Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Poetry v. poultry

Aldeburgh ended with a lecture and a reading. At the crack of noon-thirty, our English comprehension was sorely tested by Don Paterson's speed-readings of a selected few of Robert Frost's poems (West-Running Brook; Design; and To Earthward). He peppered his talk with a few high-falutin' bits of terminology (autopoiesis, domain theory, thematic domain, emergence) which seemed to be summable as: Frost's poems are highly crafted and admirably self-contained with imagery so integrated the poems are unimaginable in any other form. Well, quite: but much better said in a talk which we can only hope will soon appear on Paterson's website where we can enjoy it at a slower speed.

We sprinted out for some fish and chips

and were back in our seats - after a quick and admiring visit to Lawson's Deli

and a sudden drenching by the changeable weather - in time for the final reading. We heard from Lars Gustafsson (Sweden), Marie Howe (USA) and Bill Manhire (New Zealand).

A couple of days' rest and fasting in London ensued. Yesterday I roused myself and joined a small throng of sustainable foodies

to travel to a different part of Suffolk for an Ethical Eats farm visit to Longwood Farm, run by Matthew and Louise Unwin. We were accompanied by Alison Mood from Compassion in World Farming, who gave a short presentation - somewhat hampered by technological glitches during the showing of this video on the treatment of farm animals.

After the talk, we were fed an enormous lunch featuring chicken and vegetables raised on Longwood Farm. We hoisted ourselves to our feet and with organic farmer and butcher Matthew Unwin

as guide, set off on a tour of the farm, which includes beef,

turkeys, chickens, sheep and geese (and an excellent farm shop stuffed with organic vegetables and grocery staples).

An organic pig farmer leases land on Longwood Farm as well, operating on a four-year rotation. This encourages soil fertility and the growth of forage crops for the other animals. The pigs are moved onto new ground as they're weaned, so the process takes about six months each year.

A warm interlude in the chick barn, where week-old fluffballs were basking under a heat lamp and listening (no lie!) to The Archers. Where chicks are reared like these ones, without the medications routinely administered in conventional animal farming, organic farmers expect to lose a small percentage, particularly in the first week or so (he'd lost 14 of the 400 we saw). They are kept indoors and warm until they are about 3-4 weeks old, and given some heat until they are about 6 weeks old, after which they can spend the rest of their lives freely ranging (to meet regulations, two-thirds of their life must be lived free range). They live in sheds on runners, so they can be moved around the property, and at their earliest age can fall victim to a surprising list of predators: seagulls are the worst offenders, but rats and crows can also go after them.

We had a sobering lesson in fowl behaviour and the gruesomely literal imposition of the pecking order when we reached the farthest chicken barn. Most free range chickens like this are happy and peaceful enough, but every few years, says Unwin, there's a savage lot - probably only one or two troublemakers who manage to rile the whole flock. They start fights that end up with one of their number killed, and then eaten (like pigs, chickens are not vegetarians - which we witness less queasily in their fondness for insects). He has been trying to identify the perpetrator but so far hasn't found it, and in the meantime regularly finds corpses. These chickens are being reared for the Christmas market so will be slaughtered at 16 weeks when they are good and plump, so the problem won't go on much longer for this group.

The turkeys were numerous and curious. Organic pasture-raised Kelly Bronze turkeys like these command about £12.50 a kilo. They take 6 months to rear and are then hung for 3 weeks. Their flavour, of course, is excellent as a result, and they are free of the medications that intensively farmed turkeys are administered from day one.

Unwin has a lot to say about the differences between organic and intensive farming. When discussing the price of his turkeys, he drew what I thought was a very apt comparison: while people are willing to pay a premium for quality in cars, acknowledging for example that there are good reasons why a Rolls-Royce or Ferrari should cost so much more than an everyday beater: but when food-shopping by price alone as we've been taught to do, consumers don't recognise the comparable difference worth paying for in food. Which is endlessly ironic in this one consumable that we so literally consume.

