Saturday, 31 March 2012

Grow Your Own

I’m not a particular fan of the phrase ‘Grow Your Own’. Partly because it sounds like an instruction rather than an invitation (‘Have a Nice Day’ is similarly annoying), and partly because it sounds like something a particularly mean-spirited neighbour might bark at you across the garden fence after being asked if he could spare the odd brussel sprout from his massive glut of home grown produce, quite possibly preceded by an equally unfriendly invitation to ‘naff off’. But however I might feel about the term there’s no gainsaying a phenomenon which has seen an unprecedented increase in the demand for allotment space whilst providing a significant revenue stream for the publishing, horticultural and home improvement industries for the past few years. I do wonder, though, is it all marketing flim flam, tapping into our desire to escape from the rat race to live the good life but never really getting any further than Tom and Barbara, or is there really something of enduring substance behind the hype?

To begin to answer that question I think we have to consider the reasons why growing your own food has become such an appealing idea. Because it wasn’t; not for several decades. Since the end of the wartime Dig for Victory campaign and the rise of the supermarkets with their cheap, clean, readily available year-round fresh produce, the idea of getting your hands dirty and having to wrest your food from the ground was anathema, and allotments became a retreat for a certain type of man who wished to escape his family and spend as much of his spare time as possible in the cultivation of prize winning parsnips of uncommon size. As long ago as 1962 Rachel Carsson shone a light on the widespread use of pesticides in Silent Spring, but convenience and affordability seemed to be the overriding imperatives for the shopper until the concerns of the organic movement began to gain traction in the nineties. Coupled with a wider awareness of environmental issues, embracing food miles and ethical trading policies, a new eco-savvy consumer began to exert influence on the supermarket food buyers prompting an increase in fair trade and organic food lines, albeit priced at a premium.

With worries over the pesticide content of the food on our plates, its provenance and, especially in times of recession, cost, it’s not hard to see why the notion of growing your own food should once again gain popularity. Particularly so when you consider that food we grow for ourselves need pass none of the tests imposed by the supermarkets in respect of shelf life, suitability for transport, and uniformity of visual appearance. Consequently, the varieties we choose to grow can be selected by more satisfying criteria: I choose to grow this potato because I prefer its taste to that one, or this squash because, well frankly, it looks funny and makes me smile. And I think this is getting to the heart of the matter.

While it’s interesting to consider the background behind the Grow Your Own movement, all we can really be sure of is what motivates us personally. I think choice has a lot to do with it, at least for myself. Whatever you want to grow — which, most sensibly, should be closely related to whatever you want to cook and to eat — there is such a diversity of choice that the process of engagement with the food on your plate begins even before the seeds have arrived. Maybe it’s a wholeness thing, a holistic approach which fulfills something that we’ve lost in our market-driven economy, and restores a lost connection between our land, our stomachs, and our souls. Maybe it’s a chance to cock a snook at the supermarkets. Or maybe it’s just the satisfaction of realising that with minimal resources, good honest toil and a few handfuls of earth we’re able to provide, at least to some small extent, for ourselves and our families.

Whatever the explanation for the current popularity of Grow Your Own, whether passing fad or perennially popular activity, I’m in for the long haul.