Commonplace Vol. 2 Issue 8

In which the writer wanders around, and thinks about the movements of food.

Hello! It’s been a while. First, it was a while because I was busy eating meat and dairy after the Lenten Experiment. And then my brain entered the summer doldrums (of which more below). This issue wanders around a few topics: backyard farming, potential food shortages in the UK, food security in general, and a little bit of my old obsession with supply lines.

[ Commonplace is an occasional newsletter about food and food history. Drew, who needs to eat as well as read and ramble, has a Patreon page, about which people have said some nice things of late. Show your support, enable Drew’s book-buying habit, and get a look at the behind-the-scenes thinking on both this newsletter and Gentle DeclineSign up today! ]

On the doldrums, briefly: I’m fairly sure I suffer from what’s called “reverse SAD”, in which the conditions of summer (heat, brightness, short nights) affect me in more or less the same way someone suffering from SAD is in winter. This is borne out a bit by a recent morning where it was 7C when I woke up, and I was bright and energetic through the following two days, in which it was cool and rainy. Right now as I’m writing this, it’s about 17C out, there’s a north-easterly breeze which is cooling things down a little further, and my brain is doing ok. No doubt this will vary over the several days it takes me to finish out this issue.

One of the things I’m enthusiastic about in theory, but haven’t really had a chance to do a lot of in practice is food production at home. I mean, I’ve grown stuff to eat, and some of it’s been successful, mostly in fruit and herbs, but our garden supplies a very tiny percentage of what we need. Some of this is that I’m still working out how to do it.

The chickens are simple - you put a couple of birds in the back yard, you make sure they can’t get out, you give them a place to sleep, and you make sure they have food and water, and lo, eggs appear. Two chickens are not quite enough to make sure you never buy eggs again; I suspect that four will provide a surplus when we get that far. But they also destroy everything else they can reach in the back yard, except for reasonably-mature trees and bushes, rue, brambles, nettles, dock leaves and elder. You cannot just grow vegetables if you have free-roaming chickens in there.

Potatoes are simple too. You put them in the ground, they grow, as long as you don’t get blight you leave them there at least until they flower, and as if by magic, you get back ten times as many as you put in the ground. Unless you have chickens. Or a dog who eats potatoes. Or honey fungus in the ground, which also more or less eats potatoes.

And so it goes. There’s complexity there, and while you can resolve each step as you go - put chicken wire around the things you don’t want the birds to get at; plant potatoes in containers, and so on - you only get one or two goes a year to work out the details. Some of them are really obvious in hindsight. And this would all be a lot simpler if I were getting immediate teaching from someone else who had grown stuff in this particular garden (learning from a parent you’re going to inherit from), of course, or even if I had learned from someone else in a different garden (apprenticeship or a horticulture course), and could take the interactions there as a first few steps. But we’re bootstrapping here, and these are definitely skills you can improve.

This year, however, we have potatoes in containers, and they seem to be doing pretty well; they’re just beginning to flower, which is the sign that they’re ready to harvest, although they can probably stay in the ground for another month or two with no trouble. We have the raspberries behind some wire, and we’re getting a few - it’s not as good a raspberry year this year as last, or at least not yet. The rue plants are booming, and I’m planning to harvest and dry quite a lot of it this year. There are apples coming in.

The important thing seems to be to step things up once you have them right or nearly right. Potatoes in containers work; ok, I’ll plant twice or three times as many next year. The raspberries are good; ok, I’ll build an actual fruit cage for next year, so once they start to come in, the chickens can be locked out. Containers (against the honey fungus) and wire cages (against the barbarous chickens) work pretty well, so next year I’ll build raised beds with sealed bases, cage them in, and see if that works. We now have a couple of windowsills on which we can start plants, and that works far better than sowing directly outside for most things. I’m looking into permaculture sources to see what we can do with odd spaces, shady areas, vertical spaces.

