#83: A Jewish grassroots collective, mentoring & native wild plants

#83: A Jewish grassroots collective, mentoring & native wild plants 150 150 Farmerama Radio

This month, we begin by learning about Miknaf Ha’aretz, a grassroots collective dedicated to building an earth-based, radical-diasporic Jewish community in the UK. Through running retreats, youth camps, courses and more, the collective is acting through a belief that connection with the land is vital to Jewish healing, joy and liberation.

Next, we hear from Clementine, who has been involved in a farmer-led programme run by Pasture for Life – ‘Pasture and Profit in Protected Landscapes’. The programme involves a mentoring scheme for farmers who are interested in nature-friendly or regenerative farming. Clementine tells us about her learning experience through this mentoring scheme, and her plans to start a micro-dairy. 

Finally, we catch up with botanist Lief Bersweden, who teaches us about some overlooked plants in the UK, and we learn about his research into bring more wild plant varieties to UK farms. Lief is keen to speak to UK farmers willing to talk about what they’re doing to support wild plants growing on their land – if you would like to help him with his research, you can reach out to him via his website.

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, you can visit patreon.com/farmerama.

This episode of Farmerama was made by Jo Barratt, Abby Rose, and Katie Revell, A big thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team Dora Taylor, Olivia Oldham, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Lucy Fisher. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt

Full Episode Transcript

Jo: Hello and welcome to Farmerama where in the Northern Hemisphere we have just observed the Summer Solstice, for the eighth time as Farmerama.
Abby Rose: First up this month we meet two people who are building a community group to celebrate an earth-based connection between their religion and the land. We learn about the success of a mentoring programme for farmers. And we end with a request from a Botanist!
Jo: Miknaf Ha’aretz is a grassroots collective dedicated to building an earth-based, radical-diasporic Jewish community in the UK. They’re doing that through retreats, courses, youth camps – and lots of other things, too.
It’s founded on the belief that connection with the land, and time spent on the land, is vital to Jewish healing, joy and liberation – and for all of our collective liberation.
We spoke to Samson Hart and Sara Moon who begins here by telling us about the collective’s name…
Sara Moon: it literally means edge or wing of the earth, and it’s a collective that we set up in the last couple of years to foster deeper sense of connection to the land amongst the Jewish community in the UK, and in particular to really build relationship and identity and cultivate belonging on the islans where we are, which happens to be the UK, it could be wherever you are as an alternative to nationalism and you know, building a homeland somewhere else. But to really affirm belonging where we are on. And to, you know, reconnect to these like amazing rituals in the Jewish tradition, which you know, have been made portable over the years through displacement and dispossession from lands, but still have this like deep core of earth-based ritual at their heart.
Samson Hart: So gathering Jewish people who are called across those, I guess, specific pieces around diasporas, wanting to be in relationship with the land that we’re on and be in deep connection with the lands spiritually here, and hold Jewishness and love for these lands in one place, usually around a particular festival. And the festivals are full of beautiful opportunity to connect in with agricultural moments and the seasons. We began just as a zine project, we gathered around the festival of Shavuot, the first fruits harvest in May, June, and we gathered during lockdown, we couldn’t do that in person, so we invited a conversation of poetry and writing and artwork around radical and land-based Jewish identity here.
And over the years we’ve been doing retreats. I think this year is the first year we’re doing a lot maybe, and we’re planning to do another zine, but also we’re doing this kind of online series around diasporas. So kind of asking like what that word really means and also how that’s kind of transitioned over time, and how it might offer a different way of relating to the lands that we’re on. And also to help build kind of Jewish relationship with land across different diasporic experiences as well. 
Sara Moon: A well as connecting Jewish community, you know, back to the land, especially amongst people who might feel disconnected or in urban areas. We’re also wanting to support and connect those in the Jewish community who might be growing already, who might be farming, who might be on the land. Who don’t necessarily bring that aspect of themselves to their work or who might not be aware or might not be bringing some of the particular Jewish wisdoms and customs around food and food growing.
You know, in a big part of our inquiry over the last couple of years has been exploring – is there a Jewish land justice? What could that be? You know, and a big part of that is this idea of shmita, which is the one in every seven years sabbatical for the land and the people that was, you know, born out of the ancient Jewish farm and culture and offers so much wisdom and insight into a Jewish food and land justice, which incorporates and integrates all the elements of social, ecological, economic, environmental justice, and knows that you can’t separate them out. It’s not something I grew up learning about in my Jewish school, but actually it’s a big piece of my Jewish identity as I tend land, as I grow food and we want to share some of those wisdoms, you know, with people in the wider food and farming movement, and particularly in the Food and Land Justice movement.

