Since the coronavirus pandemic appeared, organic crop farmer Ed Kyrke-Smith has been doing something not many of us can lay claim to: continuing with life as normal.
Five years ago, Ed and his wife chose to move, along with their young son, from a two-bedroom maisonette in South-East London’s Camberwell to a farm in the North Downs area of the Kent countryside, near the town of Ashford – somewhere with freedom of space, the calming influence of nature and soil to farm. As Londoners, Ed was working as a tree surgeon and his wife, Catherine, in television, a job in West London she has maintained despite the long commute from their farmhouse.
Their son Freddy, then three, was a motivating factor for the move. Ed remembers walking into a busy inner London supermarket to pick up some essentials and looking at a sea of plastic packaging covering food he didn’t feel good giving his son. Similarly, Catherine recalls walking through the commotion of Grove Lane, a road in the city’s Denmark Hill area, unable to hear what Freddy was trying to say to her: “There was so much noise and chaos that I had to shout back at him that we’d carry on talking at home”.
These moments were turning points. With the chaos of city life playing an increasingly detrimental role on Ed’s mental wellbeing, as well as concerns for its potentially negative impacts on the upbringing of their son, the couple felt a growing conviction that their home needed to be elsewhere. So, in 2015, they made the life-changing move to a three-acre plot of land in a small rural village called Brook, located between London and England’s south-east coast. 'I think we’re pretty close to achieving the five-year plan we had then,' says Ed, gesturing towards the land he works and the crops he grows.
Moving beyond growing only for himself and his family, Ed now promotes and sells his seasonal produce at local markets and in neighbouring villages. He believes strongly in what he calls ‘community food resilience’ – the public’s ability to sustain and support its own food needs, free from a dependence on supermarket buying, government trading issues, and concerns about the use of unethical processes that are bad for the planet.
'The title Rebel Farmer,' he clarifies, 'is about challenging the wasteful buying and eating practices we’re so used to. It’s about working towards a healthier independence with our food, without worries about how it’s been grown or packaged.'
The importance of these ideas has been illuminated more than ever by the coronavirus pandemic, where many people have become totally reliant on supermarket deliveries and where panic buying of essential foods puts us at the mercy of supply chains over which we have no control.
Ed is committed to education in this area, too. He gives talks at local primary schools and events about what he terms ‘the food revolution’ and the crucial importance of growing our own, not only for us now but also – and perhaps more significantly – for our children’s futures. He promotes a style of ‘no dig planting’, free of pesticides, where surface mulching helps to enrich the soil and maintain its natural balance. This, he explains, makes growing our own both quicker and easier – and having a farm or a huge garden are not pre-requisites for getting involved. 'If you don’t have masses of outdoor space,' remarks Ed, 'there’s lots you can grow on a window sill or a small balcony.' For everyone, but perhaps especially those of us living in cities with more limited space, this encouragement is inspirational. We can all grow our own to some degree, sharing what we’ve produced in one way or another. 'I hope I’m contributing to positive social change,' he says, 'that’s the aim.'
Growing our own food has far-reaching benefits. Feeling the clods of soil between our fingers, hearing the sound of the squelching earth as we water and work it, smelling the natural scent of the soil and the plants we raise; these raw qualities of the growing process make it a multi-sensory experience that can be good for the soul.
Grasping a seed or a bulb with our hands, planting it and then waiting, patiently but excitedly, for the literal fruit of the nurturing process is healthy in every sense. Tasting and eating the outcome can then give us feelings of pride and wellbeing, made stronger as we know the rearing process of the thing we’ve consumed. Sharing this produce with others – even if only a small bag of mint leaves or a few tomatoes – fosters meaningful interactions and the satisfying feelings that come with giving. This cycle is a holistic, natural experience that should be habitual; instead, it’s something that so many of us in modern, technology-obsessed, social media-influenced societies are lacking.
For city dwellers in particular, the experience of growing our own food can help to forge connections with nature that can be so easily lost by an urban existence. This is especially the case at this time of pandemic restrictions and concerns about public spaces that limit our movements and can be detrimental to our mental health. For Ed, cultivating the land has also helped to reduce and manage his feelings of ‘solastalgia’, a relatively new term that refers to the underlying (and often subconscious) anxieties that many people feel because of environmental damage from such practices as destructive mining and deforestation, much of which contributes to global climate change. Growing some of our own food – however minimal – can create the feeling that we’re pushing back that destructive machine.
Commenting further on the link between our physical and mental health, Ed refers to the way the food we eat in turn feeds how our minds operate:
'Think of the term 'gut instinct'. It suggests there’s a direct link between our food store – the gut – and our instinctive ability to make good choices. Our gut health is channelled into who we are and what we do, and it has a vital connection to our mental wellbeing.'
People’s emotional health becomes of greater concern as winter approaches, with less natural daylight hours and virus restrictions forcing us to stay at home more. Seasonally, while spring and summer are the more obvious times of year to be actively growing, lots can still be done in the colder months. Among other crops, particular varieties of onions, garlic, carrots, peas and broad beans can all be sown and planted outdoors in autumn and winter, and others – as well as certain herbs – indoors. The colder seasons can also be used to make the necessary growing and spatial preparations through activities like getting vegetable beds ready, building wooden planters, erecting a small greenhouse or even installing window-sill pots.
The mandate is clear: growing our own food – in whatever way we can – has a wide range of deep benefits for our physical and mental health. In addition, it can have a positive impact on community togetherness and interactions with others. If enough of us take part in the food revolution, however minimal our involvement, it can help to relieve the planet of some of the stress and strain it has been put under. Let’s all get growing.