Sheaf

Sheaf

by Josiah Meldrum June 30, 2021

At our Autumn 2019 farmer meeting we resolved to find new ways to communicate the changes that are happening on farms across the UK. Working with the Dark Mountain Project we sent three writers to three farms with no brief other than to reflect on what they found. This summer their work has been published in Sheaf, a beautifully illustrated short book.

This is our introduction to that work. Barn, a perspective on the project from editor Charlotte Du Cann is available to read on the Dark Mountain Project's website. In coming months we'll post pieces by all three writers with accompanying images.

Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told. – Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

Hodmedod grew out of a question asked by community group Transition Norwich in 2008. Part of a global network of communities responding to the connected and increasingly urgent challenges presented by climate change, biodiversity loss and social and economic upheaval, they wanted to know whether a city the size of Norwich could feed itself. More particularly, how diet and land use might need to change in order for this to happen in a low-input and resilient fashion. It was a question that seemed to demand a geographical answer – how much land was available, what could be grown, what commitments should our region be making to the food security of the rest of the UK or the world, what nutrients do we require?

Norwich is surrounded by arable land producing food, and yet where once crops like wheat or barley would have come to the city to be milled, malted, baked or brewed, now there is little or no capacity to do that work. Farmers in East Anglia mostly grow a limited number of crops (wheat, barley, oilseed rape, sugar beet, maybe some peas and beans) that leave the farm by the lorry load and, as traded commodities, could end up anywhere in the world. Prices are set by global traders not by the farmers, and margins are tight. Consequently, for the last 70 years farmers have chased yield, externalising costs to our health, the environment and rural communities. Finding new markets is complicated, farm systems have become simplified and specialised, and breaking out of what is often called the commodity trap is incredibly difficult.

But the numbers were incredibly straightforward, building a spreadsheet to show that a small city like Norwich can feed itself was easy and seductive, and for a time we were hung-up on the abstract detail. What exactly should this new food system look like, where on the map should everything be happening, what local and national policies would best support the production shift we would need to see. Answers to all those questions will always be contested and the numbers completely failed to address the reality in the fields. We soon came to realise that apart from being an interesting thought experiment, mapping the geography of Norwich feeding itself was a largely pointless exercise.

The more interesting, important and difficult answer to the question revolves around the broad system change required to create a more resilient, equitable food system that feeds us well and has as little negative consequence for the wider world and the organisms we share it with as is possible. Put simply, it’s all very well knowing beans are good for our health and that growing more in the UK is part of the answer to lower input production systems, but if no-one wants to eat them it’s useless knowledge. What would it take to break the commodity trap, to transform the UK’s 5 million hectares of arable land?

At the time working for East Anglia Food Link, Nick Saltmarsh, William Hudson and I set about helping Transition Norwich answer the question by initiating some practical projects. We milled grains grown on the edge of the city, baked bread, grew vegetables, cooked beans and asked people to reimagine the way the city ate and its connection with the farmland that surrounds it. What became immediately clear is that it is stories – narratives – and the relationships we build with each other through telling and retelling them that create lasting change, not bald facts about a climate emergency or nitrogen fixation or biodiversity loss or diet-related poor health.

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. – Buckminster Fuller

Hodmedod was founded to carry on the Norwich work with arable crops, to connect farms and kitchens, to tell the story of positive change, and enable people to take part in making it happen. We’ve come to understand that there are no easy answers, but there is a simple mantra: diversity; that if we aim for diversity in all things, from what’s grown and who grows it, to how it’s sold and eaten, we’ll almost certainly be on the right path. Working with farmers we've pioneered new crops for the UK, such as lentils and chickpeas, and have revived long-forgotten staples, like naked barley and carlin peas. This enables change by encouraging the creation of more complex rotations, finding shorter routes to market, adding economic and agroecological value.

The crops and the farmers, retailers, caterers, researchers and home cooks we work with are part of a non-linear, non-hierarchical network of supply. This is not how food systems are commonly conceptualised; supply chains put farmers at one end and consumers at the other, they imply a one-way flow of value and information controlled by manufacturers and supermarkets. Hodmedod is very small, but it uses its very particular perspective to influence other businesses, non-governmental organisations and government. In order to do this effectively we need to find new ways to tell old stories about the origin and significance of the food we eat and the people involved in its production.

We’ve often been told by journalists that commissioning editors like a simple story focused on a single crop or a personal journey because that’s what engages readers and viewers who have little time and knowledge and are drawn in by the biggest hooks. And there’s a popular perception of farmers as driven only by profit and loss; hard-nosed rational actors applying increasingly reductive technologies to the production of uniform commodities. None of which is true. Farming is an identity, and farmers are as much motivated by a sense of place and belonging – the beauty of their often intergenerational work in the landscape and their duty to it – as they are by profit. And readers and viewers want complexity, hunger to understand where, who and how food is produced, and can cope with the messy edges and open-ended stories.

DiverIMPACTS is a European action research project with 34 partners in 11 countries, whose aim is to better understand diverse cropping systems and how they might support more ecologically appropriate food production and consumption. Hodmedod and the farmer group we work with is one of the UK case studies. Because the research process is participatory, done with us not to us, we’ve been able to shape the work of our case study. We’ve used some of our small budget allocation to learn from other farmer groups, but we’ve been particularly interested in DiverIMPACTS Outcome 3:

Enhanced consumer understanding of the role of diversity in cropping systems, creating engaging stories to communicate the complexities of food and farming systems and developing new relationships between farmers and consumers.

This collaboration with the Dark Mountain Project is part of that work. The conventional approach to telling stories from farms is to create farm profiles: farm size, cropping system, soil type, business model. Or to focus on a single crop and how it’s grown and marketed. Our joint project Sheaf offered three writers the opportunity to pick a farm from our network with no brief beyond visiting and using the experience to create a piece of prose or poetry. The three farms have inspired three very different responses from the Dark Mountain contributors, a diversity of style and form that reflects the complex, regenerative approaches employed by the farmers.

Cover image: Domesticated Emmer wheat (Triticum turgidum subsp. dicoccum).
One of the parents to all modern bread wheat (T. aestivum), there’s evidence of wild Emmer being gathered and eaten at least 17,000 year ago in what is now Turkey. A staple of the Roman empire, it is now little grown but its resistance both to damp and drought as well as disease make it well suited to low input farming systems.
Photograph by Anne Campbell. Emmer grown by Col Gordon




Josiah Meldrum
Josiah Meldrum

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