[00:00:00] Jo Barratt: Hello, and welcome to Farmerama. We’re very grateful to those of you that support us and allow us to bring you these stories every month. Even the smallest contribution makes a big difference to us. So if you’d like to become a supporter, please visit patrion.com/farmerama
Abby: This month we hear about the new food and farming media and how the two are becoming ever closer, we head to a medicinal CSA and we end with a technology that may be part of our toolkit for a regenerative future.
[00:00:00] Jo Barratt: Jonathan Nunn is editor of Vittles, a food newsletter that particularly features writers and subjects not given space in traditional food writing. He talks us through setting up Vittles in 2020 and tells us about how his attendance at a meeting of farmers just outside London was inspiration for a season of the newsletter focussing on food production and producers.
[00:00:23] Jonathan Nunn: At the time I think things were very, very unclear and lots of chefs were out of work. Lots of people within the food industry were suddenly not working, and my idea at the time was actually focused around the lack of clarity about things. I had ideas about platforming chefs who were out of work and doing recipes and having writers talk about produce shops in London, and I also had the vague idea that like myself when I started writing, that there would be a lot of people who were thinking about food writing, but had never made the step of doing it.
And so I had quite a small idea for almost like a kind of London community newsletter, and I think very quickly it turned into something bigger. There seemed to be much more demand for it than I thought there would be. And what I realized was, that when I started writing, which was a few years ago, I was mainly writing about restaurants, actually exclusively about restaurants.
And I started writing because I felt I wasn’t seeing the London I knew, and the London restaurant scene that I knew, which is mainly diasporic restaurants, represented within the mainstream British food media, even though food media is so London centric. And I don’t think I quite realized, but I think what came up when I started vittles is that within food writing there are all these various different sectors. So restaurant writing, being one of them – there’s recipe writing of course, there’s agricultural writing, and it turned out that other people had the same feeling with their own sectors.
And suddenly vittles became this space where I guess lots of these aspects of food writing, which have been quite disparate to each other, could interact and where people could produce the writing which they always wanted to write about what they know. And so that kind of means connecting a lot of different worlds – which my editor at the Guardian one day said, there’s this festival called Groundswell which I think you’ll be really interested in. And so I went up and it was a really incredible experience.
There were farmers from all over the UK there, and all of them either had already heavily invested in regenerative agriculture, or people who kind of heard about it and wanted to know more. And I think by day two, I was struck by the fact that I hadn’t bumped into a food writer the entire time I’d been there. I was struck by a kind of conference that revolves around the very basis of food on agriculture. There could be nothing more related to food than that, and it wasn’t being covered. And I don’t say that to say that I’m somehow better for being there, and I wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for sort of a kind of stroke of luck. And by, yeah, by the second day I realized that, there was clearly also a blind spot in my own understanding of things, I was quite enjoying being the least knowledgeable person in the room at any given point and also maybe a blind spot in vittles itself. I thought it would be a good challenge to make season 5 all about food production and producers. I thought it would be a useful thing to sort of connect the back end of production with, I guess the writing that vittles has been doing for the last sort of one and a half years, and do it in a way which connects food production to a lot of the other topics, which vittles has been covering.
The problem I came up with is that I think the way agriculture can be written about can be quite academic and dry. And it’s often being written for other people within the industry who understand technical terms. A lot of it is incredible academic work, but it’s not necessarily for sort of mass consumption. And for me, the first thing that an article on vittles has to do is kind of capture the reader, and vittles is as a newsletter. If the reader hasn’t been captured by the first paragraph, then not really going to read on. So I think that’s been my challenge from an editorial point of view to make sure that the readers, even the casual reader, and even the food obsessed reader who might not really be interested in issues of production, who might be interested more in consumption – to make sure that reader comes with the writer.
I think if you asked most people what food writing is, they would either point to the restaurant review, or recipe writing, or a sort of more frivolous type of lifestyle journalism. Most of those things center around the consumption of food, and production has always been part of food writing. I mean, I’d go so far as to say that the oldest piece of food writing I know would be something like Virgil’s Georgics – and that is all about food production. But I think there are a lot of issues at the moment making food production a much more influential force in food writing. I think climate change, the discourse around regenerative agriculture, the consumption of meat, and the way that veganism is becoming a much more widespread thing. I think issues about labour are all playing into this as well. So I see the future of food writing is going to be much more focused on production, and agriculture than it is now.
I think there’s certainly an increase in desire from the general public for this kind of writing, but I also think there’s a demand from farmers themselves to see the issues that they live every day to be represented more in the mainstream of what we consider food writing. And in that sense they’re very similar to my feelings when I started writing about food. That what I wanted to see was the issues and the world that I lived every day represented more. So in that sense, it feels like quite a similar thing.
