Good Folks is part of the new wave of brilliantly produced and interesting little magazines that have been proving that print is far from dead. It is a Studs and Terkel style, oral history magazine focusing on London and we love it here at the Idler. The second issue has just come out and we have it for sale in our online bookshop. Below is an extract in which an organic farmer talks about his life. If you enjoy it then please click HERE to purchase a copy.
Book Extract: Good Folks Issue 2
A Cucumber of Knowledge, Alistair, 45, farmer
I HAD A proper office job and a proper family. If you’d told me then that I’d be doing manual work on a farm, living alone and feeling free and happy, I’d have said: ‘Crazy!’ Well… Almost happy.
I was in the Air Force sitting on a Hercules flying forth to Canada and back, drinking in pubs, driving fast cars, shopping at Tesco’s and eating in McDonald’s.
Then all my life changed. I left the air force. I got a divorce. From being a married man with children, I changed to being single with no family, no house and no job. I didn’t even know how to cook. I had to do something – I didn’t know what to do. It felt then like I had a bad spell.
Where I went to live I rented a bed and breakfast for a little while. Next to the bed and breakfast there was a carrot factory, so I went to work in this carrot factory. They were processing carrots for big supermarkets. It was horrible. Horrible, slimy carrots – we’d have to put them into bags, chop up and freeze. I thought: Eww, no, I’m not doing this.
But because I worked at the carrot factory I met lots of growers. There were lots of names on the side of their lorries – I wrote the names down, called them and said: “I can move your vegetables somewhere.” Some said: “No” and some said: “Yeah.”
I started my own driving company delivering fruits and vegetables. I saw how the conventional people were growing and how organic were growing. You go to conventional farms and there is this smell – they just spray crops and it’s terrible. You go to an organic farm and they are messy – weeds, bits of machinery everywhere, grass is growing because they don’t spray, they don’t use weed killers and pesticides, and it’s real. They gave me a cucumber – I thought: Wow! Actually I like this stuff.
I’d never tried a real cucumber before in my life. My mum and dad used to buy cheap – like a lot of people, we used to eat frugally. But once you tried a normal cucumber…
Eventually I met this couple, they were one of my big customers – they own an organic farm in the east of England. It was supposed to be a one-year project of my life – I just wanted to get the feel and then go into a proper career job to sit behind a desk. I was a personal administrator in the air force – I always thought I would be somewhere in admin. But I stayed on the farm 1 year, then 2 years, then 5 – I’ve been with them ever since, for 10 years.
The three of us run the farm. They own 18 acres of it and rent about 5. We plant tomatoes and cucumbers, traditional English cucumbers – a lot of people actually don’t realise, even English people don’t realise, that their spikes are sharp and you have to wear gloves to pick them. And they’re shorter. We do potatoes, carrots, broccoli, cauliflowers, coriander, parsley and raspberries. Along the borders of our land we have blackberries. We don’t specifically grow them – they are a bonus because they are on our land. That’s good. We do melons and watermelons. In the organic world things grow and you can’t use weed killers – so you have to weed a lot. We weed, plant, harvest all year round.
I could have rented somewhere in town – that’s easy – but I chose to live on the farm. Most people wake up, open a window and they’ve got another housing estate in front of them. I had them for years of my life – no, I don’t want that. I want to look at something pretty. I wake up in the morning, open my window – I see an ocean of blossom, Muntjac deer and pheasants running in the orchard. Each month it changes. Some weeks we don’t mow the orchard, ’cause we make hay, and the grass gets so long and wild – you think there might be a pygmy tribe hidden – and other weeks we mow the orchard and it’s all pristine, it’s like a lawn, rabbits run around. The perfect British countryside. Every time you wake up, you think: Yeah, I wanna go to work.
At the end of the day you open doors, sit on decking with a beer and watch the pipistrelle bats flying over the rhubarb. If I haven’t enjoyed today ’cause it’s rainy, it’s cold, I have to weed again – you open a curtain and the sun goes down and the moon comes up, and again it’s all magical, ’cause the moonlight comes in through the trees casting shadows, and animals run around, hedgehogs are barking. Your whole battery recharges from having a bad day and you think: Actually it is just such a wonderful free way of living.
And also we’re growing organic food. I’ve done it, so if I’m hungry at night time I walk into the polyethylene – we call our greenhouses a polyethylene – and pick a cucumber. You know it’s there.
Everything we try to do in a natural way. In the polyethylene there is what they call a tip tap, which is a plastic tape with holes in it. When you turn the water on, it fills the plastic tape and the water drips down the holes. So we do that once or every other day, but the crops that are in the field outside, we rely on the rain only – it encourages plants to find soil water, which makes them stronger and better tasting. When the conventional people do their potatoes you will see them water and water and water all the potatoes, and the potatoes go from this big to that big ’cause they sell on weight… The same with manure – you leave leaves and everything else mixed up and it becomes a natural fertiliser. All comes from the earth and goes back to the earth.
