Friday, October 15, 2010

Paying the true price of food

Spring bounty: open sausage sandwich with beetroot, rocket and tamarillo chutney

Beetroot growing has always been a bit of a hit and miss affair for me. This spring was no exception. Pulling up the mature beetroots in the inner-city patch produces mystifying results - a big, fat beet, and right beside it a gnarled, grumpy looking one.

I tried using the microwave to cook a few beets this time, with pretty good results. But I'm also loving them just grated and dressed simply with red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper.

Now that spring has sprung there is much to do in the patches. The worms are getting some five-star treatment - I've been feeding them a potent cocktail of magimixed old bread and coffee grounds. Judging from their reproductive rate, I think its kind of like giving them viagra at this time of year.

Carrot harvest, inner-city patch
Even though I failed to thin these baby carrots, they still did OK. Most we consumed raw - sliced thinly and dressed with tahini dressing: tahini, olive oil, balsamic, parsley, dash of lemon.

Seeds being raised for spring plantings include: cucumber (mini white), eggplant (Listada di Granda), Sweet corn (bantam), pumpkin (golden nugget), cauli (all year round). Direct sowings include: lettuce (freckles), royal oakleaf lettuce, coriander (slow bolt), chervil, basil (sweet genovese), dill, and of course tomatoes (tommy toes).

On the peninsula, the garlic is coming along very nicely after some frantic weeding to keep the cohabiting potatoes from taking over.

Garlic on the peninsula
There always seems to be enough potatoes for dinner - often they get pulled up while weeding. A few in each haul are old (they've been in the ground a few seasons) and are not good eating, but I'm now experienced enough to pick these without cooking them first!
As the wet weather continued in late winter and early spring, the dam overflowed over the back and we were thankful for the spillway. As I looked at I couldn't help but remember how last year we'd laughed at the idea that we would ever get enough rain for this to happen.
Peninsula dam spills over the the back
Compost tea has gone out onto the fruit and nut trees and I'm planning on doing a small microscope course so I can test the quality of the compost and the brew. My partner is making improvements to the brewer design and we've been getting some good advice from a local compost tea expert who runs a business brewing and supplying tea to wineries and horticulture enterprises in our area.

I'm also looking forward to attending a pasture-cropping field day coming up in Avenel.

The baking continues - fruit and nut loaves are now firmly on the weekly roster.

When I'm not reading for my course, I'm working my way through the articles of Glenn Davis Stone, an agricultural anthropologist who I discovered through an article in Salon. The Salon article covers his work on adoption of GM cotton in India and it is such a refreshing change from the polarised GM debate that teaches us so little about what GM means on the ground. He's also written more generally about GM in a fantastic article 'Both sides now: fallacies in the genetic modification wars, implications for developing countries and anthropological perspectives'.

Paying the true price of food

The TV news has been full of scenes of angry farmers protesting the proposed irrigation cuts in the MDB. I despaired for a while and then started to daydream . . .

What if our farmers groups and agricultural industry bodies (Farmers Federation, Apple and Pear Australia, Meat and Livestock Australia) were to run media campaigns to educate consumers about the need for increased food prices rather than lobbying against policies designed to protect the environment (carbon taxes, reduced water allocation, etc), or running lame tv ads exhorting us to eat more apples.

It costs money to farm in a way that conserves rather than degrades the environment, and the costs can’t all be borne by farmers, as those angry scenes in Murray Darling Basin farming towns remind us. As consumers, it’s all about what we do with our discretionary income – if those of us who can afford it start spending less on electronic gadgets we don’t need and more on food that is locally, sustainably and ethically produced, maybe we can make conservation farming an enterprise that gives farmers a ‘right livelihood’.

These campaigns need to make a direct link between stupidly low food prices in our supermarkets and exhausted agricultural soils, ghost farms made unproductive by unsustainable farming practices, and algal blooms in our waterways.

We might even get some compound effects from a campaign like this – it might become hard for supermarkets to run ad campaigns based solely on price cuts for consumers, which seems to be their preferred modus operandi these days. Woolworths might start running ads telling us they’re charging us more so they can pay farmers higher prices to do the right thing by the land and our children’s future.

Well, one can dream can't one . . . .

Marie Antoinette


  1. wideEyedPupil12:25 PM

    Those farmers need to think about changes they can make too! I spoke to a Riverina biodynamic grower of current/raisin/sultana grapes who comes to the farmers markets who said he uses a small fraction of the irrigation water his conventional neighbours do per hectare.

    Anecdotal, but we know biodynamic practices will reverse the decline of marginal/salt damaged land to productive land so stand to reason the water consumption benefits are there too.

    The farmers want the (economic and production) pie to keep growing while the water coming into the system is reducing on average from historical averages and land moisture evaporation is ever increasing with climate change (which only some of them acknowledge!).

    And (presumably) they want the water in the rivers not to become toxic to their soils. I know they are desperate but they're going to either be part of the solution or part of the problem (status quo).

    Fictional, daydreaming solutions from the barnaby joice's of this world don't count.

  2. Dream on - and is there an ad agency out there with green credentials/tech xpertise to get a campaign going?

  3. Hi wideEyed pupil. I absolutely agree that conventional farming practices need to change. Its not only biodynamic farmers who are doing fantastic things on their properties though - you might be surprised at many of the farms profiled in the mainstream rural mag, The Weekly Times. And check out farmer-run landcare groups like the Broken Catchment Landcare Network in NE Victoria, whose programs include pasture cropping trials, native grass resilience projects.

  4. wideEyedPupil2:18 PM

    I wasn't for a moment suggesting Biodynamics is the only way forward. [Insert your favourite organic/perma/keyline/drip system] can offer a step in the right direction and yes I know farmers having been waking up from their 100 years of flog the land till you walk off it ignorance. Bad to generalise isn't it :-)

    Landcare, yeah sorta they're heavily coming from a native planting is the only way pov (which I used to subscribe to). This only goes so far.

    I was just trying to make a point that less water in doesn't necessarily mean less production, only less production if using existing (stupid) methods.

    Running rivers high and cold in Summer and low and warm in Winter was always going to catch up with us. And that's before we even get to what happens on the land.

    Tim Flannery stated on qanda the other night that total production over last decade increased dramatically in $ terms over reduced water supply. He said that was shifting to higher value crops. What he failed to mention was that the monetrization of water rights led to the huge amounts of water that were not being taken or that were previously being used in ways that fed back into the river quickly going to 'high yield' irrigators a long distance from source.

    The point I'd make is that you can't feed a nation with Chardonnay and Pinot.

    The more industrially you treat living water, the less 'alive' it becomes and therefore the less life promoting. But that's a whole 'nother discussion.