Bowtell’s: Uplifting Family Farming

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The topic of meat is complex and divisive. Some nutritionists will say red meat is bad for you, that it’s too acidic and contains too much saturated fat and hardens your arteries and therefore you should cut down or even cut it out of your diet, whilst others say it’s vital for energy and full of protein and minerals such as iron and our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived off the stuff so we’ve evolved to eat it. Of course the issue of animal welfare literally soars to the fore when many people discuss eating meat – highlighting many animals’ low quality of life, their often cruel and cramped conditions, whether the animal suffers, the inhumane ways they’re killed (many of us questioning whether it’s necessary to kill any other living creature for our consumption at all). Then there’s meat in terms of the environment and climate change, which can leave you a little foggy-headed when you hear that two-thirds of available fresh water on the planet is used in farming; a third of all crops are used to grow feed for farm animals, such as soya for Europe’s chickens and pigs, which contributes to huge deforestation of the rainforest and loss of biodiversity; and 14.5% of global greenhouse gases are produced by meat and dairy farming which is more than every car, train and plane combined. Then there are questions of all the pesticides, chemicals, artificial hormones and antibiotics used in the production of meat.

All of this can quickly become overwhelming, and it’s easy to switch off from it all – to shut our eyes and block our ears. All of those facts and figures paint a picture of farmers and their practices as detrimental to a myriad of life forms and to the planet itself. But a fundamental point in all of this is that most of this negativity is the result of factory farming – producing meat on an industrial scale. What about the brighter picture? All those small family farms that care for their animals in an intimate, personal and compassionate way? Those farmers who live and breathe farming and for whom it is a proud and rewarding tradition?

Our local Hampshire butcher, Toby Bowtell, is one such farmer. The Bowtell family have been producing meat using the same plot of land for five generations now. They’re what you might call small artisan producers, supplying to a specific market of local people. A kind of remnant of what farming used to be.

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Almost as soon as I sit down with him, the topic of the horsemeat scandal of January 2013 comes up, and Toby simply shakes his head. After the scandal hit the media, much of the British public suddenly stopped buying red meat. People decided white meat such as chicken could be much more ‘trusted’. This meant there was a run on chicken, so big supermarkets such as Tesco demanded and bought huge supplies of it. The effect of this upon the smaller producers was disastrous.

“It takes us three months to grow and produce chicken,” Toby says, “and I can’t suddenly up production at the drop of a hat. We buy day-old chicks and because the chicken market had gone so big everyone bought extra chicks, so then the bigger your buying power and the higher up the food chain you are, the more you get.”

“We only buy 200 chicks at a time and so when there’s a shortage it’s the little people at the bottom of the pile like us who lose out. It means we get nothing, which from the perspective of the huge European chick producers is just, you know, tough.”

The reality of the situation was that since the Bowtells couldn’t get their hands on chicks at the beginning of 2013, they ran out of chicken every week throughout the spring and early summer, meaning their customer base suffered. And what’s more, they take much time and care over the production of their chicken, buying in a French breed of chicks called Sasso which are specially developed for the free range and organic market.

“Sasso are slower growing and they’re produced to run around outside, so they’re proper outdoor chicken as opposed to indoor chicken. Commercial chickens are bred specifically to be ready for the table in 40 days, whereas ours are ready in 90 days.”

The fact that the Bowtells take more than double the amount of time to grow their chickens than those produced by the big corporations for the mass market shows the dedication and effort small farmers put into their trade. Traditional methods, a hands-on attitude and direct contact with the animals they look after means they’re literally in the thick of it, entirely involved in the process of producing meat from another animal for human consumption.

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The family grows all the grass for feeding their sheep and cows themselves, giving them silage during the winter, and they only use artificial fertiliser when the dung they use as natural fertiliser runs out. Furthermore, they buy in free range piglets from a family friend not far away in Hampshire, and they’re kept in fairly natural conditions.

“They’re what we class as open barn,” Toby explains. “They have fresh air, daylight, straw on the ground and plenty of space to run around. And if they want to lay out in the sun or rain they can but most of the time they lay in the straw in the warm. But then if it’s minus 15 degrees outside, it’s minus 15 – the barn’s not heated and has no kind of climate control. The weather is the weather.”

Just like with turkeys and chickens, if everything is in a temperature-controlled shed, farmers can calculate that if a chick comes in at one day old, then if you feed a specific amount and type of food at a certain age it will be a certain weight. But if, like the Bowtells, you run an outside system, the animals simply are what they are.

Considering all of this, on the surface it’s clear that local, artisan butchers are not to be classed with their bigger competition in terms of the impact they have on the environment. And, Toby reveals, it’s what goes on behind farming practices that presents some good news for environmentalists concerned with conservation and loss of biodiversity.

“An awful lot of conservation is done through farming nowadays,” Toby says. “There’s so much done for the environment that people just never see. They just see fields of corn but it’s about what people are totally unaware of.”

