Yesterday we were interviewed, Oliver and I, for a place on the Sprout Program, which mentors small businesses and producers in the agriculture sector.
The last question was one that took me aback. Oliver had a ready answer for it, but I didn’t – it was the type of question for which, annoyingly, you only think of the answer later on, after a bit of reflection.
The question was, what drives us to produce food for other people. Oliver spoke about producing food in a traditional way, the way people have done it for centuries, and his enjoyment of that.
For me, it’s about what we do for a living, and how we’ll look back on it at the end of the day.
Oliver used to be a cabinet maker. He made kitchens for people. That’s a good, solid thing to do, and if you’re the person who uses the kitchen, it can give you an intense, almost primal pleasure, as you produce food for your family and the people you love.
I used to be an administrator. An organiser. An executive assistant, an assistant this, an assistant that. I’ve worked in jobs I enjoyed and I’ve also worked jobs that were soul destroying for companies I despised. Before coming to Australia and for a while afterwards, I always worked ‘for the man’.
Coming to Tasmania enabled us to rethink everything, including what we do, which is part of what gives you a sense of your own identity. I’ve become the thing I always wanted to be, a writer. But I’m very much part of the farm business as well. I supported Oliver when he wanted to start keeping pigs. I’ve run small businesses before and I helped set this one up. We make all the business development decisions together, we run the stall together. I created the website and maintain it and do most of the social media and the marketing. He looks after the pigs but I’m out there sometimes too.
So it’s my business too, and I think about it a lot, and what it means to us.
Food is important, it’s one of life’s basic necessities. We produce food that’s real, at a time when a lot of food that corporations are producing and selling is not real. A lot of what passes for food now is poisoning people, making them sick, with life altering diseases which may ultimately kill them.
We produce food the old fashioned way, which is real. We keep our pigs well, and we make them into food without using chemicals, into food which is tasty and good for you. Our food is not adulterated in a way which your body cannot cope with. Ours is food which your body is designed to eat and has the means to digest.
Food is more than this, though – it is also about love. As the person in my household who buys in the food, creates the menu and cooks most of the time, putting food on the table is an act of service for me, for my family and anybody else who happens to be joining us. So the quality of the food you produce is important and it affects the life you lead and the way you raise your children. As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says, life is sweeter. I’m intensely proud of the food we produce.
Lastly, this business got its hooks into us because of something we never anticipated. We have come to have a great love for pigs and a profound respect for them, (although Oliver is a little sick of feeding them twice daily through winter, it must be said).
About three years into this business we had a massive crisis. We hadn’t been able to get into Harvest Launceston, the farmers’ market which would eventually stabilise the business and make it viable when we did get in. Until then, we were left with trying other, smaller markets which were ultimately unsuccessful, or wrong for our product, at Lilydale, Deloraine and Evandale. One day we spent a couple of hours sitting at our dining table, thrashing things out and at the height of the discussion we were forced to confront whether we should close the business, sell the pigs, get rid of everything and go back to what we used to do. I still remember the awfulness of that prospect, not just because it meant throwing away everything we had worked at, but because it would mean getting rid of the pigs. They had played such a huge part in our family’s fortunes, these noble, good natured, unassuming creatures.
We persevered, and I never want to face another moment like that.
Pigs should have more of a place in our communities than most people would understand, and indeed used to. My father told me that when he was a boy, lots of families had a pig and their children would go round the houses collecting waste and scraps from kitchens to feed their pigs. Then the pigs would be slaughtered and made into meat products that fed lots of people in that family or community. In France and Spain they’re still doing this today.
In Tasmania, many more farms used to have pigs than do now, and pigs were used as the household waste processor, and this should be brought back. We are not allowed to feed our pigs any household waste as that constitutes swill and there are protective laws in place, rightly so. However, if you’re not selling the meat commercially, you can feed a pig what you like, and they will eat pretty much anything. Surprisingly, they will turn their noses up at mushrooms and onions skins and lemon peel, but you can put these in your compost heap. They will get rid of your meat scraps for you and pretty much anything else that you can’t put in a compost heap or in your recycling bin, and if you put it in your landfill bin, it will create methane and poison the atmosphere. Pigs will take care of this for you. Boy does the world need pigs right now. We all should have one.
On a simpler level, Oliver and I have come to love pigs, unexpectedly, for their good natured, adaptable, capable ways, and because they are lovely creatures. The other day we were sitting at lunch at the back of our house, watching one of our sows in the birthing pen, admiring her shape, her long back, and plumpness of her belly filled as it was with piglets. We were full of an uncomplicated admiration for her which comes from somewhere quite primal, and it is enjoyable being connected with that.
No doubt some people who work in proper jobs for large companies with larger salaries than ours will laugh at that. However, on my deathbed, I don’t want to look back at having made a dollar for a company I felt owned me and gave me four weeks a year to spend with my family. I want to look back with massive satisfaction and contentment at the life I have lived on the land.
Why are we driven to produce food for people in this way? Because it’s a business that harks back to older, better, more traditional ways of doing things, and because when we sell people something delicious, when we hand over a product we know has integrity, when we have a laugh or a great conversation with a customer, it lifts our hearts and feeds our souls. Because we’re doing something we believe to be good and worthwhile, and we rarely got that from our old lives.
Out October 2018
"Compulsive reading for anyone who has ever thought they are not living the life they should!"
River Cottage UK
Apple Island Wife is available in e-book and paperback from October 2018.
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Fiona Stocker is an English author and freelance writer living in Tasmania.