Matt Allison, Urban Farmer, Eco-Activist and No Jamie Oliver

Written by Katie Parla on September 21, 2011

Today I have a beautiful guest post to share. Its author is Matt Allison, a South African urban farmer, eco-advocate, and author of the blog I’m No Jamie Oliver. He works cultivating the land, providing produce to his family and to chefs, and connecting farmers with professional kitchens. He attended MAD Food Camp in Copenhagen in late August and that is where we met and had an all-to-short chat. I see this post as a continuation of our conversation and I am overjoyed to share it with you:

Today I saw a rainbow. It was nothing out of the ordinary, just a common occurrence produced when light enters a raindrop. Biblically it’s the sign of a promise, and in some ways the promise I saw today reminded me of the one experienced at MADfoodcamp, to ‘believe in change’.

A few short months ago a friend, chef & author Sonia Cabano, alerted me to MAD Food Camp, distributing a single sheet explaining René Redzepi’s vision for his seemingly ‘counter-cultural’ food symposium.

Living in South Africa, I feel isolated from the rest of the world at times, and MAD Food Camp presented an opportunity to interact with other urban farmers facing their own struggles. In my case, limitations breed ingenuity and over the last year of farming, I have achieved triumphs though personal experiments. In my work, I have a close relationship with chefs and eateries, a bond that ties us, striving for the common goal of creating the best dishes with the best ingredients. While a chef may make a mistake costing him a service, my mistakes cost me, and them, a season. It is an enormous responsibility.

I’ll be honest, most of the time farming is a thankless task. I often say ‘I’ve never had so much fun making so little money’, which is true, and reminds me that success is not solely governed by financial reward. I live in a society that praises doctors, accountants, and lawyers, while farmers are relegated to the lowest rung of the social ladder. It could be said I opted out of the mainstream system sometime ago, opting into something altogether different, something bigger than my own self-worth. It started selfishly with a desire to preserve my family’s health and to forge a connection with something as primal as food.

When it comes to striving towards healthy food, there is no standing on the proverbial fencepost. Access to good, clean food requires action. You HAVE to choose if you are going to be a part of that change. As Massimo Bottura shared in a letter sent to the MAD Food Camp symposium, ‘Buying organic is just a start’. This is a message I’ve been preaching for some time. There are bigger questions at play and as conscientious consumers we should also be asking whether our food is local, sustainable, seasonal, ethical, and fair. These factors transcend the notion of ‘organic’, respecting not only vegetables and other foods, but also the environment and farm workers.

I sat riveted by talks from the likes of Miles Irving, Chef Ben Shewry and foraging botanist Francois Couplan, all of whom looked to the wild for answers. Miles shared ‘There is treasure in our woods and fields’ while Francois announced, ‘We’ve discovered over 80,000 edible plants in the wild yet 90% of the Western diet is comprised of 20 cultivated crops’. Ben had the audience in tears with his account of sharing foraged foods with his young son declaring ‘I’m not a rich man, but I’ve never felt richer living off the scraps of society’.

I wonder, have we just lost interest in seeking out these wild treasures? Have we given up gazing upon an abundant wild world in search of answers? We now place our trust in agribusiness and legislators to make major food supply choices for us. As much as it pains me to say this, they do not have our best interests at heart.

Hans Herren optimistically shared how 70% of the food worldwide is still grown by small scale farmers, on 1-2 hectares of land, yet a staggering 77% of the seeds available in agribusiness today are in the hands of 3 large corporations. Is it any wonder local farmers took to the streets in Haiti and burnt Monsanto’s ‘generous’ gift of their GMO seeds after their tragic earthquake? Imagine farmers who have for generations seed saved and kept thousands of heirloom and heritage varieties alive being told they need to cease their ways to make way for the likes of Dow and Monsanto? Absurd.

It’s been proven that organic farmers have better yields than the agribuisness model in droughts and, as Harold McGee shared, these environmental stresses in many ways bring out desirable traits in our food, in part leading to why many organic vegetables taste better. All of my own seeds are open pollinated and, for the most, part heritage varieties. I believe in the preservation of these crops and regularly trade seeds with other like-minded farmers. Together, we work for a greater good; if we didn’t these seeds would continue to be forgotten.

Now I understand that very few of us are called to grow food–I do believe it is a calling–but I encourage everyone to grow something, even if it is just a few culinary herbs on a sunny windowsill. Be inspired by nature’s bounty. That said you can, if you can’t grow anything, at the very least have a relationship with someone who does. Get to know farmers and visit their markets.

In my work, I offer my clients complete transparency in food production. They are welcome to come to the farms where I work any time to see them in action. On market days, my food is picked out of the fields at around 2-3pm and sold at 4pm. My patrons know what I and my fellow producers stand for and that our ethics are uncompromisable.

We are driven by a common question: What legacy will we leave our children? One that places a ‘Big Mac’ above that of a home cooked meal? I’m at a lost for words when I consider that in a single generation we’ve managed to stop the transfer of knowledge from being handed down to our children. To a large extent, we rely on chefs to keep our culinary heritage alive; their role is far greater than we give them credit for. Their value transcends celebrity.

One chef at MAD Food Camp, Magnus Nilsson, had me spellbound as he recounted how he needs to preserve his foodstuff 6 months of the year through drying, curing and preserving, an art long lost in a world of excess. I take for granted our exceptional growing climate here in Cape Town that permits me to keep my tomatoes going outdoors through winter For our brothers in the Northern Hemisphere this is unthinkable, so impulse is either to rely on imported foods or to look at inventive ways of preserving ingredients, something Magnus has mastered perfectly.

As I left the MAD Food Camp waving goodbye to to René, the clouds above opened and drenched us in a torrential downpour. At first we fought it, then embraced the symbolical cleansing us. Out of the corner of my eye I caught it–a rainbow, the ‘promise’ of things to come. MAD Food Camp is just the start and I’m optimistic that change will come and am blessed to have a small role in it.

Follow Matt on his blog and on twitter @mattallison.

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