Katie: Did your interest in land and food production come first, or did you get into that out of an interest in what your Jewish identity means to you? 
Samson Hart: I guess I’ve been asking questions about belonging for a long time. I was raised with a food culture and hospitality, but it was very detached from the land. I grew up in quite an urban setting. It was like suburban setting and there wasn’t that connection to the land and in the Jewish settings that I was in, it was definitely not present. But I did feel a sense of connection to nature and eventually, through some other route, came to the land. And actually being in relationship with these lands pushed me into questioning about my own ancestral traditions and my own ancestral stories and what it might mean to belong, I guess. Because I, I started feeling a sense of connection and belonging through being in relationship with Earth.

I was deeply longing for ways of feeling like I belong here. And so actually going back to my own Judaism kind of, I guess fulfilled this sense of belonging where I am, but also having ancestral stories and practices that can also hold me in that. And so, I think initially it came separately, like the connection to land came and then the question around like, how did my Judaism fit here?

But then actually since then, maybe like seven years ago, that those two things have been kind of hand in hand. But I suppose what’s also important is that, A whole part of that journey was that, you know, I was raised with quite like a political conservatism and political Zionism, and that was the story of Jewish identity and liberation or a large part of it. And so there was a whole journey of rejecting that, becoming politicized, becoming aware of internationalist struggles and what was happening in Palestine, going to Palestine and meeting an alive, land-based culture there, that was so beautiful and also full of immense struggle. And so I almost rejected my Judaism with that and it was a confused time. And then I guess being back here now, I want my Judaism to be part of my life and I wanted to be something else to that part that had maybe been centralized. So then I became interested in how all of these things like justice in an internationalist sense, diaspora, belonging, wherever we are. And also having like a deep Jewish spirituality that is alive and, and can bring a sense of belonging and purpose and meaning in these lands kind of came together. But there is and was a bit of weaving of them all together.  
Sara Moon: Again the first thing that came to mind was actually when I was very little, I would read the Dick King Smith books, Sophie’s Farm, Sophie’s Snail. I was obsessed with these books and my first thing that I wanted to do when I grew up was to be a lady farmer, which had nothing to do with Judaism at all. It was this maybe very English sense of I just knew that I needed to get up at dawn and wear wellies and be feeding, feeding animals, but there was none of that in my life growing up, I also grew up in the suburbs. We did actually spend some holidays staying at bed and breakfast on farms, which I really, really loved, but it never felt sort of like a real part of my life. It wasn’t until I spent time in Israel when I was 16, I did a month long trip where we spent a significant bit of time on the kibbutz and it was the first time that I’d been on the land and was picking peppers and I totally fell in love and wanted to do that all day every day. So yeah, a lot of my formative experiences with land and learning about land work, food, growing, tending land was, you know, caught up in the, you know, Zionist education and trips that I was part of with my youth movement as a teenager and a young person, and then as a student when I was at university and wanting to learn more about the Palestinian experience and spending a lot of time in my summers in the West Bank supporting farmers who were trying to tend their land facing military occupation. And a similar story to Samson really in that, that was very, disruptive and painful for a sense of Jewish identity when it came to the land. Cuz the examples that I was seeing of like Jewish sense of belonging to land felt oppressive and very militarized and based on settler colonialism and nationalism.