With fields of corn, the outside 24 metres aren’t sprayed which means the right kind of weeds are allowed to flourish and so hosts of insects have something to feed on which in turn are food for the English partridge. Another example is that big square patches in fields are left undrilled specifically for skylarks. In fact all kinds of birds such as buzzards, red kites, songbirds and barn owls are now being positively helped via agriculture.

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“Over the years farming techniques have developed at such a rate that barn owls were disappearing. But now headlands are set aside so there are places for mice to thrive. On these headlands there are flowers that produce the right kind of seeds and the hedges don’t get cut so there’s bramble, which means the mice can eat the blackberries. The result of all this is that there are more mice, and so the barn owls can then survive because they can hunt them.”

Just this example alone demonstrates the complexities of food chains and on what each particular type of animal depends for survival. “It’s conservation as a whole,” Toby says. Twenty-five years ago they were ripping out hedges and cutting all the wildflower meadows. But now there are incentives for farmers to re-sow those meadows and all over the country hedges and trees are being replanted.

“It’s all sort of driven towards things being put back to how they should be. It’s a responsibility. Everyone’s different – we’re only tenant farmers – but I feel we have a duty to do our bit, to make sure the trees don’t get damaged, that the ground is looked after properly and that the dung’s put on at the right time and so on. There are a lot of people on this planet and I feel we should be preserving what we have, and if that means eating a little bit less meat then you know, that’s what we should do – and I’m a butcher!”

Toby suggests that one easy thing we could do to help the environment is to shop at farmers markets so that the meat you buy is grown locally and the miles and energy involved is less than that produced for the mass market. But, as this suggests, whether or not we do this isn’t up to him and it isn’t up to the manager of an agribusiness.

“I’m very proud of what we produce,” Toby says, “but I would never knock the farmer that produces millions of tonnes of wheat or battery farmed hens because while the general public want cheap chicken people are going to grow mass produced chicken. It’s people’s choices and the only way that will ever change is by people changing themselves.”

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Toby touches on a very important issue in terms of meat production – the way we think about our food. It’s very easy wandering round a supermarket to simply slip a packet of chicken breasts off the shelf and into your trolley without a single thought. Almost like an automatic action. Sealed in plastic, sitting on a white sterile shelf, the whole experience is so clinical, so detached, so impersonal.

But animal farming is just the opposite. It’s intimate, involved and intricate. To eat the flesh of another animal, human beings have to be personally involved with the rearing, growing, feeding, killing, butchering, gutting and slicing up of it. At least, we had to be until the advent of factory farming with assembly lines of cows and pigs hooked up on machines. And this is where a big part of the problem lies. We’ve become distanced from animals, from the whole process, which has allowed us to eat as much meat as we like with no cognitive association between steak and cow or bacon and pig.

Moreover, people want cheap food – particularly meat, which Toby is quick to recognise. “It’s all about supply and demand and unfortunately food is not something that a huge majority of people hold as an important thing. Everyone has a set amount of money and they’re entitled to choose what they want to spend it on. You don’t have to have an iPhone, you don’t have to drink or smoke, or you don’t have to buy £100 trainers. But if that’s what people spend their money on then there’s always going to be consumer demand for cheap, economy meat.”

All of this is certainly true, but as a recent article by Foodtank reveals, there are in fact many hidden costs in the production of ‘cheap’ food via conventional agriculture. Apparently being the obesity epidemic globally costs us US$2 trillion in healthcare, procured from our own wallets and purses through taxes. Then there’s the cost of soil erosion, pesticides and fertilisers, the need to create more and more artificial pollination as bees continue to decline, the scarcity of fresh water and the need to purify it – many of which are either overlooked or ‘invisible’ and play no part in countries’ estimation of their economic value. So, in reality, cheap meat isn’t cheap at all.

Therefore, all in all, industrial-scale farming seems purely negative and harmful – to our health, to our wallets, to animals and to the planet.

Fundamentally, there needs to be a shift in our thinking, in the way we view animals. And going to a local butcher’s farm shop to buy your meat (perhaps seeing the cows in the fields flicking their tails or the chickens running around in true ‘free-range’ fashion) rather than a supermarket is at least one step towards this. It’s almost like a step back, in a way. That’s certainly what it feels like when I visit the Bowtells, walking through the farmyard, seeing their cows up on the hill, going into their little shop which has its own gritty character. I distinctly remember always running to look at their pigs when I was younger and loving leaning over and watching them lounging in the hay. Happy pigs make me smile, and they definitely make me think twice (or more accurately ten times) about buying sausages.

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Foodie’s Paradise: Partridges Food Market

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Food markets are a wonderful, traditional and natural thing – something humanity has been doing for hundreds of years as a way of trading, exchanging and buying food. They create a physical and visual circumstance where consumers can see, smell and often taste (the most important aspect of anything we eat!) food before they buy it. We can literally ‘feast’ our eyes on an array of delicious fare.