My daughter – she is 21 now – thinks it’s all a little bit strange. The thought that I get dirty hands, doing a menial job, that I’ve come down from having an office job on a sort of 20-something thousand a year to manual work for a sort of 10–15 thousand a year – she doesn’t really understand. But she likes the pictures I send her.
’Cause there are only three of us, we also sell – at London farmers’ markets. If you talk to someone who is just selling, sometimes they don’t know where it comes from. If you buy my potatoes, I can tell you that they were picked on Wednesday at 4 o’clock. I can tell you why there is a little mark on a tomato. Because we had a WWOFer [Willing Workers on Organic Farms – ed.] – they work free of charge, we accommodate them, feed them and show them how to plant and grow organically – and he scratched it when it was about an inch, and it grew and grew, and ’cause it had a scratch on it, it opened up. You can also ask me silly questions: “Why is this carrot purple?” They are all supposed to be purple – we cultivated them into the orange.
I’ve never eaten so well since we started doing markets. I haven’t bought food in a supermarket for 8 years – I buy beer, soap and toothpaste, but meat, chicken and bread I get from the farmers’ market where I sell. At the market one of the beautiful things is that you exchange with people who like your vegetables. If I’ve had a very bad day – then I pay money. But if you’ve had a good day – you swap.
Many things are done in a very good barter system. When we’re grading we have lots of waste like bad vegetables that we can’t use, so when the pig man comes he takes our organic vegetables away for his pigs and gives us a little bit of meat and sausages. We feed his pigs – he gives us back. We need our hair cut – we give a lady who cuts hair a big box of vegetables – she cuts our hair. It’s a complete circle.
We have a deal going with a local horse yard that can’t get rid of its manure, so we say: “Let us have it.” We take it off their hands – yeh-yeh-ei! They may have a box of carrots occasionally, but they’re happy anyway. The only thing is that we have to check with a vet before that the horses haven’t been injected with anything nasty. Once the vet says: “You can do it”, we can use that, so we use horse manure, rotten onions and a little bit of hay – we leave that to rot for about 6 months. It’s the best fertiliser and we don’t pay for it.
Nothing really goes to waste. We put our product into boxes for moving to the markets, so we have lots of leftover boxes. But there is a little nursery on the road, which needs boxes to put their plant pots in – we give them our boxes. Or we buy seeds, give them to the nursery – they grow them till they are little plugs, so we end up with about 50 thousand plant pots – we give them to a guy from an onion factory, who also owns a little nursery – he puts his daffodils and stuff there. He passes the daffodils in them, recycling them again.
We have to throw away only glass bottles – we do our own organic juice. People say: “Shall I bring you the bottles back?” And we say: “We’d love to, but to get them sterilised costs so much money that it’s cheaper to buy new bottles.” But we’ve seen a couple of artists down in the market – they melt the bottles and turn them into funny shapes. We’ve seen some bottles of ours being used for that.
When I finish my dinner, depending on what I’ve had, if there are any vegetables, I don’t throw them in a bin. There are hedgehogs living under the house – I give them to the hedgehogs. It’s a way of life that I enjoy.
There is always this hard choice with the hedgehogs and rabbits ’cause rabbits – I mean they’re beautiful, they are cute – but they’re pests. They like carrots, cabbage and lettuce, so there is always the question: do you put up an electric fence to stop the rabbits or do you, say, plant 10 thousand lettuces and 500 of them are for rabbits, 9,500 are for me? I’ve put up electric fences before. It stops the rabbits, but the hedgehogs get caught underneath and you feel very guilty. Commercially: do you want the crop? Or humanely: do you want to let the rabbits and hedgehogs have a little bit? What do I choose? A lot of it depends on our situation at the time. If we have a field that’s got lots of lettuce in and we’ve got one that is just growing, then we let them eat. If we are desperately short on something, then we think: We’ve got to put a fence up. We’re growing only 200 peas – the rabbits will eat them all. Sorry, Mr Rabbit – we put a fence up.
Scarecrow? It doesn’t work. Birds look at it for about a week and go: “He-he-he-he – that’s just a scarecrow!” Same with bangers. We’ve got a big one, which goes bang every 30 minutes. They got used to it. So you put nets over the top of lettuce, which is like a fleece.
It’s always a question of keeping a balance between making a company work financially so it can go on for 20 years or being lovey-dovey to all animals and go down because you let all the animals eat your crops. And you have no organic vegetables. That’s why we like foxes. The foxes on the farm they eat the rabbits – that’s natural. Or, say, slugs. We don’t like slugs. So you need frogs and hedgehogs to eat slugs. You have ladybirds that eat all the aphids. The deer will eat bark on the apple trees, but bark also gets some disease – they will eat it up. You want the animals to eat what the animals eat – not what we want them to eat. Everything has to be right.