So, not unconnectedly, let’s look at the whole food shortage thing. The UK isn’t doing great in the wake of Brexit. Last-minute deals have prevented the big issues that could have happened; complete blockages of transport, cessation of trade, and so on, but many of them are on rocky ground (see the sausage war), and the fact that EU nationals are heading back to their home countries and staying there in large numbers is causing a number of staffing shortages in various industries. There’s a global shipping crisis on top of this; I was in a conference call a few weeks back in which the prospect of committing piracy to get to a particular shipping container which had been en route for 9 weeks, and dealing with the outcomes later, was proposed as a fallback plan, not entirely in jest.

The latest is that a lack of heavy goods vehicle drivers in the UK means that there’s a slow-rolling food shortage going on with some of the supermarkets. This was heralded in late June, and seems to have become a reality in the weeks since. It’s not a serious shortage yet, but it’s definitely there. Because it’s primarily a transport issue, rather than a supply one per se, the retailers can to some degree choose what goods they want and don’t want, so supermarkets aren’t going to run out of staples, and can opt not to get particular low-demand goods, or fewer varieties of them, or the like.

One of the proposed “solutions” for this is to extend the number of hours that HGV drivers can legally drive in one period, and in a week. Nobody is happy with that; the transport unions, truck companies, and just about anyone else who’s involved has spoken against it. While I’m sure there are a few bean-counters in the industry who reckon 11% more driving hours is 11% more turnover, the limit on hours is there for safety, and “relaxing” the limits isn’t really any way to solve the problem. Very Tory, mind. Deregulate, shrug.

Food security and supply lines are an ongoing concern of mine; this mostly stems from the Great Snow of 2010, when, for a few days, food retailers all over Ireland had difficulty getting in supplies, and I realised how remarkably fragile the supply chains were. And the aforementioned mostly-quiet global shipping crisis in progress right now isn’t helping; see a decent primer from Bloomberg here, from which I’ve stolen the following graphic, showing the cost of shipping a container from Shanghai to Rotterdam over the last few years:

That spike at the end there is the consequence of a whole load of bottlenecks getting narrower, for a whole lot of reasons - increased demand for goods as people stay home in pandemic lockdowns, decreased numbers of workers in ports, and so on. And that’s mostly just a nuisance (although my piracy-considering client from above is having real business issues because goods they’ve paid for are not in their warehouse to sell yet), but some of the stuff that’s being shipped is food.

I don’t think it’s great to get apples and lamb from New Zealand and asparagus from Peru at the best of times, but the current situation is that local agriculture in Europe isn’t really producing as much anymore. Because of the availability of those distant-shipped cheap goods, they’re going for pasturing cattle, or for heavy staples that are more expensive to ship - potatoes, wheat, and so on. So it’s entirely possible that there will be periods of a few weeks or months where things that have been imported from the far side of the planet will be unavailable, and there’s no local supply to pick it up. And where there is a local supply, at least in the UK, it looks like there’s nobody willing to pick it, and not enough vehicles to move it around.

The EU isn’t as badly hit by this, and I haven’t noticed empty shelves in any of our local supermarkets. I have noticed increases in price - and difficulty in acquiring - some forms of timber, and there was a long stretch where the local branch of The Range, a UK housewares chain, had very little stock at all. All of this is convincing me that the food security backstop of growing at least some of our own food is a good thing to have, and that the chickens and a well-stocked freezer are going to be a comforting thing to have over the next few years.

The doom and gloom stuff is more usually the province of Gentle Decline, I know, but all of this is food-related stuff. I want to do an issue soon, though, on historical food supply issues - specifically excluding local famines, because there are limits to the grimness I can handle, and I’m a food historian, not a lack-of-food historian - so unless I get gazumped by either a bumper harvest of something I have to boast about or something notable in current affairs, you can expect that in the relatively near future. Not next week, though; I expect to spend that dead for temperature reasons.

This issue has been brought to you by a new attic office, a a very effective electric fan, Lidl’s very good raspberry lemonade, and a brief cool spell. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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