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Markets are direct, personal and unambiguous presentations of fresh ingredients and real produce, usually handmade or cooked or baked on a small scale, by passionate people. They operate on an intimate level, and not only foster interaction between one person and another, but between producer and consumer, farmer and customer, maker and eater. Furthermore, they characteristically encourage the sale and consumption of local and seasonal food. That was why and how markets first began – a local farmer or baker would set up a stall for those who lived nearby to come and purchase locally grown vegetables, or bread kneaded and baked from local wheat or rye flour, or meat reared from cows or pigs living in neighbouring fields. Today, people all over Britain and the western world are doing the same thing; in a kind of revival of something we’d lost and forgotten about for a good fifty years.

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Everything about food markets is positive and nurturing – natural, sensual, personal, local. So different to the experience we as people have when buying food at supermarkets; pushing our trolley round aisles and aisles of plastic-wrapped food in a sterile, odourless and artificial atmosphere, as if food was made by machines and just appears on the shelves out of thin air, with no human being or plant or animal or particle of soil involved in its growth and production at all.

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The great news is food and farmers markets are on the rise, becoming more and more popular, attractive, accessible and prevalent. They are quickly starting to be seen as valuable, exciting ways of purchasing and enjoying food, both in terms of buying ingredients for home cooking and as a delicious lunch or snack. Partridges Food Market is one such market, where every Saturday tens of growers, producers and companies set up their stalls in Duke of York Square for anyone in London to enjoy. It’s always heaving, and for a good reason – the array of food on offer is both amazing and mouth-watering.

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There’s raw honey from Spain; organic vegetables from Riverdale Organic Farm; cheeses from France, Wiltshire and Somerset; raw super foods by Detox Delivered; a hog roast; Chinese dumplings; paella; French crêpes and galettes; speciality curries and Indian dishes; haggis toasties; sushi made right in front of you at the stall; burgers with a range of toppings; a Brazilian pastelaria and deli; vegan cakes and biscuits; petit fours; organic sourdough breads; handmade ravioli and gnocchi… The list goes on!

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My absolute favourite stall is Rainforest Creations. Their spread of tropical-style raw salads, dips, flans, cakes and sweets is like a rainbow of vegan, plant-based, refined sugar free delight and goodness. It makes natural, healthy vegetables look like the food of the gods. And it all tastes incredible. Their salads range from tropical coleslaw and angel kale and avocado to mungbean-lentils and red quinoa. And their sprouted hummus is the best I’ve ever tasted, with subtle hints of spice, herbs and turmeric. You can get almost everything wrapped up in a corn and split lentil roti, or just a tub bursting with salad, an akashe ball and a good dollop of hummus.

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If you haven’t been to Partridges Food Market, Rainforest Creations alone is a reason to get yourself there. But it’s wonderful to just go and wander round; to see, smell and take in all the food and bustling people – to experience genuine food out in the open air and have your fill of fresh, delicious produce that’s natural, personal and real.

Warm Winter Sprout & Quinoa Salad

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Quinoa is a slightly contentious topic in the food world at the moment (as this article highlights), due to the west’s sudden love and demand for this little grain. There’s no doubt that quinoa is one of the world’s greatest foods, especially for vegetarians and vegans out there: it’s a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids, it has almost twice as much fibre as most other grains and it’s packed with magnesium. In most ways, it trumps all other grains, but when poor Bolivians and Peruvians can no longer afford their staple food because of US and European demand raising prices, it’s not an easy or particularly acceptable thing to buy a packet of South American-grown quinoa and simply shrug and ignore this unethical fact.

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But here in Britain we have the perfect solution – Hodmedod’s British quinoa from the fields of Essex. A truly local grain grown in English soil which has only travelled a few miles and hasn’t cheated South American farmers and civilians out of their food – what can be better than that? And, pairing this with Brussel sprouts and a few swirls of carrot, which are both in season, this salad is a local and seasonal bowl of rainbow-coloured goodness. Sprouts receive an unfair nose-wrinkling bad name, but they can be so delicious if cooked in an imaginative way, rather than simply boiling all the taste and nutrients out of them. Infusing this warm winter salad with rosemary and chilli flakes gives both the quinoa and sprouts an aromatic flavour, and topping it off with lightly toasted sunflower seeds adds a crunch which makes every mouthful a protein-packed, plant-filled pleasure.

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Serves 3:

  • 2 cups/310g of Brussel sprouts
  • ½ cup of quinoa
  • 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar
  • ½ cup of sunflower seeds
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 sprigs of rosemary
  • 3 teaspoons of chilli flakes
  • Sea salt

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Preheat your oven to 170°C. Start by chopping the bottom end off the Brussel sprouts and removing the outer leaves. Give them a good wash before cutting them in half. Then place them on a baking tray, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and toss until evenly coated. Roast them in the oven for approximately 20 minutes.

