One of the likely issues we will have later this year due to coronavirus is a shortage of fresh produce. This is absolutely not the same as OMG WE ARE ALL GOING TO STARVE! For starters, a fair proportion of the population doesn’t eat fresh produce at all. In general, young males living in cities don’t, and the very existence of my older self is living proof that it doesn’t kill you. Indeed, the very existence of urban food deserts shows that you can live perfectly OK without fresh produce, though perhaps you shouldn’t do it for more than 10 years once you have reached 30, for your general health. so once again, I am saying things may not taste as good as normal by the Autumn. We are not going to starve by Autumn. There are just some lines you won’t find in the produce aisle that you usually do.
We should tip our hats to the fact that society has managed to keep the wheels running despite the lockdown in terms of the essentials. The Chinese managed it, the Italians have managed it, we are managing it, I hear you can even buy bogroll again 😉 This is not an existential challenge. But we are going to face shortages of fresh produce in the Autumn, and we import a lot from Spain, which is not having a great time of things. The price is likely to go up and the quality will be down.
But you can do something about it, particularly as you may have more time on your hands. Now (in the UK) is a good time to start. Last month would have been better, but you start where you find yourself.
Now I am the first to admit that this isn’t really my area of expertise. I am writing it because I am closer to an ordinary punter, but I have observed Mrs Ermine, for whom this has been a passion from childhood.
Hit the tasty and the exotic first, particularly if you don’t have a garden
We will be fine on staples I should imagine. There will be shortages of some basics, because we import more than half our food, and we featherbed our aristocracy to ruin our soil1 or play silly buggers on our hills. Tim Lang summarises the issues of how we got here, a combination of our early industrialisation and imperial past, we grow about half our food.
but if you turn some of those issues on their head, we will probably be OK, because we can probably pay more on the global market than poorer people. T’ain’t pretty, but it’s the way of the world. But you can fight back and make Autumn taste a little bit better, if that matters to you. If it doesn’t, then I am sure Nando’s and your local kebab shop can keep the show on the road. About a quarter of London’s food by value is eaten outside the home- there have been reports written before the current crisis promoting the kitchenless city. NYC has already got there in part 2.
Probably the easiest win for the space-challenged are herbs – a little goes a long way, they are usually cut and come again, they don’t need huge amounts of water, you can use a window box. But they do generally want sun. They make things taste a lot better, and fresh always beats dried. You can grow these from seed, but for a window box get ’em from a supermarket, given garden centres aren’t open. Compost is a problem, some supermarkets carry it. It’s not essential, my younger self never realised you were meant to use compost. I used earth from the garden. Sure, things work better if you have compost, but use what you have to hand. The young Ermine was perhaps unwittingly channelling Masanobu Fukuoka’s natural way of farming ahead of time. There’s too much dogma in gardening. The will to life of most things is strong. If you want to optimise yields and germination rates, sure you have to work harder. But seed is cheap, in most cases JFDI and see what happens.
If you have a small space, then eschew staples. There’s no point in trying to grow a field of wheat in your back garden. Similarly a bag of Maris Piper or King Edward spuds is cheap. Don’t bother. If you are going to grow potatoes, grow fancy ones with a distinctive taste – something like Pink Firs. You can also grow potatoes in compost in containers on a patio.
Look at what’s expensive, and favour that. Favour the vertical over the low and spreading. We3 favour tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, though we also do beans and lettuce. Grow from seed, it’s cheap and lets you succession sow so you don’t end up with more than you can use at any one time
Even as a young man where I made ‘as small as possible garden’ a requirement for my first house, I grew tomatoes in the back garden, and bought sanitised chicken shit to try and get an edge. I had not yet discovered the magic of the small plastic greenhouse (or bush tomatoes 😉 ) because tomatoes you grow yourself actually taste of something, unlike most of what’s bought in the shops, which is forced to grow too fast. If you don’t have a greenhouse then the secret to outside tomatoes is get them in really early – dear xGF’s Dad performed me a service saying I should start growing from seed in late February, rather than reading the back of the packet. You bring seeds on inside the house if you don’t have a greenhouse, you don’t usually get frost inside the house! If you can grow the buggers up against a south-facing wall, all to the good.
