostling for their hormone-enriched fodder, in blazing sun or blasting winds.

If you care about how your food is produced, the answer is almost always to get as far away as possible from anything produced by a corporation that is concerned exclusively with profits, and as close as possible to the actual producers (who by definition will be independent, not shackled in corporate handcuffs). That means farmers markets, roadside fruit and vegetable stalls, independent delis or the handful of supermarkets which are committed to ideals of provenance, traceability and taste.

The big appeal of farmers markets is that you meet the woman who grows the heritage tomatoes or apples, the man who rears the grass-fed beef cattle, the couple who produce cheese from their goats, and you discover passion and knowledge and experience.

The reality in these austerity times is that many shoppers, here and in the States, cannot afford the ethical considerations of provenance and welfare. So you do have to make choices – but you need the information to make an informed choice.

My daughter is always envious, when she comes back from the States, at the detail on our food labels and the way European consumers have boycotted GM food. Americans may know the fat content of their food but they know nothing about its content or how it is produced.

She once asked her Californian-born husband to get eggs on his way home from work. He arrived with a large pack of scarily white eggs. What, she demanded, had he bought? He was happy at the great price – twice as many eggs as she had asked for, at half the price. She refused to use them and explained why she would pay more for free range eggs, organic if possible.

At one level, you can argue that if you pay more for your food, you value it more. But a more compelling argument is that if it has been produced in a slow, welfare-friendly, low-chemical-input system, it will taste better, so you will savour it more slowly (and therefore eat less). It may also be more nutritious.

Recently, my daughter was vastly amused when her husband recounted a conversation with co-workers in which he had explained why they shouldn’t buy cheap battery-produced eggs, with all the arguments about taste and nutrition and welfare that she has dinned into him during their 10 years together. A small victory.

You may applaud the Prime Minister for wanting to forge a new UK-US trade deal, but with Trump’s avowed intention to put America first and the pressure on Mrs May to get post-Brexit deals, we have to be ready to stand up for our producers. We are going to need those good spirits.

Stand fast root, bear well top.
Pray good God send us a howling good crop.
Every twig, apples big,
Every bough, apples enow.

Fanny Charles