One thing I’ve learned from, I guess publications like farmerama and others, is that farmers themselves are often much more articulate about the issues that the world faces and which agriculture faces, and therefore which the entire food system faces, than food writers often are. Personally, I would like to see more farmers within food writing spaces, because I feel what happens most of the time is that you get a writer that’s someone like me, who doesn’t know what the real issues actually are, coming in and writing about them. I would say that, one thing I’ve learned from editing and publication, is that I do believe that anyone can write something extremely interesting. As long as they have an interesting perspective, and that being a technically good writer actually counts for very little in the grand scheme of things. So as long as you have something meaningful to say, I think that always comes through. So I would like to see more farmers writing about things and every time I do see a farmer writing about something is always fascinating.
Jo:The Earthlight Herbs cooperative is a medicinal herb farm, apothecary and plant nursery that began growing on an acre of land last year. We get introduced to the farm from Tiffany Landamore, one of the founding members. She talks to us about how they made use of online community calls during lockdown, and introduces the idea of health sovereignty. We began by asking her about her favourite herb…
[00:09:49] Earthlight Herbs: I’m really loving hyssop at the moment actually. It’s not one that I’ve ever worked with before this year. I’ve never grown it and I’ve never processed it before, but it’s such a beautiful plant and it was really easy to grow from seed, which is always a bonus in my eyes. When I planted it out it hardly got any slug damage and then it grew really quickly. It’s a wonderful sort of vibrant green color in the leaves, and then this bright purple flower and the bees just go crazy for it. And it’s sort of a really appropriate herb for this time that we’re experiencing on planet earth at the moment, because it supports the respiratory system. So it’s really useful for things like viruses, coughs, colds. It’s an ancient herb as well – I think it’s mentioned in the Bible.
So we were looking at different ways of producing revenue. We were looking at sort of producing our own remedies and thinking about how that’s going to be financially viable because of the time and effort that goes into not only the growing, but also the processing and signing the labels and then packing and posting. And it seemed like a CSA model was sort of our best bet really in terms of making it financially viable, but also really the main point was that we wanted to create a community. And the whole point of a CSA is Community Supported Agriculture. We have been successful in creating a small little community here and it’s growing daily and it’s really exciting to get to know local people, and connect with people nationally, but we’re focusing really on the local area around Somerset, to try and really empower people to take control of their own health and learn how to make their own remedies. We sort of joke that actually, if we’re successful with our vision and aim for the project, people won’t need to buy our products in the end because they’re going to be empowered to be able to make them at home. That’s really our aim is to create a community of sovereign individuals who know how to use the herbs that grow around us, like weeds in the hedgerows, or between the cracks in the pavements, and know how to harvest them, and know how to make their own medicine.
We were really keen to offer our members a chance to connect. I mean, obviously we set up the company during lockdown, so there was lots of restrictions happening at that point. Now things have opened up a bit, we are able to host in-person events, but some of our members are from other parts of the country, and we just wanted to create a sense of community amongst the members and offer them some education as well, because we’re fairly limited with what we can actually say about what the herbs do. Usually, if you’re just a straight up plant nursery, you can describe what the plants are going to do in the body what kind of things they might help you with. But because we’re actually producing remedies as well, legally we’re not allowed to say very much, which is a kind of a ridiculous thing about herbal medicine. So we felt that hosting these online sessions, not only builds community, but also gives people a chance to ask us questions about what to do with their tinctures when they’ve got them and how it might help them and, and just give a little overview of what the house is going to be doing the actions on the body and the affinities with the different organ systems they have. So that was kind of our way round the legal restrictions that are placed upon us by our system.
Food sovereignty is more well known and that’s a massive movement, and basically by using the term health sovereignty, we’re aligning ourselves with this movement. But I think that health sovereignty encompasses a lot more than just food and herbs. It’s also about emotional, spiritual, and physical wellbeing and all that that entails, We’re just ready really, to empower local people to take control of their health because it’s all available to us. Nature actually holds everything we need, I believe, to maintain our health at a high level.
I still buy my vegetables from, a local organic veg box scheme. Because I don’t really want to have to grow all my vegetables. You know, I grew a bit of greens and salad and stuff, but I don’t want to have to grow my vegetables cause that’s not my interest. So same with the herbs. I feel we’ve got the expertise and the knowledge to be able to do it properly. Making really potent medicine for people. But at the same time we’re sort of offering education, if you were interested in taking that up, maybe not on such a large scale, that’s what we’re doing, but sort of a little bit of foraging and also teaching your friends, family, children, when you’re going on, your lovely walks around the hedgerows, because especially at this time of year, the hedgerows are literally dropping with medicine.