And there was so much that did feel healing and sort of important and necessary for my Jewish self that had been so flung from land and so severed from connection to growing food and connecting to land. But of course at the same time it was like this is just not OK. And that was what brought me to Adamah, the Jewish Food and Farming Fellowship in the States, which was after a long about of time in Palestine when I was there for about seven months in 2014 -15. I knew that I had to heal this connection to land as part of my like Jewish journey and Jewish perspective. And thankfully something like Adamah existed and really helped to tend the possibilities of Jewish connection to land that was really, you know, fiercely diasporic and liberatory and anti-oppressive. From there it’s been about bringing that work to the UK and just really insisting on a Jewish identity that can be really connected to land. That’s about everybody getting to access it and everybody getting to belong where we are and to affirm connection to where we are. You know, I love the UK and the landscapes here and sometimes growing up maybe it would seem a bit of a backdrop and there’s something very important about grounding specifically where we are as a way of tending trauma and just cultivating joy and belonging.
Samson Hart: I think the experience of doing the work that we’re doing is really about healing and it’s about healing relationship to land, a relationship across wild and multifaceted cross diasporic communities that that make up the peoples of these lands. And we want to be building those solidarities and supporting marginalized people who aren’t able to access land. And we just are so excited to bring our thread of that to the movement to articulate our own Jewishness and to do that is quite like a vulnerable thing to other ourselves in a public way. But it also feels like an act of solidarity to say we’re here and we have a culture and a history that we want to bring to this story of imagining food and farming that’s just, and a relationship to land that’s just, and not just just, but healing and beautiful. We continually are surprised to meet people who haven’t heard of us, but feel really seen in their Jewishness for the first time. We would love anyone who feels kind of moved if you’re Jewish or otherwise, you know, by what we’re trying to articulate and build to get in touch. And we’re so excited to connect with as many people as possible!
Abby Rose: Pasture and Profit in Protected Landscapes is a free, farmer-led programme of farm walks, events and webinars run by Pasture for Life. As part of the programme participating farmers interested in nature friendly or regenerative farming practices can apply to be mentored for up to a year by a friendly farmer who understands the challenges and can support them as they shift to new practices. The Programme started with protected landscapes in the South East of England but it has been such a success that it has now been extended to 5 National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty further North.
Clementine just started her small farm in Essex. This is her first time farming for herself so we caught up with her to learn how she has found the programme so far.
Clementine: In the years that we spent setting up the house, I started to fall for the land and take an interest in it in a way that I wasn’t expecting. And one of the things that brought me to that connection was Deborah, who is running the programme – The Pasture for Life programme. And she came here to teach me about natural dyes. And on that walk where we walked around my farm and looked at the hedgerows and what was growing in the field, she picked all sorts of things that we brought back to the house, cooked up and used as dyes for for wool. And that was the first time really I understood that the landscape that I was living in wasn’t just something to look at and appreciate, but something to connect to on a deeper level and how to look after that land. And so I became interested in how to bring this farm back to life, and what it would mean for the place.
I became interested in regenerative agriculture, which seemed to me like and still does the most exciting thing I’d ever heard of, and brought me into all sorts of worlds. And I kept having to reign myself back and think about this place, but my first thing was to go and work at a biodynamic farm called Tablehurst. And there I learned about, cows and then fell for cows. So when Deborah told me about Pasture for Life, I was really excited to join the mentorship program. Because what I’d like to do for this land is bring it back to life, restore it, and give it life through grazing really. So when I was set up with my mentor, that was gonna be my main objective. But I’m learning a lot more than that through him. I spoke to Dan first on the phone. Dan runs two organic, mainstream organic dairies. I think they have 500 cows between those two farms and so I was nervous to talk to Dan because, one I don’t yet even have the cows. My own cows are arriving on Wednesday. So at that stage in November, there were definitely no cows. And  I thought, what can I ask Dan? Why would he give me his time? But he did, and he gave me some very good advice that I’m still leaning on and he’s also visited the farm and talked me through like the tiniest details from where to store the hay or whether the milking station that I’ve set up is in the right place or, all sorts of things. Like one of the things he told me is always carry a spade and get to know your soils and the biodiversity on your farm now, because in 5, 10 years time when you’re telling the story of your farm, you can look back on those days and what you noticed then. And the other thing he said to me was that the small scale that I’m at is very complex or can be very complex and, that’s something I’m learning as I go.

