Pressure and Resilience

Fergus Walker
1st December, 2017

Rob Davidson, Common Good Food board member and director of the Cyrenians Farm Community in West Lothian, writes his take on food and farming resilience. You can find the original article here.

Beyond my work with Cyrenians I’m allowed to tinker with other elements of local food and food sovereignty. I mentor for a few market gardeners and I’m a trustee for another organisation called Common Good Food. Next week CGF are hosting a speaker, Lewis Williams, from the Alliance for Intergenerational Resilience. The aim of the event is to investigate and discuss who are Scotland’s indigenous elders and are there things that they can teach us about resilience? Things which are important in the context of food production and the future of farming. Would a return to old farming ways benefit younger generations and build resilience into the local food movement? Everything I’ve read by Ms Williams and others on these subjects is rather academic and challenging and so has caused me to think about it a lot. The subject bears a lot of relevance to Cyrenians Farm. With some exceptions (me being one) the people who live, work and volunteer here have faced incredible pressures in life and have had to become more resilient or are learning to be stoutly resilient. Our farm gives them a space where they can do that. So in this article I’m going to try and arrange these thoughts and align my vocation with the academics.

As a man from a family where every man for umpteen generations was an agricultural labourer, I have realised that growing food is very much part of who I am, indeed it is my vocation. Doubtlessly if I were to find a time machine and travel back to meet some of my ancestors I’d learn a thing or two about the old ways of farming and possibly learn something useful to use in a modern context. From the not so distant past the following photo shows my grandad, around 1964, ploughing with horses.

It’s been a long time since he passed away but I still remember him talking fondly of his life with horses and the very secret ‘ploughmans word’ that he, purportedly, would use to magically calm his horses down. He also talked about how hard that work was. Getting up early to look after the horses and yoke them up before breakfast, having a quick oat based meal and then out to the fields for a grueling 12 hour shift. He was glad to see mechanization on farms and the relief that labour saving devices brought to his work place. A thought I can recall my own dad reinforcing when any hippy type on telly talked about the benefits of the old farm working ways. We must be careful not to view the old ways with rosy tinted spectacles, it wisnae easy work. Sadly though, that mechanization brought a desocialisation of farms. The work load got lighter so less farm jobs were available and families moved elsewhere to pursue different vocations. Less children were living on farms and now we’re in a position where many farms are worked by aging isolated individuals with nobody to pass the well worked soil or pedigree herd on to. Such farms are often bought and assimilated by faceless conglomerates and cooperatives or even left to go to pot.

So with mechanisation and chemical farming the work got much easier but the social aspects was diminished. I know from my own parents that harvest times, when they were wee, would be a case of all hands on deck. A gaggle of bairns and frazzled adults doing their best to get the grain in stores and the straw stooked and stacked while the sun shone. I believe it was a very rewarding experience for all and very much a cause of celebration when the work was done. This collective effort, ownership of the harvest and celebration must have been held by a strong and resilient community where the pressures of life were shared and the bounty enjoyed. I once, very much mistakenly, described my dad’s life in this environment as one of abject poverty. He was quick to let me know, in no uncertain terms, that this was not the case. It’s true that they may have not had a *lot* of money but they had great food, good health, they lived in beautiful places and they lived in strong communities. Starting to see any parallels with Cyrenians Farm yet?

I’m still, after 13 years associated with this place, surprised by the draw it has on people. Whether that’s staff, volunteers, corporate groups, international politicians, school groups or customers. Perhaps it is the disconnect that modern life has created between them and that hazy picture of the harvest that I’ve just described that pulls them in as they long for a taste of simpler times. Perhaps it’s the pressures of our newly manufactured austerity that is forcing people out of their consumer bubbles to look for a new community and place to belong. All I know is that there is often a palpable sigh of relief from many as they pass through the farm gate. This can bring instant joy but it can also bring tears from those leading difficult lives when they find an opportunity to decompress and shake of the pressures of modern austerity. I wonder, even though old working ways are tough for a few, if we can share that work load out among a bigger group then would it become a viable way to build communities? Communities who produce their own food. This isn’t a brand new concept, we’ve done it here since 1972 and Our friends at Granton Community Gardeners are one of many other groups doing it already. They grow veg on any land they can get their hands on in their part of Edinburgh, they grow and thresh wheat to produce their own bread and share the spoils of their labour in regular community meals. It certainly makes me smile when I pass through Granton and see their wheat growing in wee plots across the road from Lidl! I smile even more when I know we can feature their rhubarb or Jerusalem artichokes (fartichokes) in our veg bags.

Intergenerational resilience? Perhaps that’s just a symptom of a strong community and the promotion of one will enhance the other. I dont think it should be a novel thing for older folk to spend time with younger folk.

All of what I have just written is at best philosophizing. But this much I know:

The farm is a great place where we have been teaching many people about food and reconnecting them with the land. Things are going well enough but we need to do more to ensure it’s sustainability and build more resilience in to our enterprise. We need to be growing more food, selling more produce to people across the whole of the spectrum of society, maximising the use of our land, cultivating more land and bringing more people in to our growing, extended community. I want to see big teams of people growing food in appropriate old ways but with so many involved the workload isn’t an issue any more. I want to have to build a bigger shed because the room where we dine together isn’t big enough any more. I want to see older folk sitting across the table from teenagers sharing food and thoughts on how to get the most flavour out of a potato. I want to be chastised by aging farmers because my ways are inefficient and they know how to do it better. I want to have kitchen table talks about how we can make Scotland proud of it’s food culture and heritage and I want it to start now. Of course, if you want to just come here to stare at a bonfire and take the edge of a bad week, that’s OK too.

If you’ve read this and want to get involved let us know. If you’re a gardener come and help us grow. If you’re a good listener come and sit with someone who has a story to tell. If you know how to build a rig and plant it up with crops come and show us how. If you’ve worked on farms and know the old ways come and share your ideas and knowledge. If you can sing a song or play a tune come and entertain us while we work. By doing these things I think we can play our part, as one enterprise among many, in making Scotland a good food nation. Watch this space for updates on our plans to make more opportunities, at all levels, on Cyrenians Farm. There’s a lot to do. If you cant commit to any of that, just buy a regular veg bag from us and taste the benefits of this community building.

PS: If you know of any ways, that dont involve money or mobile phones, of making weeding and digging an attractive prospect to teenagers –  let me know.