The real price of food

The price of food seems to increase with every passing year but when you take the chance to grow your own (or gather and forage) you’re soon up close with the reality of how much it really costs. Temperature, moisture, soil type, local conditions, seed quality and an endless, and ever changing, array of hit and miss variables that can make the whole thing as unpredictable as a teenage girl. If you had to depend on your efforts rather than enjoy the privilege of getting everything you could want from the supermarket, the fine line we walk would rise up so sharply it would cut you.

We took on an allotment earlier last year and so, on a snowy, blowy February day, we struck the sodden and overgrown ground with our forks and spades – our first effort to clear a patch neglected for some three years. Three years’ worth of brambles, thistles and grass to penetrate and remove; leaves, weeds and detritus from the previous holders added other layers to be stripped.

As you’d expect the work was back breaking and laborious but patch bay painful patch we chopped and shredded, dug and turned over and came ever close to a square stripped of vegetation, prepared for fresh plantings. Physical labour is tiring but you can at least see tangible results for every swing of the arms.

After 3 or 4 days digging we stood down and waited for the time when the season would complete its well-worn circle, waited for the late winter to give way to early spring. We waited days and then waited a few more weeks. Months passed. By June we had to come to the conclusion that the winter would never actually end – after the endless rain and cold of 2012 it looked as if we were again set to miss out on summer. A scenario that left us as chilled as the never ending north wind.

Regardless, we designed our planting plan, started our seeds on the windowsill (aubergine, courgettes, cucumber, chillies, butternut squash, beetroot, broad beans, runner beans, coriander, basil and verbena), and ventured to stick our spuds (pink fir apples) in the ground. They (those nameless and never named authorities quoted from unknown books and second-hand articles), warned against being too ambitious in your first year as an allotment owner but of course, we had no intention of listening to any of that talk. If there was a chance to grow food there’d be no merit in timidity.  And if there was to be scant summer there’d be no time to faff. The opportunity has to be taken. We were hungry for home-grown

When the seedlings sprouted we quickly put them in to the ground with a lot of care and an equal dose of hope. The days got longer and the temperature increased ever so slightly. Our broccoli was bitten by birds and the beans poked their heads through the dirt but all else seemed dormant in the enduring chill.  We wondered if it was going to happen for us. June came and went but just as we started to give in something remarkable happened; all at once we got slammed with a full blown, blue skied, dry and warm English summer.

There can be nothing like it; suddenly you’re allowed to leave the series of rooms, you’ve been forced to inhabit for months on end, out under a denim blue sky flecked by silver crystal wisps. The insects swarm and bumble and with them come the birds and their hopeful seasonal songs. You’re free to do what you want and all the limits that have clung in the dark seem to dissolve. Even the most jaded city cynic will warm to the possibilities of an English summer (apart from those intransigent losers who whine about it being ‘too hot’).

The heat was the all the invitation every one of those plants on the allotment needed to get growing. Of course, this included some pretty tenacious weeds. Thistles seemed immortal, brambles immune, we spent whole days weeding in an effort to give our vegetables the best chance to grow. Shying away from absolutely any and all chemicals, we manually made good and brought things to harvest. The potatoes still failed completely, the broad beans mostly succumbed to Blackfly and the broccoli was boring but who could be happier? We had four months of squash, spinach, beetroot, courgettes and all the rest. But we’ve also learned the cost of food. What it costs in time, labour and effort; what it costs the Earth in terms of input; and how valuable the lifeblood we’re given in every single living thing is. The possibilities are scary: growing food in an indulgence, a pastime, but if we depended on the plot for everything, had no other options, then we’d walk the path that most of the world still walk. It’s a responsibility and indeed a burden that should be taken seriously.

Everyone should grow something to make sure they don’t forget the real price of food.