Whilst they’re baking, bring a pan of water to the boil and add the quinoa and apple cider vinegar. Give it a stir and reduce to a simmer, letting it cook for about 15 minutes, or however long your specific quinoa takes.

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At this point, peel the outer skin of the carrots off and then use the peeler to make thin strips, from one end to the other. Strip the rosemary leaves off their stems. Once the sprouts have been in the oven for 10 minutes take them out and sprinkle over the chilli flakes and rosemary leaves. Give them a stir to make sure they’re roasting evenly and return them to the oven for about 10 more minutes, or until they’re starting to go golden brown and slightly crispy.

Using a dry pan, turn it up to a medium heat and gently toast the sunflower seeds, tossing them about a bit to make sure all sides go lightly brown. Once your quinoa’s cooked, drain any excess water and remove the sprouts from the oven. Toss all the elements together and serve – I like mine sprinkled with a few extra chilli flakes for a mildly spicy tang.

Heritage Crops: The Brighter Future of Farming

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Genetically modified food is a controversial topic. It’s something which is being endlessly debated, particularly in terms of whether it’s required to feed the ever-increasing population of our planet. It’s tricky for most of us to know whether it’s a good thing or bad thing, but presented with the raw facts by someone such as a small-scale, honest farmer who has genuine hands-on experience with growing food, there’s no doubt that GM crops and seeds are bad – very bad, in fact. For humanity, for the environment and for food security.

John Letts is one such organic farmer in Buckinghamshire who has set out on a mission to grow hundreds of varieties of ancient cereals – heritage grain, as he calls it. He’s also a thatcher, which is significant because it was whilst he was retouching thatched roof houses that he made an amazing discovery. Some thatched houses are hundreds of years old, with the original layer of thatch being laid down in about 1350. Vitally, in some cases, this original layer has never been removed, and this is significant because houses of the 1300s had no chimney, meaning that any smoke simply floated up into the roof, perfectly preserving the grains of straw stitched together to create the thatch.

Mr Letts goes so far as to describe thatched roofs as “archaeological sites”, because of this preserved layer and the subsequent layers replaced over the years, like a record of time from 1300 to now. One of the most important things to be noted about these ancient grains is that they were genetically diverse – people used to grow varieties of wheat, oats, rye and barley in their hundreds, and what’s more, they were land adaptive, meaning they could easily adapt to varying conditions. This genetic diversity meant that wheat and oats were resilient against disease, because if one type of wheat contracted a disease there were hundreds of other varieties still left untouched after the disease had attacked it.

Even in the early 1800s, there were between 200-500 varieties of plant in one field, which is unimaginable when we now walk in monocrop fields with rows and rows of the exact same, genetically-identical wheat, barley or oat plant. Shaking his head, Mr Letts says, “We have a tiny amount of genetic history in the crops we grow. Modern wheat varieties are all the same, and if it weren’t for the layers in thatched roofs then every other variety of wheat ever grown or cultivated would have been lost.”

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Comparing ancient and modern varieties of grain and how their crops grow, there are a few evident differences. First of all, modern crop seeds are grown without husks, whereas heritage seeds have the husk still covering them, as they naturally did before we began fiddling and altering the plants. Husks are important as they help protect the plant and seed against fungi – so, through a fault of our own making, when they’re not protected and fungi starts ruining the crop, conventional farmers decide to spray fungicide all over it.

Before the industrial revolution, crops had large root systems, meaning they could absorb various nutrients rather than simply nitrogen, which is 1 of the 3 minerals modern farming deems plants require, even though there are 52 minerals in nature and it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to think that plants (and humans who are eating those plants) really need all 52 nutrients to thrive. Furthermore, these ancient grains grown as mixed crops – with an assortment of plants which complemented one another – had all sorts of different height roots in their systems, meaning they were far more resilient than modern monocrops. Smiling knowingly, Mr Letts points to one of his fields and says, “Ancient wheat with husks on can stand in the rain for 3 months.”

This sounds entirely unbelievable when we hear constant reports of British farmers’ crops being ruined after the weeks of rain we’ve had in recent years, such as in the summer of 2012. But that’s because today’s farmers are using monocrop wheat with shortened stems, weak root systems and roots which can’t connect with the fungi in the soil. Every plant has root fungi – it is a natural part of soil, along with insects, microorganisms, gases and organic matter, all of which exist in a symbiotic relationship with plants and their roots. Unlike ancient crops, modern varieties are unable to take advantage of the fungi, and so they’re entirely dependent on topsoil and therefore cheap fertilisers which nowadays farmers spray on their fields by the bucket load.

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All of this is very interesting with international corporations like Monsanto claiming that only GM crops can ‘feed the world’ and how, in the context of climate change, these companies are producing ‘climate-ready crops’ which will supposedly be able to withstand changes in our climate over the next 100 years. It seems much more likely that, in fact, it is these ancient varieties of wheat, oat, spelt, corn, rye etc that will be able to grow and adapt to changing conditions, and what’s more, they would be able to grow without the use of artificial chemicals and fertilisers and without the threat of miles of crops being wiped out by a flood, drought or some new strain of disease. Even better, Mr Letts tells me that the yield of medieval crops was almost exactly the same as it is now, so there can be no argument that modern varieties of GM crops produce far higher amounts of grain per hectare.

