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.

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