Tomatoes come from South America, and it just ain’t natural to grow them in latitudes as high as the UK. My hit rate in terms of red tomatoes I got to eat went up no end following his wisdom, compared to following the advice on the packet, which meant I got a lot of green ones and blight-ravaged stuff in October. And he came from Lancashire which was way up north from Suffolk so the spring gets there later. Push your luck, I say 😉
Talking to people round these parts, some are hesitant to sow cucumbers at this stage because they are worried about the date of the last frost. You can see in that map that the urban heat island effect favours city dwellers on that front. Mrs Ermine has no truck with that sort of thing anyway – seed is cheap, and you have to be prepared to lose some troops if it’s a particularly cold year…
Grow different things, and different varieties. Take notes of what works and what doesn’t.
So if you can, grow something. Use containers or windowboxes. It will be the fresh stuff that we will be short of, due to a lack of manpower and harvest time due to the lockdown. There’s something a little bit funny about the CLA which is basically the interests of the landed gentry favouring a land army at the same time as the Landworkers’ Alliance but there we go, strange bedfellows and all that.
It’s worth a go. You won’t starve if you can’t do it, but on the other hand you may learn something new, you can do it at home, and your food will definitely taste better. What’s not to like?
Oddly enough at the time of writing some seed companies are so swamped off their feet with online orders that they are queuing punters
or have temporarily stopped taking orders
although big fish like Thompson & Morgan still seem to be running.
There’s not point me giving detailed suggestions, Google is your friend, and the RHS is a good source. Make sure you take advice from UK sources, because of the Gulf Stream Britain is warmer than its latitude would suggest, and the buffering of the sea also reduces temperature variations. However, we have lower light levels than the temperature would normally indicate, so you can’t extrapolate information from say American websites of zones with similar temperature profiles without making allowances for these differences.
- How do we do that? We exempt agricultural land from inheritance tax because the aristocracy spun us a sob story of you don’t want to take the land from our yeoman farmer sons and daughters in the post-war period when their ownership of everything was challenged by the sacrifices made by the proles in the trenches and then the cities. Those deserving sons and daughters to the manor born generally hire contract farmers at the lowest cost to sweat the asset so they can pass it down to their children – land is a capital asset enabling the tax-free transmission of dynastic wealth rather than one of the factors of production. Having to actually grow something on it is a pesky distraction to its real purpose as a means of intergenerational capital preservation. These contract farmers drench the soil in chemicals to maximise yields at the expense of sustainability, the soil used effectively as blotting paper for agrochemicals rather than part of the cycle of life, agrochemicals destroy the microbial life that did this job for the last 10000 years. As a result, in Autumn the dust blows off the field in arable areas like Suffolk and our water is high in nitrates. And the mineral content of our fruit and veg has been dropping since the Second World War which is not good for us as eaters, the diversity of the microbes processed the mineral content but trace elements aren’t contained in the agrochemicals in a bioavailable way. I have seen what happens when a farm eschewing chemical fertilisers and pesticides starts over on industrially farmed agricultural land. Although New Scientist are correct in saying that the claims that there are only a hundred harvests left in UK soils are not substantiated, that’s because modern farming is closer to hydroponics with the soil used as a holding medium, rather than an active part in the system. There were no earthworms in the soil the first year afterwards – there aren’t a hundred natural harvests left in British soils. There are hardly any, though regeneration is still possible from the unfarmed boundaries, which s presumably where the worms that did show up in successive years came from. ↩
- Kitchen-less apartments is an easy headline to write. In the early 1980s the young Ermine lived in place without a kitchen, it’s called a bedsit. It did have a Baby Belling two ring device sat atop an ‘oven’ which was basically a pie heater rather than something you roast a chicken in, the 3kW limit of a 13A socket means there’s a limit to what you can do. You could just as well have written the headline toiletless flat, because the bog was shared, it was a HMO conversion of what was originally a pleasant townhouse in leafy Ealing into a crummy dive of bedsits. That didn’t mean there was a hole in the ground with straw and a bucket, however. ↩
- Who am I kidding. We don’t, that should read Mrs Ermine favours. Note that we do have a greenhouse, we bought it secondhand on Ebay, dismantled it and rebuilt it here. That’s not an option now, although you can be creative with found materials. A south facing window works a treat in the early seedling stage. ↩