Another interesting point is that it was in the early 1800s when commercial baking with yeast began – before that, we didn’t use cultivated yeast to make bread. Medieval bread was almost all sourdough – a process which uses only naturally occurring yeasts within the bread and which creates bread which is flatter. Mr Letts, who is a passionate baker and bread eater himself, has a friend called Colin who is opening his own bakery and lives a short distance from his farm. When my friend Eloise and I were helping out on his farm back in the summer, Colin would bring over freshly baked sourdough using Mr Letts’ very own flour every morning. This sourdough was some of the most amazing bread I’ve ever tasted, with a wonderful flavour which surpasses the stale, flabby white bread you find in supermarkets in every single way, and it even got the French seal of approval from Eloise.

Making pizzas one night with some of Colin’s dough, Mr Letts starts talking about rye and the wisdom of medieval farmers, saying, “Ergot fungi is a type of fungi that grows on rye plants and is highly toxic to humans, but the sourdough baking process detoxifies the ergot. Somehow people living in the 1200s, 1300s, 1400s onwards knew how to do this, and worked out a way to eat rye without poisoning themselves.”

There’s another aspect of sourdough bread which is fascinating in the context of the number of people who now have gluten intolerances and celiac disease. Mr Letts describes how there’s current research in Germany into sourdough in relation to gluten. Apparently, when making sourdough bread, long term fermentation of the dough is required with the sourdough culture, which uses naturally occurring lactobacilli. These bacteria produce lactic acid which lowers the pH of the bread to 3, and such a low pH destroys the gluten so those who are sensitive or allergic to gluten can eat it.

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Nowadays, modern wheat flour has various emulsifiers and enzymes added to it so that bread can be made in half an hour. This, Mr Letts believes, is a big part of the problem. “We’re eating raw starch and raw gluten, and our stomachs can’t digest them so they go straight to our guts.” Once in our gut, they cause inflammation which allows food (importantly, raw gluten, but many other foods as well) to leak into our bloodstream via a common disorder called leaky gut syndrome, and once there our body treats the food like a foreign invader and it triggers an immune response. So it’s no wonder so many of us are intolerant to wheat and gluten.

When delving deep into the way our food is grown and produced, it’s often easy to get downhearted. Mr Letts, speaking of his experience with growing food and his first-hand experience of working for American chemical companies producing fungicides, herbicides and pesticides, says that what these multinational companies spew out is a “fake argument about feeding the world.” Moreover, it is companies such as Monsanto who are now patenting seed (because they have modified and created their own types which they supposedly ‘own’) and trying (and often succeeding) to stop farmers saving their own seed as they have done for hundreds of years, as the term ‘heritage’ suggests.

“It’s all about money,” Mr Letts says. “GM crops so easily contaminate non-GM and organic crops, and Monsanto can then claim they own those crops because their GM seeds start growing in them. When this happens, they can sue farmers who try to save their seeds. And even if you’re not up against Monsanto, lots of varieties of wheat and other crops are illegal to plant and grow – if you do want to grow them they have to be approved by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). But, thankfully, a few people like Mr Letts are pitting themselves against corporations and the governments they’ve bought out by growing these ancient varieties of grain (legally, of course).

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Furthermore, the future is looking brighter. “They won’t be able to criminalise the keeping and swapping of seeds because people are catching on all over the world,” Mr Letts says to me, dropping a spelt seed from one of his crops into my hand as he shows me how to work his old fashioned miller, which will turn seeds into flour ready for selling under the brand Lammas Fayre. It’s been a long process over 10 years of his life, but his heritage grain flours are now up on the market available to buy from Bakery Bits. The idea behind them is that each flour reflects the time and type of people who were using a particular mix of grain in their baking. They’re like flours for history, so he offers Medieval Peasant’s Blend Flour, Victorian Blend White Flour and Roman Blend Wholemeal Spelt Flour.

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But Mr Letts isn’t stopping there. “We need a magna carta for seed,” he says, “so that seeds can be protected by laws which are moral, ethical and environmental, and so they can’t be stolen from the farmers who have saved and cultivated them for us over hundreds of years.” With that in mind, he’s aiming to produce a flour which has thousands of varieties of ancient seeds in it – 1215 to be exact, for the year the Magna Carta was created, to be ready next year in 2015, for its 800th anniversary.

Heritage Blend Artisan Pizza Flour

Yacon: Sweet Superfood

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Sugar is an issue – a big question at the moment. People have been muttering about how refined sugar isn’t very good for you for years, though they do it in a hush-hush, roundabout way that’s never clearly spoken about. The fact is it contains no nutritional benefits and in some ways it’s actually harmful for your body.

