Sunshine And Pain

I entered into food politics when I began to get an inkling of the crashing waves of hurt involved in feeding people. Now, as a food producer, I believe more than ever that there can be no justification for the suffering inherent in factory farming. I also accept that, for farmer and farmed, there has to be some pain in this game, even in the most compassionate of growing systems.

The worcesterberry thicket fruited well this year, and for those of us sent from the scorching fields to scrape our arms along the thorns for the small claret-blooded berries, the scratches have only just mellowed into the sunburn. In fairness, we were warned: every Rosacece has its thorn. To look at, you wouldn’t imagine that cucumbers were an equally uncomfortable plant to work with. Yet they are, and work with them we must: so much pruning and training do the crawling gourds require. The bristly leaves and stems are a real irritant, especially in the already prickly heat of the close glasshouse. The cool, soothing fruit are the antidote and the reward of course, but I wonder, if I was working full-time in the cucumber houses of the Lea Valley rather than cultivating a couple of beds here, whether I might look on them more like Benjamin the donkey regards his tail in “Animal Farm”: “he would say that God had given him a tail to keep the flies off, but that he would sooner have had no tail and no flies.”

The gargantuan garlic haul happened gloriously last week. Our key crop this year, having their time in the Lime light of the Old Kitchen Garden rotation, eight thousand pale bulbs now repose, curing, in the glasshouse, exhaling potently. Like all the grand harvests – olives, apples, corn – the “bringing in” of the Kitchen Garden’s bulk crop is a beautiful, communal event, culminating in a splendid harvest display. But it doesn’t happen at the click of a mouse: many hands laboured to prise the withering stems out from the tangle of undersown clover and trefoil, poised amongst which were the sharp traps of young nettle seedlings. Those who work the land well know the blood, sweat and tears that translate into its pleasing produce; and the joy, laughter, conversation and dreams.

I’ve noticed that the more sensible people wear sleeves, gloves, hats, against nature’s more abrasive side. I generally don’t. I have a wasteful habit of sleepwalking through the day, and prickles serve to wake me up, remind me of the thrills and shrills of living. Further up the path, the lingering worcesterberry piercings and stinging nettle tattoos keep alive the pick of the week. The senses sometimes need a hand to match the intensity of activity. The plants we’ve coddled and cuddled and planted carefully in puddles are all grown up now, and in control: they give out leaf, stem and fruit as they see fit. We follow behind: picking, pruning, feigning to keep up. Every season is awe and fascination but in the temperate world, Summer, I think of you as my mountain top. The peak of the growing season, so much crescends on this. We are of mountains once again.

Sure as night follows day, at this moment of unbridled solar power we set to sowing and planting of the winter salads, and summer joy casts its own shadows of sadness. Jo, Clare and Sarah fought hard in defence of one of our volunteers, a refugee, who has been moved out to distant Devon: partial victory, a partial defeat. We should be glad that, alongside the work of growing people and plants, there are those amongst us willing and able to take on such battles beyond. Each little bit adds up, to the taking away of a world of pain.

Tamed

The spasm that is our strawberry season is over, four weeks and two hundred and eighty kilos later, leaving me feeling much like I felt after England’s World Cup exit: anguished and relieved. There is a transcending vibe of relief coupled with joy, though, in all we do at the minute. Every year, as the growing season enters my peripheral senses, I worry that climate change will have hit the point of no return: that we’ll be dealt mild damp summers, followed by mile damp winters, ad nauseum, and that The Seasons, that elemental pattern that brings the organic grower such happiness and possibilities, will be consumed forever in the oil of greed. This year, not for the first or last time, nature has given us another chance, and with such grace.

The Entrance Field isn’t as complete as I’d like by high summer, and sadly we can’t blame the weather or the businessmen for this, just self-induced hiccups in planning and propagation. On the other hand, this has given us, and our bee brethren, the unplanned wonder of the wave of azure flowers of the bolted Treviso chicory. The salads are strong and untired, the “tropical salads” in the glasshouse looking especially at home in what for us mortal humans is wilting heat. Growth in this area has been impressive across the board: the annual Bean Sweepstake ended in a dead heat, all our climbing Borlottis crossing the two metre high-wire finish line on the same weekend. Photo finish technology was not something we imagined necessary to install, though I am pondering whether to erect cricket nets to prevent these intrepid clamberers breaking through the glass ceiling.

The cucumbers also started pouring over the top this week, and Aimee, Hannah and I started trying to coax them down again on our weekly tomato and cucumber training rounds. The former are throwing out side shoots less vigorously now: they’ve taken shape and the fruits are changing traffic lights where we’ve pruned back the lower branches. So we are approaching that point at which, in our East Anglian partner Grahame Hughes’ words, “the tomatoes are tamed”.

The Taming of the Tomatoes is a memorable concept, but one I’ve struggled with over the years. Whilst on the one hand, it sums up what a gardener does to plants quite niftily; on the other, like many I see problems caused by the extent to which the wild and free have been forced to the far periphery of the modern world, and regard organic farms and gardens as wildlife corridors back into our homes and hearts.

A reading from The Little Prince at Annie and Ben’s wedding last weekend finally saw me at ease, possibly helped by the Prosecco:

“I cannot play with you”, the fox said, “I am not tamed”.

Little Prince: “What does that mean – tame”,

“It is an act too often neglected”, said the fox. “It means to establish ties, If you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

“I am beginning to understand”, said the Little Prince. “There is a flower…I think she has tamed me…”

Our heritage tomatoes, saved from seed year on year, sown from seed in freezing February, potted on, fed on Hawkwood compost and London clay, pinched and supported to dizzy heights and lights, are unique in all the world.

Fine summer days; tomatoes: these things have a way of reworking the ties, bringing us back. Taming us.