I’ll just explain a little bit more about what the CSA actually is. You sign up, you can either pay in full for the whole year, or you can do a monthly payment plan to spread the cost over the year. With that you get four boxes. So it’s every season – spring, summer, autumn, winter. All of the plants that go into the remedies are either grown on our farm here without any chemical pesticides or herbicides, we’re not registered organic yet, but we are basically organic. Or they’re foraged, ethically and sustainably from the local hedgerows on the Somerset levels. We aim to include between five and seven different products in box. Then you get access to the community sharing circles, which are online at the moment. And we also hosts community meetup days if you are local to the farm.
Abby: Up next, we’re about to share about something that I can’t always wrap my head around, I have moments of clarity and then it’s gone… but it’s something that I completely ignored for a long time until a good friend convinced me to at least understand more about this, because he truly believes it holds some of the possibility for a more equitable and just future. I definitely think we are very far away from that at the moment, but I have begun to believe that there is potential. You may have heard about blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies that run via a blockchain such as Bitcoin. Well, in recent years there has been a community building these tools with a regenerative mindset.
The Regen Network are leading the way with this, and they have recently launched the Regen Ledger or their blockchain. This ledger allows for transparency in all ecosystem credits that are awarded on it, as well as the transparent exchange of their Regen tokens, which is the associated cryptocurrency. Regen tokens are essentially like having a ‘share’ in a company, they have both economic and governance value in this system which is currently being stewarded by the Regen Network. Alongside this, in order to create agreement about what should be considered valuable enough to award an ecosystem credit, they’ve created the Regen Registry. Those who own Regen tokens have a say in the ecosystem standards on the Regen Registry, so essentially they have a say in what is a valuable ecosystem credit. I hope this makes sense – I’m definitely not an expert in this by any means, so we’re all learning here together. It is very early days still, but the technology does has the potential to enable a much larger and more diverse community of people to have a voice in the decision making of what counts as valuable ecosystem work or what is worthy of carbon credits. Revathi Kollegala, Executive Director at the Regen Foundation told us more:
Revathi Kollegala: I think what the opportunity here is with Regen Network is the ledger, in its own way is meant to represent global ecological health stewarded by global community so that’s true. That means at any point the ledger itself, because of all the data and the technology behind it and everything else that you’ve put into it, the goal is to make sure that it can meaningfully, impactfully, and as accurately as possible, reflect ecological health. Exactly what that means is going to be decided by the community, and because of blockchain the community may not know each other and that is perfectly ok. And in this context one of the things that’s said, Regen Network aside, is the fact that 30% of the tokens are set aside to explicitly include underrepresented stakeholders, and that includes the land stewards and land-based communities. That’s similar to owning 30% of shares of a company say, where any decision made, you can in some ways make sure that the decision does not happen without the voice of the land stewards and other stakeholders.
Abby: As Revathi said, as part of their commitment to this diversity of voices, the Regen Network have mandated that 30% of their tokens will be owned by land stewards around the world, and are being distributed through a grant program via the Regen Foundation.
We also spoke with Rebecca Harman, Partnerships and Community Fund Manager at Regen Network. Owning a Regen Token not only holds governance rights, and potential economic value like a share, but as there is no financial instituion involved in blockchain transactions, your Regen Tokens can also earn you money, because they can be used to help verify all the transactions on the ledger, this is what staking is (as far as I understand), which is something Rebecca refers to.
Rebecca Harman: Our community fund has gifted a lot of different projects throughout the world with funding and also tokens, so there’s a great project, called Colsham Carbon trust and they’re doing some really great biochar work, and these smaller farming organizations, and they were given tokens, and those tokens will, if they decide to stake them and participate in blockchain in that way, then they will earn a percentage off of those, and they can do whatever they want with those tokens, they can cash them out, they can trade them, they can do whatever they wish. The goal here is to enable another income source for these farming communities, and have that income source be not a function of their farming but just something that they deserve to be able to participate in. We see that as a digital divide that we want to bridge, and that’s definitely a lot of our work is asking: how do we draw land stewards, how do we draw producers – into this strange crypto world, and break down language barriers, and build trust, and create safe spaces to interact and communicate around this. So it’s very much about capacity, but we see it as a huge potential if we can identify those bridges to get them involved.