(In comparison: intensively-farmed Broad-Breasted White turkeys - bred, as we all surely know now, to be so top-heavy they're unable to breed naturally - are typically brought to slaughter weight at 4 months. Having legs too weak to support their weight, and being reared in overcrowded conditions, they do not develop a normal muscle structure, so the flesh of the Broad-Breasted White is soft and watery (partly due to processing which means they are soaked in a water bath, and may absorb up to 5% water as a result) and heavily oriented to white meat.)



Blogger leah fritz said...

Dear Rhona,
At £12.50 a kilo, a 5 kilo turkey (not huge) would cost about £85.00 according to my bad arithmetic! Well, you'd have to be very rich indeed to afford that for a family Thanksgiving or Christmas. It seems sad that rich and poor must eat different quality foods. I suppose organic farmers would have to be heavily subsidised to provide food at a price most people can afford. What a shame!

3:10 a.m.  
Blogger Rhona McAdam said...

Agreed: it is outrageously expensive. But worth saving up for, if turkey means Christmas dinner to you.

But cheap meat is an outrage as well, that incurs devastating costs to animals, environment and consumers alike. What is truly outrageous is to pretend that cheap food is the same (nutritionally or any other way) as more expensive, high quality, sustainably-grown food, produced by people paid a living wage.

If we accept the economic poles that result from our commitment to capitalism, then we can't pretend that people will be treated equally where food is concerned, any more than the poor get access equal to what the rich can afford, in shelter, medical care or anything else that costs money.

I feel that access to animal protein is like any economic marker that divides rich and poor: if we can't afford good quality meat, then we can't eat it.

At least those of us with internet access can still watch The Meatrix for free.

4:20 a.m.  
Blogger leah fritz said...

It isn't a matter of accepting capitalism. It's what we have. But within it reforms are always possible. For instance, the NHS (free medical care in Britain) has been absolutely wonderful to me, with the most dedicated doctors and nurses. This functions within the general capitalistic system here, because the people demanded it. However, if people eat poorly because of the high price of good food, then it will cost the NHS more, so it's shortsighted economy. There has to be a way of providing food stamps or something like it to augment the money poor people can spend for good diets. I don't mean Turkey, necessarily. Just decent organic eggs, chickens, chopped meat, veg, fruit...Don't you agree that makes sense?

6:35 a.m.  
Blogger Rhona McAdam said...

Well Leah, I think *accepting* capitalism might be a mild description of the situation, when you see who's getting votes these days - UK, US, Canada :(

When I lived in the UK the NHS was good to me too, but at times private healthcare was better: I got an MRI and my knee surgery after a week instead of the 6 months I would have had to wait under the NHS, and much improved access to post-op physio. Canada also has public health care, but certain treatments that I'd consider essential - physiotherapy, dental care - are not covered; for those you have to be in a salaried job with benefits. Or on welfare perhaps. Those of us floating in the middle go without.

It would be great if health care did include good quality subsidised food as part of its programming. There's certainly awareness around it as a preventive measure. Some communities in Canada have Good Food Box programs (I do not know to what extent, if any, these are funded by health systems) that offer affordable fresh foods for a modest price.

But as the likes of Jamie Oliver have discovered, there are problems getting people to accept a new and improved diet: it takes time that a lot of people don't have/don't choose to spend to prepare fresh foods; you have to have the skills to cook; you have to be able to afford to find out if your family will eat new, healthier foods when they've been raised on and often prefer high salt high fat foods; junk food is cheaper and less perishable than fresh.

And what do people in upwardly mobile situations do? They go for meat. Lots of meat. Three times a day if they can manage it. Good quality, one hopes, but eat too much and it makes you as sick - in a different way - as living on cheap junk food. Human nature, go figure.

But it is, as you say, worth trying, and worth hoping that health systems are able to incorporate more far-sighted policies.

5:16 p.m.  

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