From Weather Systems to Food Systems

Within the last week, two of the farmers I have the most time for – Gerald Miles in Wales and Ian Tolhurst in Berkshire – have cited this as the worst growing season in living memory. These are long (thirty to forty years apiece) and detailed memories. Mine is shorter and almost as cloudy as our spring/ summer: the sun has rarely fully shone, the rain never convincingly abated. Hopefully 0212 will go down as a terrible year rather than the start of a terrible trend, though Tolhurst observes that “extreme weather events” have been occurring at closer intervals over the last decade. August or September may bring a reprieve, who knows? Certainly not the meteorologists and weather pundits, who seem to have found the whole thing as unfathomable as the rest of us.

Given all this, we feel doubly blessed with what we have achieved so far at Hawkwood. Despite the inevitable slow growth, and the equally inevitable boom in slugs and rots, the land has poured forth a steady stream of salad, some fine asparagus, and just recently nigh on a tonne of saleable broad beans and strawberries: enough to kill you if they landed on your head in an extreme weather event of biblical proportions. This in a year when the Asparagus Festival was cancelled; even industrial UK strawberry production plummeted, and in some areas of the Old Kitchen Garden 90% of the crop had to be abandoned for slugs to finish what they started.

Not a great time to be doing local food, you might say. On the other hand, in tough times like these, time and again the small-scale and diverse systems have been shown to have many advantages over operations that are machine-dependent and/or monocultures. The dull wet conditions have not benefitted our tomatoes, but they’ve kept the salad leaves unseasonably green and fresh; London gardeners can at least get onto their slug-ridden allotments, whilst commercial growers who use tractors for every cultivation can only fidget indoors until the soil dries.

Last weekend, 140 people came to Hawkwood to explore possibilities for building a food sovereignty movement in the UK. Food sovereignty as a concept developed from attempts in the global South to voice a positive alternative to food security, encapsulating “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems” (Declaration of Nyeleni 2007)

In many ways this is the realisation of an elusive dream for OrganicLea – community gardeners, global justice campaigners, producers and food activists coming together to form a tangible alliance for “Transforming Our Food System”. A small step on a world-changing journey, but by Tuesday something had already changed. Picking through slug-damaged beans, on your knees, in the rain, is the kind of work that could make you question what on earth you’re doing with your life. In the wake of the gathering though, it felt like vital work: part of a movement, a wider struggle.

If, as appears to be the case, we can’t gain democratic control of the weather, democratic control of food production and distribution has to be the next best thing.