For example:

  • It’s full of calories but empty of nutrients (no protein, essential fats, vitamins or minerals).
  • It rots your teeth because the bad bacteria in your mouth just love to feed on it.
  • Eating too much sugar can cause insulin resistance, which means that cells stop letting blood sugar (glucose) leave the bloodstream and enter the cells so that they can burn the sugar for energy. Instead the glucose builds up in the bloodstream which can be toxic and a driver of diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes.
  • What’s more insulin as a hormone plays a key part in regulating uncontrolled growth and multiplication of cells, and eating sugar keeps insulin levels high, preventing it from doing its job properly – thus it can contribute towards cancer.
  • Sugar is highly addictive because when you eat it a hormone called dopamine is released in the brain, like a reward, giving us a good sensation that we want to happen again and again.
  • Sugar can raise your cholesterol levels and so plays a major part in developing heart disease because high amounts of fructose affect the body’s metabolism by raising triglycerides and LDLs (low-density lipoproteins) in the blood and increasing abdominal obesity, all of which are risk factors for heart disease.

Cue yacon.

Yacón plant at Lower Pertwood Farm

Yacon plant

The yacon plant originates from the Andean highlands and is grown in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil. It’s actually a member of the sunflower family and has huge tubules or fleshy rhizomes underground, a bit like a root vegetable. What’s so great about this little plant is that 40-70% of the root dry matter consists of oligofructose (OF), a particular sugar with several health benefits. And, what’s even better is that Mr Mole, owner of Lower Pertwood Farm, is growing yacon in the soils of Wiltshire as a trial, at this very moment.

Mr Mole’s tasted yacon and he’s pretty excited about trying to grow the plant in the UK. “Yacon syrup has a sweet, malty taste that’s wonderful,” he says. “And what’s so great about it is that it’s not absorbed into the bloodstream – it truly is a healthy food. The problem with any food is taste – people would much rather be unhealthy than not enjoy it, and so most people chuck sugar on their cereal and mix teaspoonfuls into their tea. But wouldn’t it be nice if you could take a mouthful of cereal and think ‘wasn’t that delicious’ and you didn’t have to add anything to it?”

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Yacon plot at Lower Pertwood Farm in early July 2014

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I can’t help agreeing that it would be nice – in fact it would be brilliant. The fact is that as a human race we love sweet food. So instead of telling people they can’t eat anything sugary for the rest of their lives, Mr Mole is trying to go down a different route. The Pertwood Farm cereals brand is working together with Alara on a granola made with yacon, so that it has “all the nice crispiness” but none of the detrimental effects of added refined sugar. And, it would be even better for you than granola made with honey or agave nectar or any other of those kinds of sweeteners – in fact it would be good for you if you wanted to use it in baking, in your tea, or in anything else you can think of.

The OF content of yacon means that it contains very few calories (1.5 kcal/g) and does not elevate blood glucose levels like refined sugars such as sucrose, therefore yacon can be consumed not only by diabetics and weight-watchers but all of us as a sweetening alternative to sugar. OF is also a prebiotic which means that it helps to reconstitute intestinal microflora and stimulates the growth and activity of friendly bacteria in the large intestine. It’s a soluble fibre which helps prevent constipation, and OF can promote calcium absorption. Furthermore, it can help reduce cholesterol levels and reduce carcinogen lesions in the colon.

All of this suggests that yacon is something we should all be eating, and in Peru they’re certainly making use of it – supermarkets offer syrup, juice, marmalade and tea leaves made with yacon. But, as with any food, being grown in one part of the world and then flown to the other side of the planet is almost never a good thing. So the fact Mr Mole is trying to grow it right here in the UK is absolutely wonderful.

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Yacon plot at the beginning of September 2014

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“We were the people who applied for it to be added to the European Food Standards,” Mr Mole says, “which it is now so it’s legal.” Back at the beginning of July when I went to visit the farm, I asked him about growing something in the UK whose natural habitat is high in the Andean mountains and Mr Mole admitted that there’s not much that’s compatible here – climate wise, altitude wise, soil-type wise. “But it does seem to be fairly versatile, which is encouraging. I want to try growing it in South Africa too.” I take a few snaps on my camera and he proudly states: “this is one of the only places in Europe you can take photos of a yacon plant,” which is inspiring.

Lower Pertwood Farm bought the yacon tubers, or little bulbs, from a small nursery in Holland as well as fresh saplings from Alex Smith, co-founder of Alara Wholefoods. They were planted in pots, then transplanted to the ground, and after three weeks Mr Mole said that they’d had no casualties so far. “I’m chuffed actually,” he says, smiling behind his sunglasses. And so he should be – now, two months later, the yacon plants are thriving. This week he pulled one up to see how it was doing and the tubers are on their way to being the size of potatoes.

