People living in the UK are privileged to find the aisles of supermarkets stacked high with food from any season, and almost any country. Fresh or processed, everything is readily available year-round. But how many people give a second thought to the exact route the minced beef or punnet of tomatoes has taken before landing in their basket and making its way to their kitchen fridge? Maybe the thought didn’t even occur until those same shelves were emptied last March when the pandemic hit, and people started to wonder how to fill their cupboards.
Sadly, within this current food system, it can be easy to overlook the producer behind the produce we consume. Behind all produce is a producer – good, bad, or somewhere in between. Recognising those producers who uphold excellent standards of production and championing them is vital if we are to shift toward a more sustainable food system.
I grew up watching my dad farm 1000 breeding ewes across 480 acres on the outskirts of Bath. Spending so much time on the farm showed me just how much emotion is involved in producing food. Livestock need to be taken care of, and therefore the farmer needs to care. The passion that my dad has for his job has always resonated with me, and since growing up and encountering a wide range of farmers and producers, I have realised that passion is common among them all. It’s a passion for their land, their animals, their produce and their craft.
Farms are not just sites for production. They hold generations of history, knowledge and experiences which are valuable resources. Humans form attachments to and connections with their immediate surroundings whether a house, a place or a community. So, farmers undoubtedly have an intimate link to the land they tend, and the animals which graze it.
Unlike a workplace such as a corporate office, the farm commonly becomes intertwined with familial home life – particularly in the case of small-scale family farms. The blurred lines between work and home life on a farm mean that generations of people form emotional connections with the land and the animals farmed on it. Farms act as sites for experiences, memories and knowledge transfer not in isolation, but as an extension of familial relations. Much like many artisan crafts across the UK, numerous methods of farming in use today are a result of passion and skill transferred over generations which cannot be separated from familial life.
In The Community Farm’s ‘Lessons from Lockdown’, Ian Weatherseed eloquently summarises the intimate connection between farmers and their land: ‘By being in relationship with the land, we care for it. And, just as we were raised by our parents, there comes a time when that relationship can invert, and the cared for becomes the caretaker. This is an effortless decision to make when there is love, and there is much love for the land when we come to notice it.’
During the first lockdown in March 2020, independent food stores saw an overwhelming number of people shopping with them and turning to local produce box schemes. The supermarkets could no longer offer us food security, but the local land and its farmers could. The connection between farmers and their produce can be felt through these independent, local food stores. When you shop local you too get a taste of this connection and can feel closer to the land. When people see and understand the origins of the produce they buy, they attach experiences and emotions to it, making it meaningful. For instance, when I visit my local cheese shop and café, I can actually see the cows which were milked in the surrounding fields. If you shop with a knowledgeable grocer or butcher, they can tell you more specifically about what you are buying – how it was raised and who raised it, where was it grown and how? In my experience, the understanding that is engendered in these interactions helps me to make associations with the farm or land that produced the products I purchased, giving me the satisfaction that high quality, sustainable and delicious foodstuffs are available and accessible nearby.
The connections are multi-dimensional. Not only does the land itself hold meaning to the farmers who tend it and benefit from it, but farmers have a unique relationship with their animals. Human-animal connections may seem an obvious part of life – if you have a pet you will surely be aware of this. But much like a pet becomes part of the family, farmer’s animals are also an important part of their life, not only in terms of livelihood but also more personally. This was echoed in conversation with my Dad during the filming of my documentary film on sheep farming. He commented, ‘I think I need the sheep more than they need me…they are companions, characters and part of my life.’
Most farmers who work closely with their animals have a caring relationship – working to the best of their ability to provide them with high-quality nutrition and meeting high animal welfare standards. This is amplified on smaller farms where there are fewer animals and connections are more personal. These standards and the level of care are what we as consumers should champion. While animals reared for meat are inevitably slaughtered, a prospect some people may disagree with, it is important to recognise that most farmers are deeply committed to giving their animals a good life on the farm, through deep concern for their livelihood and excellent care.
Even if you do not shop in local food stores or buy animal produce, you still benefit from the connections outlined above in myriad ways. When COVID-19 meant we couldn’t hop on a plane for a holiday or even leave the house other than to exercise or shop, we explored the land on our doorsteps. Farming has shaped British landscapes over generations, with both positive and negative effects. Nonetheless, local landscapes are a valuable resource for the public to improve their mental and physical health and one which has been particularly utilised over the past year. By championing producers who strive for sustainable practice and an openness to improvement, we empower them to maintain and protect the land for ourselves and future generations to enjoy.
Organisations like the Sustainable Food Trust and National Sheep Association are already championing the producers who work so hard to maintain high standards while providing public goods on their land through good environmental stewardship. Yet, in order for the wider food system to become more sustainable, we as consumers must also care about where our food comes from and the standards to which it is produced. Furthermore, government and policy decisions must always value the people behind the produce, while ensuring that high standards are upheld without compromise by imports of high intensity, low quality and ultimately less sustainable produce. So, next time you shop, I encourage you to be more curious about the origins of your food, to champion your local producers and more generally, to respect and care for the land which farmers work so hard to maintain.
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