Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Common sense is not so common

'Golden Crookneck' summer squash.

The proverbial has hit the fan. The horse#%@* that is.

Our industrialised, regulated food system is SO screwed up.

It is illegal for me to use second hand egg cartons and, despite a whole evening of googling, I could only find one reference to the possible danger of used egg cartons (on a website for paranoid parents, warning them of the dangers of using said cartons for their children’s craft activities). But while being subjected to regulations like these, we are legally sold food that has been bleached, irradiated, extruded and sprayed to keep us ‘safe’, and somebody finds Black Beauty in the frozen lasagne.

Call me strange, but I wouldn’t recoil at the thought of eating Black Beauty, providing she had been humanely raised and fed a healthy diet, any more than I recoil at the idea of eating an egg from a second hand carton. The problem for me is the homogenisation of food products from around the world to such a point that we can't recognise what we are buying. Surely horse doesn't taste like beef? But since things are minced, doused with chemical seasonings and standardised to all taste the same to our industrially dumbed down palates, nobody notices. 

The industrial system is not capable of protecting us from listeria, salmonella, E.coli and antibiotic resistant bacteria. What it is capable of is spreading these things far and wide. Just have a think back to the tragic E. coli outbreak in Germany in 2011. This wasn’t caused by an unpasteurised cheese, a second hand egg carton or nitrate free ham. In fact, as far as I can tell, due to the massive movement of food across the globe, the source still seems unclear with Spain, Germany and Egypt all thought to be sources of contamination at some point during the investigation. I found an article on an outbreak of Salmonella in the UK that was blamed on ready to eat, pre sliced watermelon shipped there from Brazil. Isn’t that the perfect caricature of our energy expensive, wasteful, ridiculous food system? Is it so hard to ship something in its own skin and use a knife yourself?

One of the reasons I am so determined to make our garden work is that I believe it is the antithesis of this. Land that would otherwise be used for recreational horses or lawn mowing, instead producing heaps of really good food. Little, labour intensive food production systems feeding as many local people as possible with minimum carbon and waste outputs, and maximum flavour, nutrition, diversity and joy.

Only a small scale market garden can feed their pigs and chickens on apples, blackberries, thistles and spent vegetables produced on site. Manure goes back into the garden and the animals perform tillage and pest control services. On a plot our size, many more than the twenty chickens and two to three pigs we keep could begin to compact the soil. The manure we produce, without our garden to use it in, would become a waste disposal problem, the weeds and bolted vegetables we end up with would be harder to compost and process without the animals. Our garden is becoming a balanced ecosystem that, as we build soil and our skills and experience grow, I hope to make as efficient and beautiful as possible. Spare plants from the nursery go to our kid's school garden, neighbours come by with their scraps for the animals and our kids are learning about flavour, nature and hard work.

Rillettes hard at work.

Our small garden also guarantees that when I pass your change across my market table you will see the soil that grew your vegetables stuck under my nails. You can challenge me about the brand of seeds I use, or about my excessive use of sticky tape. You can ask me how I treat my soil, or what the strange leaf is in your salad.

But, next year I probably won’t be able to sell you eggs. A new egg act that comes into place late this year I think will make it unviable for me. Our chickens are a truly important part of our garden ecosystem, selling the eggs helps to balance the cost of supplementary feed. From what I understand I’ll need to individually date stamp each egg, submit and pay for inspections as well as paying a registration fee of more than $300 a year. As small producers our time is, and should be, taken up digging, watering, growing and marketing our goods. There is no way I have time to read and understand the act, certainly no time for me to attempt to fight it, and, more than likely, no chance of success if I did find the time. Sure, my friends say I can go underground and sell the eggs privately, but why shouldn’t my loyal and beautiful market customers who have built up trust with me and my methods be able to choose to buy my food and instead, be forced to buy from a producer who has the economy of scale to manage the costs of the new system? This is just my example of red tape hampering productivity and the sharing of real food, there are many more small producers out there with similar fights on their hands. We are taking responsibility for our family and our land, hoping to create employment for ourselves, food for others and be part of Tasmania's spectacular food culture.

Tasmanian Tree Frog and French sorrel.

This, in a world where our food systems are such that waste is an integral part of them. Where packaging is more important than contents, and labelling that gives us the option to make informed choices is not law. Where bleach, irradiation and vacuum packaging take the place of freshness and hygiene, and the rights of multinational companies to trade across borders transcends our right to know what we are eating.

We need a food regulation system that can cater for all producers, not just the large ones, and enable small farms who priorotise soil health, animal welfare, carbon sequestration and flavour to thrive. The current one that seems to favour big, energy and waste intensive, industrial food. Small farms like ours are key to true food security. Small scale farms rely on personal interactions, trust and common sense to keep food safe, not reams of paper, registration fees and legislation. Value adding on small farms needs to be easier, to sell a few jars of jam or honey in the quiet months of the year would require us to build or hire a commercial kitchen, outweighing any much needed financial advantage we may gain.

It is an unnatural, nonsensical environment we have created, where a gardener can’t make jam in their own kitchen to sell at market, but beef/horse can turn up in your microwave from goodness knows where.  

We need legislators to fight our corner for us, as we are too busy digging, and we need to take ownership of the fact that what we buy shapes the world we live in.

I am writing from my heart, no references or sensible things like that here, but here are a few things, in the order in which I discovered them, that resounded with me and shaped my thinking on food.

Living the Good Life, Linda Cockburn

Real Food, Nina Plank

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Barbara Kingsolver

Food Inc.

Eating Animals, Johnathon Safran Foer

Also pretty much everything on the blog roll on the right of your screen, there are many inspiring and incredible people fighting the good fight!

Nick's wonderful discussion of how he sources his milk.

And finally, this lovely rant shared on Facebook this week by Elaine and Colette.

You may also have noticed we're at Farm Gate Market in Hobart with our produce and ever growing range of edible plants every single Sunday! The chef has left the kitchen and has become a full time food gardener, so expect to see our stall brimming with wonderful food over the coming months.

Underground bulbs of walking onions and winter savoury.
Both hardy and easy to grow, both utterly delicious.