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Discussing all the health benefits of yacon and the fact that he and Alex Smith are the first in Europe to be properly attempting to grow the plant, Mr Mole shakes his head at the western food industry. “It’s amazing to me – it just shows how under-motivated the food industry’s been to be healthy. It’s only people on the fringe like us who are saying this is a fantastic plant and we’re going to try to make it available in the mainstream eventually.”

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He also reveals that yacon roots can be a delicious addition to salads. “You can simply pull it out of the ground, peel it and eat it, like a carrot,” he says. “In this fresh form it’s pure and full of goodness. There’s a huge demand from top restaurants in London actually, because they’re recognising not only its benefits but its great taste too.”

Yacon sounds like one of the most extraordinary superfoods in the world. As well as South America, it’s also starting to be grown in Russia, Taiwan, Korea and some places in the USA. But I can’t get over how great it is that Mr Mole’s having a stab at it right here in southern England, just over an hour away from where I live – it’s going to be a real, organic, local food. Yacon is something everyone should be excited about.

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Pertwood Farm: Truly Organic

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There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about the differences and advantages/disadvantages of conventional food versus organic food. A study published in The British Journal of Nutrition earlier in July stated that organic crops are up to 60% higher in antioxidants than conventionally-grown ones, and that there are significantly lower levels of toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and lead in organic crops, which, interestingly enough, contradicts a 2009 study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) that found there were no significant nutritional benefits to be had through eating organic food. And only last week a report was published revealing that 63% of bread in supermarkets contains pesticide residues, 25% of which has residues of more than one pesticide. It’s tricky to know what to believe and a large part of the problem is that lots of people don’t really know what organic food production means – myself included! To solve this problem, at the beginning of July I went to visit Pertwood Organic Farm in Wiltshire to see what ‘organic’ really looks like.

Lower Pertwood Farm has been organic since 1988, its entire 1850 acres certified by the Soil Association. Currently owned by Wilfred Mole, who also farms in South Africa at Sandstone Estates, Pertwood has its own range of wheat-free breakfast cereals, as well as supplying oats to muesli and porridge brand Alara, which is 100% organic. As soon as I go through the gate the farmland has an atmosphere of both tranquillity and energy, giving me the feeling of how alive it is. Immediately I spot buzzards and hear swallows chattering. Mr Mole is enthusiastic about the farm, pointing out ancient Celtic longbarrows (human-made mounds involved in crop rotation) in the nearest fields which he’s not allowed to touch, and high up a chalk strip which is a new pipeline being put in by Wessex Water. He shows me the long mound of topsoil that they dug up about six months ago.

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“Look at that,” Mr Mole says, grinning. “They just pile up this crummy soil and the plants love it to bits. The mound’s got every sort of plant known to man growing on it – crops, weeds, flowers. It would actually be interesting to do a plant population analysis to see what’s there.”

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The plant life is unbelievably impressive, and I can’t help feeling it wouldn’t be so teeming if the farm wasn’t organic. Amazingly, Mr Mole has made a deal with Wessex Water to turn the pipeline land into an RSPB reserve when they’re finished. It’s a running theme here; following the ethos of farming ‘with nature’s best interests at heart’, this year 30 acres of land are being turned into wildflower meadows in order to create an ideal habitat for bees and butterflies. This, with a bit of luck, will have the added bonus of increasing crop yields.

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Mr Mole shows me one of the fields which is going to become a wildflower meadow, just beside the main road. “It’s never been a great field,” he says. “It’s really high up, on the crest. We can probably break even with the crop but you may as well plant flowers on it instead.”

As we bump along the fields in his battered 4×4, Mr Mole explains how organic farming works. They rotate their crops with livestock and clover lay, and there are no chemicals or fertilisers involved other than muck from cows. “What you do in organic is to build the fertility of the fields you rotate. You keep about a third of the farm in grass and clover which reinvigorates the land and it’s good for the livestock.” A lot of the fields I see are what’s called fallow, where after a crop has been harvested and ploughed, they leave the grass or clover to grow for a year, during which time they cut it for silage and re-grow it (all the while letting sheep or cattle graze on it), and only then do they plant seed for the next crop. Doing all this continually replaces nutrients, improves soil fertility, helps control pests, protects the soil from erosion and supports biodiversity.

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“If you look at that field there the grass grows like mad and then you look at what grows in a classic example of a conventional farm; it’s not nearly as vibrant. When you walk through conventional farms you see how brutal they are – there are no hedges, there’s nothing. I’m growing a hedge now, in bits and pieces, but in total there will be 2 miles of it.”

Stopping beside an oat field, we get out to have a closer look at a typical organic crop. I am astonished at what I see – at first glance it looks like a field full of weeds. When we lean in closer, I literally can’t see the earth below. There are daisies, poppies, charlock, grass and loads of other plants I can’t identify. I instantly realise I’ve never seen a crop like this before; every other crop I’ve ever walked past or run through has been a conventional one.