It was just really good to hear that, that was understood by someone like him. So he never kind of patronized me even, or even made me feel like I wasn’t, you know, I hadn’t even started yet, really. And his other great advice was that enjoyment is the key. So not just to choose the enterprises that you enjoy, but also the way that you are milking. Are you gonna play music or what time are you gonna be milking? You know, which fields do you want to see the cows? All sorts of things that I do now think about in terms of like my own pleasure as well as getting it right. So he’s been an amazing person to call up. And recently when I did choose the cows that are coming, he said, just send me a video when you meet them cuz then I can see whether they look about right. And sure enough he said they did. So I felt confident. You know, it’s just like, it’s that sense of confidence along the way that as a first time farmer, I really need.
It’s funny, like looking back on notes from a year ago, how many things I thought I would try out, you know, everything, just like do everything. And I find for regenerative agriculture, there are so many different practices and so many ways about things, and it’s incredibly exciting and then deeply overwhelming and daunting. So when I look back at a year ago, I was like, this is all gonna happen now. And today I’m feeling like, okay. Two cows and a calf are arriving on Wednesday, and that is enough for now because what that means, just those cows means a huge amount in itself. And I think that’s what I’m learning. It’s not just about how many enterprises or how big the business plan is, but, but how you pay attention to even the very core of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and to keep that in mind. And so I think with the PFL setting that context of how to look after the fields here and the hedgerows, and to make that the main goal and to do it, to align myself with an organization that, that cares so deeply about it. Means that I hope I will be guided along those lines for the next few years or the next decade, or whatever it might be. 
Lots of people say to me, is this a commercial enterprise? Is this a business or is this a lifestyle decision? And I’ve always felt I’ve had to answer one or the other. And what did he think? And his response was, why? Why in the world can’t it be both? That was really nice to hear because I feel like it can be both. I definitely need this farm to be a business. It will be at its core of micro dairy, a hundred percent pasture, I hope, micro dairy. And alongside that will be other enterprises. So we’ve already set up a market garden here. And, we have pigs and chickens, and all of these will hopefully be a closed loop that will feed into the business, as a box scheme. But alongside that, I live here in the middle of this farm with my family, and we have to love it and it has to feed us and in our hearts and everything else. So I think. It’s both 100%. Can’t be one without the other.


Lief (rhymes with Safe) Bersweden grew up running around fields and woods looking for wild plants everywhere he could. It’s a passion that continues today. He’s written 2 aclaimed books, has just completed a PHD at Kew Gardens and he’s running training courses for The Species Recovery Trust. For his latest project he’s keen to meet up with farmers across the UK.
Lief: I’m a botanist and basically spend my entire life trying to convince as many people as possible that our wild plants are awesome and completely worth our time and attention. I think in society, we have this mindset that plants are boring. We are taught that plants are boring as we grow up, but my experience does not tell you that at all. They’re so interesting, they’re so fascinating. And I think this mindset in society, this ‘plants are boring’ thing just acts as this barrier to us learning about all the incredible things that they do and all the amazing stories that they have to tell. 
Jo: We asked Lief to tell us about a plant that we might find on farms in the UK that is maybe overlooked…
Lief: Okay, I’ve got one. So this is a plant that grows in ponds, which obviously once upon a time were a very, very common part of farms. It’s called a greater bladder wort. And it’s one of our native carnivorous species. So it is literally a plant that eats animals, which in itself is just mad. It’s a floating plant. It floats in the ponds. It’s like got this 15 centimeters tall red stem with a yellow flower on it that sticks out the top of the water. Beneath the surface you’ve got these big feather boa leaves, very feathery, and it doesn’t have any roots, so it’s not roots in the ground. And so the wind can blow this plant around the pond. It’s kind of like a botanical jellyfish, so it just moves around, hoovering up all these little insects in the water, but the way it does that is just completely mad. So within those leaves, they have these little kind of pea-sized, bladders, which you call bladder traps. And basically they pump out everything within these traps. So any water, any silt, any bits of insects, any air, the whole thing goes. And so it creates this little vacuum within the trap. And it’s kind of like a lidded pot, and it’s got two little hairs at the entrance. So a little aquatic insect, let’s say water beetle is wandering this beautiful leaf. It’s a very sunny day. It’s having a lovely time. All these what look like air bubbles around it, but actually these, these traps. And this beetle will nudge two of those hairs outside one of the traps, at which point, the trap will open, that vacuum needs to be filled so the water rushes in, taking that insect with it. And so within, it’s literally within a thousandth of a second, this all happens. And the trap snaps shut. It’s the fastest known movement in the plant kingdom. You watch videos of it and it’s, even if you don’t blink, you still miss it. It’s so quick. So the beetle has no idea what’s going on. But once it’s in the trap, the trap is lined with bacteria in the same way that our own intestines are, and those bacteria start breaking down all the soft, fleshy, juicy parts of the beetle into this beetle soup, which are then absorbed through the walls of the trap, uses those nutrients to grow, and within half an hour, it’s pumped everything out again and reset itself. People are wandering around thinking that plants are boring and they don’t know about bladder worts. And it breaks my heart. And it’s something I really want to change.
I grew up just outside of Salisbury and Wilshire and there’s a lot of arable farming going on around there. And I spent a lot of time wandering up and down the field margins, looking at the unusual arable plants that cultivation will grow on the edges of these fields. Particularly ones that like the chalky soil but one of my most memorable encounters from doing that is finding a very common species called Scarlet Pimpernel. It’s got five red pedals, very low growing. It’s one of these species that, can respond to changes in atmospheric pressure to light levels, to temperature. And so I was sat, just eating my lunch, on this field margin, looking at these plants. And I suddenly noticed, that these flowers were closing up. And I thought that’s kind of weird, but within 10 minutes it had started to rain.

