Guy's news: farming in the snow

The ground is hard as iron, the cabbage leaves as stiff as boards under the snow and the ice on our reservoirs thick enough for a light skater. At least the mud is frozen, making it easy to get about the fields; more than can be said for the roads. I hope that your orders have arrived more or less as expected over the last three weeks and, if not, that we have at least communicated satisfactorily with you. With people struggling to get to work we have often not had enough people to man the phones, let alone pick the veg.

The ground is hard as iron, the cabbage leaves as stiff as boards under the snow and the ice on our reservoirs thick enough for a light skater. At least the mud is frozen, making it easy to get about the fields; more than can be said for the roads. I hope that your orders have arrived more or less as expected over the last three weeks and, if not, that we have at least communicated satisfactorily with you. With people struggling to get to work we have often not had enough people to man the phones, let alone pick the veg. It’s pretty when the sun is out and my boys are loving it, but what started as a valiant struggle is descending into a trying fiasco.

Most days have seen a mini thaw in the afternoon when we rush out and pick what we can for the next day while the leaves are pliable enough to handle without shattering. The daily grab is then stashed in the banana room (kept at a steady 14C) overnight to thaw out ready for packing the next day. I hope it is holding up when it gets to you; it is always a bit unpredictable how things will last after such enforced thawing.

As I write I have no idea what will be in next week’s boxes but I suspect there will be plenty of roots from our stores, limited greenery from the fields and a lot of last minute substitutions according to what we can get out of the ground on the day. The last un harvested carrots will certainly be ruined but most crops survive this sort of dry cold far better than when frost gets in to waterlogged plants so I am confident that our losses will be small when things finally thaw out.

Last week saw the annual Oxford farming conference grabbing the headlines as never before. Just two years ago, with commodity prices on the floor and share prices on the ceiling, our government could not see much importance for agriculture and this bunch of tweed clad, conservative voting dinosaurs; “rich countries like us will always be able to buy our food (normally more cheaply) on the open market”.

This year Hillary Benn (secretary of state for the environment) chose the conference to unveil a raft of initiatives addressing food security while the reducing environmental impact of agriculture and connecting us with how our food is produced. It all sounds great if a little too overtly vote-grabbing in places; the problem lies in his suggestion that these changes would be led by pressure from informed consumers. One might ask where that information will come from when even the experts in his own department are unsure about how to measure a carbon footprint or balance the importance to water footprints with carbon footprints or all the other factors (Professor Lang thinks we should measure 18) that might make one food better for the world than another.

In 2008, for a period, we worked out the weekly carbon footprint of each veg box with Exeter University and printed it on the newsletter and website. We explained the tortuous calculations on a dedicated website in the absurdly naive assumption that caring consumers would choose a lower carbon box and hence incentivise us to be a lower carbon business.

Two million vegetable boxes later I have yet to hear from a customer who fully understood what we were up to and changed their buying as a result. Many respected the effort we had made (and the exercise did teach us a lot and helped us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce our carbon foot print so it was not wasted) but at the end of the day the process is too ambiguous and complex to practically guide consumer choice. I am convinced that carbon labelling as the tool that will enable consumers to exert pressure for lower carbon products is a waste of time; it is just too complex and hence open to abuse. We need leadership from our government not continued and irresponsible abdication of responsibility to market forces. When will we grow out of our simplistic faith in market forces to resolve complex social and environement problems? The cynic in me suspects that big business’s enthusiasm for carbon labelling and carbon trading is just a delaying tactic to deflect attention from the need effective legislation. What value is consumer choice when even an experts cannot decide what a good choice is? Must we go to hell in a hand cart in the name of market forces or will our governments show some leadership.

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