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Mr Mole points to the long wispy stems, a pale but shimmering green. “These are the oats and if you look here you’ll lose count of the plants. There are flowers, there are weeds. It’s very natural, that’s the first impression you get, whereas a conventional crop is spotless, abnormally so. The good news is that the oats have generally outgrown the other plants and because it’s been such a good year they’ve been totally unaffected – they’ve got sun on their back and they’ve got wet feet, so what more do they need? The fact they’ve got a neighbour doesn’t matter.”

When the crop is harvested it has to be cleaned, meaning that if there are any remaining seeds from plants other than oats, the mix is put through a screen so they’re left only with oats to turn into porridge or muesli.

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The other thing I notice is that there are no track-mark lines which are usually so prevalent in conventional fields. Because Pertwood’s fields aren’t sprayed with pesticides or chemicals, there’s no need for tractors. Mr Mole has actually sold lots of his tractors because they were sitting around all day doing nothing. “From the day we plant the crop there’s nothing we can do,” he says. “We just leave it.”

He admits that sometimes there are traces of disease within the crops, but this is no bad thing. “The plants might get slightly ill but every time you’re slightly ill you’re building your immunity for it not to happen again, and every time you’re given artificial, synthetic things for combating that your immune system is pushed to one side. Why not just see if the plants can cope on their own?”

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Carrying on to another field Mr Mole remarks that the oats in it are much thicker. “We don’t always know why; it could be muck related. There are fewer flowers and the weeds are suffering more because the crop is so strong. It’s all about light. It’s a win win in organic – if you can get it right, the crop deals more effectively with the weeds.”

I comment on the abundance of insects hopping, flying and fluttering around, many of them butterflies, and immediately Mr Mole tells me it’s because the crops and fields aren’t sprayed. They really do have such a natural and buzzing feel to them which is lacking throughout most farmland in Britain.

The next thing I see is a field that’s just been ploughed, at the edge of which is something called a beetle bank separating it from the next one. This is one of the requirements of HLS (Higher Level Stewardship), which gives subsidies to organic farmers based on measures they take to benefit the environment. Pertwood Farm’s rotation of crops with livestock is also part of HLS, and they have to plant certain crops in certain places. They even have to plant certain things in the beetle banks. All of this might sound controlling but it’s carried out with the aim of maintaining the environment, diversity of life and sustainability.

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In organic farming you’re not allowed to use conventional synthetic pesticides or chemicals (not even to clean the storage areas, which are usually fumigated but Pertwood vacuums them instead) and because of this organic farmers save a huge amount of money.

“Here at Pertwood we’ve broken the mould that it can’t be profitable to be an organic farmer – it can be profitable because of the cost savings. When you look at the price of chemical fertilisers now, we don’t have any of that. For the average farmer that’s his biggest cost. He’s being taken for a ride – chemical companies and all sorts of people state things like ‘you must spray that’, and everyone trusts them. But as I’ve learnt with my farms, most of what you’re told is wrong.”

The final part of my tour takes us to the edge of an adjacent farm which has been recently acquired by Lower Pertwood Farm. A field we pass is wheat and Mr Mole highlights how the stalks are grown very close together, saying that it had been sprayed with pesticides and given chemical fertilisers in order to achieve uniformity and the appearance of good health. Manor Farm has always been conventional, and when Mr Mole first bought it many of the crops were diseased. Those who worked on it were spraying them and spraying them, but he told them to stop. Why? Because all 250 acres of the farm are being converted from conventional to organic.

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“It’s very good for me to see farmers in desperation just throw chemicals at something to try and make crops grow, to try and protect them from pests and diseases, and then to be able to say to them: ‘Did you know that we’re converting a conventional farm to organic?’ Everyone I’ve told looks at me in horror.”

It’s against the trend to convert from conventional to organic, but Pertwood Farm proves that it’s not only profitable to farm organically, but it also benefits the soil and a myriad of life forms, all of which are a vital part of the food chain. “I’ve got infinite, infinite faith in nature,” Mr Mole says seriously. There may be lots of little details to organic farming, but the ambience of natural energy and array of wildlife at Pertwood is amazing, and this positivity surely must filter down into the food we put in our mouths and so affect us and our bodies in beneficial ways.

At a basic level our cells are made up of various vitamins and minerals, and soil requires approximately 52 minerals, but artificial fertilisers contain only nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Without the other 49 minerals (such as manganese and zinc) the soil becomes deficient, which makes the plants deficient and weakened. So, in conjunction with all the pesticides and herbicides sprayed onto conventional crops, a lot of the food we eat cannot help but be deficient and toxic. But, with organic, this can be rectified, as Pertwood reveals.

“I’ve asked for a full-scale test to be done on Pertwood this year,” Mr Mole tells me. “From a few quick tests, the indications are that the fertility has improved hugely while we’ve been here. We’ve really corrected the levels – it was deficient in potassium, in magnesium and all these things. But not anymore. It’s pretty magnificent.”