And then I remember going back and learning about this, that these plants basically detect the changes in light levels and temperature just before it rains. And they close their flowers to protect all their pollen and stuff in the middle I just remember sitting in there watching this thing happen in front of my eyes and just being I can’t believe, like we go through life thinking plants are boring, but they do things all the time. They’re living creatures. They’re doing all the same things that animals are doing, just not at the same pace unless you’re a greater bladder wort. It’s just, I’m so aware of the fact that they’re so fascinating and they have all these amazing ways of living their lives while being rooted to the spot and actually just experiencing a plant, just doing its thing, just quietly, you know, not wanting any attention or anything like that, but just doing its thing, was a really, really special encounter to learning about that plant. Most of the grassy fields that we see in the country are pasture, you know, dairy farms and cattle and all sorts of different livestock. What I notice when I’m perhaps walking across one of those fields is that there are very few species. It’s largely things like perennial rye grass or a couple of grass species. I could maybe count the number of different plant species on my fingers. What I would love to see is more fields that are far more species rich. And you know, that provides so much more. I think personally, you know having that broad diet is such an important thing for the health for us, for health of animals. So I would love to see species rich grasslands being grazed. Things like, you know, butter cups and sanfoin and various vetches and peas and things, that would sort of get things going and then, over time, other species would come in as the fertility in the ground drops, which for wild plants is a good thing. Cause it sort of levels the playing field and make sure that no one species can dominate. Then you’d start getting other things arriving and each of those different species would bring something else. Some other benefit to the land and the livestock. 
In front of us now we’ve got this like big field of butter cups and it’s yellow. It’s amazing. And I think, yeah, the beauty of wildflowers is the most obvious thing about them, when they’re growing on mass like that. It really is something special and it kind of reminds you of what the land would’ve looked like, well, certain bits of the land would’ve looked like at one point in our past. Particularly just before the Second World War. Or before the wars. When there were a lot more hay meadows and things around where farmers were using them, you know, to graze livestock and they would actually, you know, leave it to grow during the spring and summer and then cut that, for hay, over the winter for their livestock. And so yeah, you’d get fields just full of wildflowers during the spring and summer. Amazing to look at. Amazing for nature, amazing for the plants themselves. Delicious for the livestock over the winter. Cause obviously they’ve got loads of different species. All of the health benefits of having a broad diet is very well documented. So like, it wouldn’t have been, you know 8,000 years ago. There would’ve been small pockets of grassland, but obviously there was a lot more woodland back then. I’m talking pre-Second World War when a lot of those were plowed up and converted to intensive agriculture. So it’s nice to see fields that are still used and managed in that way, in that more traditional way. 
I’m currently writing a book that looks at the way we use our land here in the UK. And basically looking at the ways that we can bring plants back into these places. Cause as a botanist, it seems just unbelievably obvious to me that if we just look after our wild plants, then everything else will be absolutely fine. You know, look after the building blocks of the ecosystem and the stuff that feeds on the plants will be fine and the stuff that feeds on those will be fine. And it just feels like it’s really sort of sustainable way of looking after nature. And obviously so much of our land is farmland. I think it’s like 70% of the UK is farmland. So yeah, I’ve been trying to find farmers who are willing to talk to me about what they might already be doing to look after the wild plants, growing on their land 
Jo: Would you be interested in helping Lief with his research? If so he’s keen to speak to you. 
Lief: So www.leifbersweden.com – there is a contact bit on the website. So yeah, that’ll send an email to me. 
Jo: 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, you can visit patreon.com/farmerama.
This episode of Farmerama was made by me, Jo Barratt, Abby Rose, and Katie Revell, A big thanks to the rest of the farmerama team Dora Taylor, Olivia Oldham, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Lucy Fisher. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt