This blog is inspired by my recent visit to a Soil Association Learning Day and a farm visit to the Yeo Valley organic farm found near the small village of Blagdon in deepest Somerset.
I’ve always been a fan of organic and always try to eat as much of it as possible, I also recommend it to patients, especially women with hormonal imbalances. Why? Well, the pesticides and other chemicals found in conventionally farmed foods are believed to act as hormone disrupters and have been shown to cause havoc by confusing the body’s own signalling system (i.e hormones). It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you’re already having problems with your hormones the last thing your need is to throw in a big load of chemicals to confuse matters even further.
Writing this I’m beginning to realise that there’s way too much stuff to cover in one blog. Instead, I’m going to spend this blog describing my trip and highlighting stuff I learnt and then next time I’m going to go into a more detailed look at the impact of leading an organic lifestyle and maybe try and debunk a few of the common myths and give a few tips on how to approach the whole thing even if you are on a budget (organic shouldn’t just be for the rich!)
Ok, so the purpose of my visit was to get to know a bit more about the workings of the Soil Association (I’ve been a member for four years and I thought it was high time I educated myself a bit more about what they actually do) and to familiarise myself with the practice of running a successful organic farm. Having grown up in Gibraltar (zero farmland) and having lived most of my adult life in big cities, my knowledge of farming is woefully inadequate and I hoped that this trip would at least give me some sort of insight (however small) into what goes on in a farm.
The trip did not disappoint – not only did I get to experience first hand the milking of cows and the making of compost but I also returned feeling refreshed and reinvigorated in my conviction that the world would be a better place if all our food was organically farmed.
A half hour drive from Bristol through picturesque country lanes brings you to the Yeo Valley headquarters. I don’t really know what I was expecting but I definitely know that I wasn’t expecting such a vibrant and inspiring work place (I think I had visions of haggard farmers hiding behind piles of grubby paperwork). Instead, we were treated to a wonderfully bright and airy building packed with quirkily decorated offices and smiling (and yes, genuinely happy) staff. Set high on a steep hill overlooking the actual Yeo Valley, the view was enough to motivate you to do a full days’ work in an hour.
After the initial excitement of being in such a unique setting (and lots of manic photo taking and selfie posing) we were ready to settle down to a morning of presentations by the Soil Association. The first was a brief run though the Soil Association’s history and its guiding principles and even though I know this stuff off practically by heart and firmly believe in it all, it was refreshing to hear it from the horse’s mouth and really reinforced my belief that organic is best. The second presentation was a closer look at the place organic goods occupy in the UK market and that too was fascinating – did you know that sales of organic food continue to grow year on year in the UK whereas sales in conventional food products continue to drop? This hopefully means people are starting to realise the value of organic farming. We also looked at the main issues stopping people from buying organic and the big one that came up was price. At this point Finn from the Soil Association made a good point – what people don’t realise is that the cost of cheap food generally gets pushed elsewhere – be it in ridiculous NHS bills to fund the poor health of the nation or be it in our over-priced water bills (a fascinating fact – water companies have to spend 50% of their budget clearing the water supply of toxic levels of pesticides). So next time someone moans it may be useful to point out that there is no such thing as truly cheap food. (Whilst all the time smiling sweetly of course!)
Lunch was served at 1pm and boy, what a culinary delight that was. Not only was everything organic, but most of the fruit and vegetables had been grown in Yeo Valley’s own organic garden. We were offered delicious cottage and vegan pies with massive side servings of seasonal vegetables (something I feel we never get served enough of in normal restaurants) alongside home baked sourdough bread (yum!). Lunch was finished off by small pots of pannacotta topped with strawberries (and for the vegans a blood orange sorbet). Is your mouth watering yet?
After lunch we were driven down to the farm where we were given a crash course in organic compost making by the head gardener – he also took great pleasure in showing off his glass house, which was his obvious pride and joy. Did you know that Yeo Valley boasts one of the only fully organic gardens in the country?
We were then joined by Garth, one of the head farmers, who proceeded to give us a wonderfully informative tour of the farm and a very insightful introduction into the practical applications of the principles of organic farming. I think the thing that struck me about his talk was how incredibly intuitive organic farming is and how, if you know how to harness it, nature will do most of the work for you. For example, Garth explained that by not removing all the weeds from a field (as conventional farming does) and letting plants like clover grow, you are providing the soil with a wonderfully rich source of nitrates (fertilisers). Clever little clover extracts nitrogen from the air and then handily puts it into the soil, which is exactly where it’s needed. Amazing eh? The examples that Garth gave are too many to list here but I think another of my favourites was that another advantage of not weeding fields fully and allowing your cows to graze freely on grass all day is that cows that are unwell will instinctively seek out medicinal plants and herbs (such as chicory which grows in abundance in most of the UK) to help heal their symptoms. This has the added bonus that the farmer can avoid giving the cow antibiotics (which is still allowed in organic farming but only on a one to one basis and only if the animal is unwell). Isn’t that a great story? I just love the idea of a cow with an upset stomach finding some chicory in a field and chewing on it all day until she begins to feel better! Organic farming is the best!
I think the most humbling part of the day came when we were invited to watch the cows being milked. Again, I have no idea what I was expecting but I know it definitely wasn’t what I witnessed. The milking took place in a large room with a viewing gallery and I think what struck me the most was how calm all the cows were and how happy they seemed to be milked. They would form an orderly queue at the entrance of the room (amazingly enough they didn’t need a human to organise them – Garth told us that they have their own order in the queue and that a good way of knowing whether a cow is unwell is if she stands in a different place to her usual one in the milking queue – fascinating!). The room itself was manned by one farmer who was blaring out happy pop tunes on the radio and who would reassuringly pat and whisper to every cow as he attached the electronic milking devices to their udders. (Apparently Yeo Valley boasts a herd of 400 cows, all of whom are known individually by their names). The cows then stand patiently whilst they’re being milked and will then kick off the milking devices when they were done and make their own peaceful way back out of the room to make way for another queue of self-ordered cows to come in. Now this is how happy well-looked after animals behave!
Finally, our day ended with a super delicious tea and cake at the Yeo Valley farm shop (this shop is open to the public so if you’re ever down Bristol way I HIGHLY recommend you drop in and sample the scrumptious cakes). Again, most of the ingredients were sourced from the farm itself and I can’t even begin to describe the taste of the gluten free vegan chocolate cake! Everyone was tucking in, including non-vegans and people who had never shown an intolerance to gluten in their lives!
If I had to sum up the day I would describe it as a magical journey into the heartland of the organic paradise that is Yeo Valley. I came back feeling inspired, refreshed and newly motivated to continue espousing the organic cause and I would highly recommend a day out to an organic farm to everyone who feels they need a bit of inspiration.
Next time – a deeper look into organic and how to approach it on a shoe string.