I often think that as someone who has been so closely engaged with farming and nature all of my life, I have a really good connection with food and I understand how important simple, honest food is in making this world a better place. However, a recent experience taught me that food is about so much more than enjoying great tastes and supplying healthy nutrients to nourish our bodies.
Last weekend I had the privilege of an invitation to the Real Food Gathering, organised by the British Holistic Medical Association (BHMA). The event took place on a very windy hillside, near Glastonbury and pulled together a diverse group of people involved in medicine, farming, food and nutrition. The holistic approach adopted by BHMA members is not simply about alternative medicine and natural therapies; for them being holistic is about how we understand the world and our place in it. But, before you dismiss this as some sort of hippy gathering in the Vale of Avalon, please take a moment to digest the following goal, set out by the BHMA on their website:
“We believe a flourishing and sustainable healthcare service needs to move away from an increasingly unsustainable overprescribe and fix model. As well as treating illness and disease, whole person medicine aims to create resilience and wellbeing. We are interested not just in the biochemistry and pathology of disease, but the routes to ill health and the lived body. We seek an approach to healthcare that considers diet, exercise, lifestyle choices, emotions and beliefs, experiences and relationships, family & community and the world around us”.
But, where does achieving this goal begin? Well, perhaps surprisingly, the answer put forward last weekend was that it begins with healthy soil and healthy food. Hence Free Range Dairy Network is now part of a coalition of parties brought together by the BHMA, under the banner of the ‘Real Food Campaign’. The objective of this collaboration is “to promote the life giving and overlapping areas of sustainable agriculture, lifestyle and diet” and to provide an opportunity “to tell a story about the healing power of relationships with the soil, with food and with one another”.
I heard a lot of fascinating presentations at the gathering last weekend, on all sorts of topics. But, the one thing that really struck me was the opportunity to promote a better understanding of the role that farmers and growers play (or could play) in our society. For too long farmers have been trapped in the mass production of commercial commodities, contracted to supply tonnes of perfectly sculpted vegetables to supermarkets, or millions of litres of pooled milk to big dairies. Global food fashion and consumption trends are fed by a homogenous food system that results from the industrialisation of farming and food production. This globalisation of farming and food overlooks needs on a local level, denying citizens the chance to enjoy all the benefits of real food and farmers the recognition and reward they deserve.
One of the speakers at the Real Food Gathering was Lawrence Woodward, from an organisation called Whole Health Agriculture . The organisation was set up to raise public awareness of the benefits of holistically produced food (food produced by those who prioritise the health of their land, animals and crops through natural, holistic means). In his presentation Lawrence used a term called ‘farming for a purpose’ and he described how organic producers farm for health; how organic and biodynamic farming are founded on a concept of health. This struck me as such an important message.
Let’s think about that for a moment. For what purpose do farmers farm? Is it for the purpose of promoting good health? Are they driven by reminders of a call to dig for victory and a purpose of feeding the nation? Do they simply farm for the purpose of making a living from the land they own? Or is it without any real sense of purpose and just a role they fell into by way or birth and a lack of any other aspiration? I believe that establishing a clear and positive sense purpose for which farmers farm, is key to empowering them to take back control and meet the needs of people on a local level. A sense of purpose can be very empowering and in a small way that is what Free Range Dairy is helping farmers to achieve. By encouraging consumers to consider the true value of the farming system that produces their milk, we create a sense of purpose amongst farmers that offers them an alternative vision to the mass production of cheap, commodity milk.
For me I would not confine the purpose of free range milk production to promoting health. Of course health is a valuable component, both in terms of human health and that of soils, plants and animals. However, I would like to think that free range milk production also has the purpose of community, along with connection and heritage and perhaps you might add others.
We are proud of the diversity and distribution of our Network, offering Pasture Promise free range milk on a local level, through doorstep delivery, local shops, cafes and direct from the farm gate. Communities are brought together and enriched by local food and are actively encouraged to participate in the preservation of local landscapes and traditions. The connection we are building between food citizens and the farms they buy their milk from can promote a greater sense of wellbeing and belonging. We know that people are uplifted by spending time closer to nature, interacting with animals and enjoying a carefree sense of freedom. Free Range Dairy farms can provide all of this, as well as great tasting milk that is one of the great joys of real food.
We often talk about the need to win recognition and reward for the traditional, pasture-based dairy farms we represent and the cows in their fields. I talked about the role that farmers play (or could play) in our society, earlier in this piece. The reason I say “could play” is that I believe farmers could offer so much more, if they were free from the chains of a food system so focussed on delivering food at the lowest possible price. Please help us, also, to instil a renewed sense of purpose amongst those dairy farmers and their cows, who are worn down by the relentless pressure to deliver more for less. Demand a more informed milk choice and together we can enjoy all the benefits of real food.
I will keep you posted on developments with the Real Food Campaign. In the meantime, you might like to be aware that Wednesday June 19th will be Real Food Day . Join us in celebrating all that real food and free range milk has to offer us and the world around us.