Revathi Kollegala: A lot of communities here that we’re also talking of are indigenous communities, who care about the land they live on, and the conservation areas, and so on and so forth. So the fact that they are gatekeepers and just the protectors of these land and these forests, is something that they feel, and I agree, that the society must reward them. Which right now takes a long time to do, because a big barrier is is the scientific rigour it takes to have something be recognized as a credit. A lot of what exists right now are these big intimidating, long, rigorous, sort of definition of what the credits are, published by the UN, and so on and so forth, and it makes it slightly out of reach. This is a way in which we want to get closer accessible. And the way blockchain enables it is, we also have a community decision-making process for deciding on what these credits will be, and how to put them on the chain. How to agree that we’re going to say this is a valid methodology, right? And I think that puts a lot of power back into the farmers and the lands to attend.
Abby: Microsoft purchased carbon credits for the ecosystem services on the 10,000 Hectare Wilmot Cattle Company ranch in Australia, and this was brokered by the Regen Network’s system. And if you want to understand what some of the transparency looks like – you can go to their website and see all the monitoring, all the transactions and agreements, that have gone on in rewarding those credits, and I was glad to see that while soil organic carbon forms a large part of the credit, they also have biodiversity monitoring and animal welfare monitoring woven into it.
Of course the world of cryptocurrencies is extremely young, unpredicatble and making the rich richer in most cases at this moment in this time, so I definitely don’t want to oversell it and overpromise it as something diverse and creating value for the many at the moment. However the Regen Network gives me some hope that we shouldn’t ignore this as potentially being part of the toolkit for building a more regenerative future.
Rebecca Harman: The crypto frenzy is real. The hype is real. It’s a wave and like all waves it will level out, and we’re playing a long game, and we know that there’s digital techno time which moves at the speed of light and then there’s land time, and land time and the time it takes to create new topsoil and to generate change on a landscape, is is not at the same rate, so I think that the question of why to get involved is – it is a huge potential opportunity to change power dynamics, change economic dynamics, and point toward more of a livelihood margin for farmers. I think the distinction is that there’s the whole crypto space which is loud and noisy, and within that there’s more of a regenerative crypto space that feels in my estimation authentic, and they are in it because they care, they’re not in it to make a quick buck off everyone. So I think it’s It’s good to differentiate between the whole space and then the corner of that space where we have really good dialogue about how all of this should be done, and why should farmers participate when there’s not hardly any time to be online anyways, and a part of those conversations we would invite anyone in the audience to come and join us on, and be a part of and share your your thoughts and your input. But I do think that as loud as the crypto space can be, it’s worthy of exploring the regenerative crypto lane.
Revathi Kollegala: Just the other day I was talking to this leader of an indigenous community. And they they work with one of our partner organizations on the ground, and they’re really frustrated, they’re based in the Amazon, and they’re really frustrated with the whole system of carbon credits, because they have seen their land being bought for carbon offsets. But the company that bought the offsets is is a mining company and still had operations running in a different area where a lot of the native forest was lost because of their activities, and these are more than forest to them, this is who they connect with and so on. So it’s very heartbreaking for them and that made them lose faith in the carbon market. They approached us asking how this can change and how the blockchain ecosystem can help. This is the vision and these are the kinds of cases that makes us hold on to working on the project and why we are as passionate about it as we are – there is the possibility like I said of defining the kind of credit where it goes beyond carbon. It looks at biodiversity, it looks at soil health, it looks at things that may really matter to you and there is the possibility to also potentially take a stance and say we do want to benefit from the carbon market, but we don’t want the credits that we sell to go to a buyer who’s going to use it for offsets for example and because this can be coded into the technology itself in a way you can specify how it’s verified how you can make sure that the buyer meets these conditions. It gives the community a kind of power here which I think is really lacking today with existing registry and definitions of the carbon market and credits and so on.
I think it’s empowerment, that’s where the hopeful future lies. There are huge parts of the crypto and blockchain that are speculative, and it’s filled with people who just want to know – how can we best trade so we can make money off of it? But there are genuine swathes of the bigger ecosystem that are in it, because of the potential of using technology for true impact where you can bring people together across the globe regardless of different boundaries and so on, and regardless of the level of digital literacy they have, and still make sure that they have the power to make decisions, and steer the global ecosystem in terms of ecological health, the way that they would like to, and so that indigenous community leader – the hope is that the blockchain ecosystem is one that empowers people like them.]
[01:08:56] Jo Barratt: This episode of Farmerama was made by me, Abby Rose, Jo Barratt and Olivia Oldham. A big thanks to the rest of the farmerama team Katie Revell, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Dora Taylor. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt