One of the key principles of ecology, and thus ecological food growing, is that of relationships: it’s not just what’s there, it’s how what’s there interacts with each other and their habitat, that creates an ecosystem. Unfortunately, relationships are harder than things to “show and tell” on site tours: the intricate web of microbial life in the soil, and the web of connections between the people and land that produce the food, and those that eat it, can only be gesticulated at in a dramatic but slightly vague manner.
This is one reason why reductive science – science that looks at stuff, but not how stuff connects with other stuff – has held so much sway in agriculture and other areas. The times are-a changing, though it’s not clear what into: even the Big Boys like Tesco and McDonalds are starting to respond to customers’ need to feel a sense of connection with the source of their food, and now assault us with phoney “meet our farm” images on their billboards and juggernauts.
Real relationships are not only often invisible, they’re also complex, volatile, take time and are held in trust: all things that don’t show up too well on the balance sheet, and are, it has to be said, a pretty inconvenient way of running things, though it’s hard to work out who to file that particular complaint with. In our work with London restaurants, we try to build up a partnership deeper than a mere buyer/ seller encounter, through means such as weekly conversations, reciprocal visits and direct delivery or “short supply chains”.
What we find is that our relationship “with a restaurant” can often be very personal, and rest on a relationship with a key chef. The “Camden bicycle run”, which spearheaded our external distribution strategy when we started out, has gone the way of lemonade, Coca cola and Newcastle Brown Ale: despite the name, it now has no Camden whatsoever left in it. Our cooks have slung their hooks and recipe books to other nooks and pantries, and our trade with their old kitchen hasn’t stayed. The bicycle delivery route, now performed by our friends Bike Box with our Christiania trailers, goes on strong, but Kings Cross, Euston and Islington Run doesn’t sound half as cool.
On the ground, one of the team formations we use for managing the vegetable beds is the “pincer movement” or “working towards each other”. It’s an especially useful manouvre when it comes to light weeding or ripe-pick harvesting. Strawberry season is now upon us. It always appears that way, ambushing from above. Summer still surprises. Nicely: strawberries have always never looked, smelt, tasted, so fresh.
Anyway, as a tactic the pincer is simple and elegant. The beds in the Entrance Field are mostly sixty metres, those in the Old Kitchen Garden thirty-four, subdivided by the Middle Way path, that runs either up it or down it, depending on whether you take the side of the hawthorn or the lime tree. One pair starts either side of the far end of the bed, the other from the near end. Working towards each other. When we meet, the bed is complete, prompting a greeting, sometimes a hand shake, a hugless embrace. What I call a “Channel Tunnel Moment”.
Those of my generation may remember the scene. French workers drilled a hole from Calais, British ones from the white cliffs, all the way deep under twenty-one miles of Big Blue. By some improbable feat the drillings met up, in good time, somewhere round the middle, and TV footage showed the miners shaking hands though the little joining. It was a unifying image: whilst the primary motivation for the building of the Chunnel was business, there could be no denying the haunting hope for humanity in this interracial meeting and greeting. It showed that people were capable of tearing down obstacles between them, like the Berlin Wall, and also of building – bridges and tunnels – across divides, physical and cultural.
Last week, UKIP’s xenophobic message of despair polled well in the European elections, and the spirit of that Channel Tunnel Moment may seem more distant. But pitching despair against despair will yield one certain result. Better still, in all we do, to keep working towards each other. Making the most of the strawberries along the way.