After all, it’s about how much money you want to make. We were looking to extend, but you have to jump through so many papers that we didn’t bother to do it. It’s just not worth it – our time is better off spent on the land, rather than filling in the paperwork to get EU grants. What we now have – 23 acres – 3 people can barely make it work, the weeding, the planting. If you do it larger, like 100 acres, you will need 20 people at £6.70 an hour, 8 hours a day – it means thousands of pounds. It becomes very, very, very hard, and you also are responsible for 20 other lives. It’s too much pressure. Rather than trying to get bigger, we prefer just to come to the markets, sell to some lovely people, do what we want to do and do it well, and have that sort of relationship with the land ourselves. I don’t want to get into a rat race of trying to make money. What we always wanted to do was something small and manageable – just to give us a good living, to pay our mortgages, make us eat well and allow us to teach somebody else how to eat well.
It makes it easy for me ’cause I’m by myself. My ex-wife lives in Spain, her own life. If I had a full-time partner, she would probably want to live in a proper house. That’s why money is not an object. I just do what I want.
We call it organic, but it’s not. It’s natural. Did we start to grow organically all of the sudden? I say: “No.” We are growing in a way we’d grown for 20 thousand, I don’t know, years, the way our forefathers had grown. It’s just called “growing”. It was the government – they’ve gone the wrong way. They should have said: “Buy your sprayed food here and let just the natural organic site carry on as it was.” But they’ve gone the other way around and said: “No, organic is gonna be a niche market and this will be a mass production market.” The farmers who spray – and it started in the 1950s–60s – they are the ones who are doing it differently. But we are the ones who have to buy a licence… However, the truth is that it seems we need the conventional people to do it that way – we can’t produce enough food organically to feed everybody…
There is an idea that farmers’ markets are expensive. We do have very rich customers and then we have people who have got 3 or 4 kids, trying to make ends meet, and you can still eat very, very well. Because if you get fresh vegetables, fresh meat, you can make lots of things. And it becomes very cheap ’cause in McDonald’s a dinner costs 4 pounds. For 5 people, it’s 20 pounds. For 20 pounds you can buy lots of vegetables, a little bit of meat and you can have a week’s menu. And it’s fresh, it’s more nutritional.
Some people think that organic food is for softies, but it’s only ’cause they’ve grown up on mass-product cheap food and never tried natural food. That’s what happened to me – “eww” and “wow”! But it’s not only about taste – you get extra energy.
Some people think that it’s just about fashion. Well, and so the next one comes along when they go “biodynamic” or they go “super dynamic”? I live organically, which means as simply as I can, with as little money as I can and enjoy myself while doing it. If I stop enjoying it because I have to live the way, you know, when somebody says: “Oh, we’ve got to wear this hemp dress because it’s now organic”, then it becomes unenjoyable to me.
Very occasionally I go to a takeaway – I eat it and think: Why? ’Cause the thought of a takeaway is beautiful: Fish & chips – yum! But you eat them and it’s – Eerk! I’d rather eat my own potatoes and some fish from David, a fisherman. It’s quicker, it’s cheaper and I grow potatoes myself.
I don’t like restaurants now either – meat will be ok, but vegetables – no. It doesn’t matter where a restaurant ordered it from – somebody’s got to pick it, pack it, ship it, deliver to them. Even if a farm is the best farm in the world, the vegetables usually have been travelling for nearly 7–9 days before a chef cooks them, and all the taste is gone. It’s very rare that it can be quicker unless they grow it themselves. The same with supermarkets. Whereas, if you buy from a farmers’ market, it’s typically picked on Wednesday/Thursday/Friday – you get it on Saturday and you can have it for the whole week. One of the most annoying things is that people come back and say: “I still have your vegetables from last week.” And you think: Why?! Eat them!
Many people in England don’t cook anymore and that’s a shame. Busy mums just want a quick alternative, use microwaves, and then kids grow up not learning about good food. If a mum doesn’t cook with fresh veg, then a child won’t cook with fresh veg. We lost all that. Besides, they don’t do home economics at schools in a big way’cause of health and safety – they don’t want kids playing with boiling water…I was lucky. It looks like my divorce changed my life from one direction and pushed me further and further.
Funny what my mum said. She was in the air force, my dad was in the air force – they were very happy when I went there too. I called Mum – she said: “What are you doing now?” I said: “I’m living on a farm.” She said: “It doesn’t surprise me.” S-s-sorry?
In 10 years’ time? I’ll still be doing the same thing – staying on the same farm in the same place. My long-term plan is to move to Spain. To be closer to my ex-wife? Well… I just want to live on a small farm by myself. I mean, my hands will get sore soon, my knees will get sore soon – I will have to do something on a smaller scale when I retire. I want to have 1 acre of land just to grow for myself. I have dreams of Spanish countryside, the Spanish way of life, the people. I think they think like me – they are very open to new ideas, they don’t rush into anything, they take the time, they grow. Spain is a lot simpler, it’s easier, everything can be done by hand. I can grow the vegetables I like – I can grow tomatoes, I can grow melons. Just for me. And if my family wants to come over – for them.
We are a very spread-out family – my wife is in Spain, my daughter is in Liverpool, my mum in Gloucester, my dad in Scotland. We Skype, we telephone, but we don’t live close enough to be around each other all the time, unfortunately… So we can all sit down. What are we going to eat today? Ah, we have carrots, we have potatoes…
To purchase issue two of Good Folks click HERE.