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Finding meaning in the hard work of farming and growing: What will drive the next generation?

My husband Nathan and I run a small-scale organic farm in West Wales that specialises in edible horticulture and we are currently looking for an assistant grower. Having lost our last assistant grower after about a year and half of employment, we have been posting the job description pretty much anywhere we can for more than three months now. We had two good applications that went nowhere and a few conversations with less experienced people who didn’t really want a full-time job. In the interim, we have taken on a temporary assistant grower finishing up a postgraduate degree in Sustainable Food and Natural Resources – that’s a road that likely doesn’t lead to the field. And we don’t seem to be the only ones struggling to hire…

There’s been a lot of talk post-Brexit about where farm labour is going to come from. We all know the story – the average age of farmers is around 60 and while there are young people interested in farming and growing, especially on the organic and regenerative end of it, it’s not something that’s seen as either lucrative or easy. And the rush of interest in farming and growing that brought in many young first-generation farmers in the last decade is waning, I fear. The seminal 2014 New York Times piece, Don’t let your children grow-up to be farmers argued for the futility of the endeavour in the face of well-heeled ‘non-profit’ farms sucking up grants, ‘hobby farmers’ taking space in local farmers’ markets and the brutality of carrying heavy student loans while breaking your back in the field. While this is an American context, it is still not so very far from the reality in Britain – that economic playing field is still very uneven.

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Who eats local food?

The question of who eats local food is a tricky one to pin down.

There is first the question of what constitutes ‘local food’ – if you’re a farmer raising grass-fed beef or lamb in Wales that you then sell across country, most people would say that’s local enough; but what if you sold across the UK? How about the local jam producer that sells locally at farmers’ markets in their region but buys in fruit from Spain to make the jam? It’s something of a conundrum. You’ll also find that distance is yet another variable – many would agree that ‘local’ in the UK is within 50 miles, but in a big country like the US, food 500 miles away can also be ‘local’. So, it’s complicated and to a certain extent, how we define it may be idiosyncratic and particular to how each individual feels about the food they are eating.

‘Local food’ also suffers from an image problem – it’s assumed to be niche, more expensive and the purview of the upper middle-classes. A number of years ago, food critic Jay Rayner had a notable go at farmers’ markets, touting them as selling ‘over-priced fare’ as a ‘status symbol’, angering Welsh food producers. But ‘local food’ isn’t what many people posit it is – I know, because I’m a local food producer. While my evidence is inevitably anecdotal, I know we feed a diverse range of people. We run a box scheme serving well over 100 households and also do a weekly producer’s market in Newport, Pembrokeshire. The people who buy from us are anything but uniform in terms of their demographic make-up – I say this because we know a lot of our customers…

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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