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While born and raised on a farm in the west of Ireland, it would be quite a stretch to say that my upbringing was one where I lived completely off the land in some sort of idyllic, symbiotic relationship with nature.
No. For one, we rarely directly consumed any of the produce from the family farm. As the first step in beef production, each year we sold the young suckler calves — weanlings as they’re called, as they’re weaned off their mothers at this stage (an udder-ly sad process) — to other farmers who would then “ready them” for human consumption. So we tended not to kill our own cattle for sustenance.
What’s more, it was purely a cattle farm. We didn’t grow crops of any kind.
Handed down to my father from his father, it’s fair to say he kept it as a going concern more out of a sentimental attachment than anything else really, with much help from us, his children, and, of course, my mother, while he ensured our household had a more reliable source of income working in construction.
Why chop when you can simply shop?
So, although comfortable around cattle and not afraid to get my hands dirty in the countryside, I’ve never directly used the land to get my “daily bread” so to put it.
It’s fair to say that’s pretty much how most Irish farmers, part-time or full-time, operate. Whether the farm is a profitable business (by all accounts there aren’t many of those in the west of Ireland) or, in our case, an expensive and very often labour-intensive hobby, very few get anything close to the majority of their food requirements from it.
In today’s world, this makes a lot of sense. It’s less time consuming, more reliable and even cheaper to just go to the local supermarket for one’s staples.
Thus, it wasn’t until I travelled to this part of the world that I witnessed something that resembled true self-sufficient living off the land.
‘The rudimentary nature of it appealed in many ways. Quite literally, you get to taste and enjoy the fruits of your own labour.’
Eleven years on from my first such encounter, the memory has stayed firmly with me.
Down in the deep valley of Peru’s impressive Colca Canyon during a three-day trek, I observed with silent admiration the comings and goings of the local host family.
Everything they did appeared to revolve around preparing the next meal and, so it seemed anyway, the majority of the ingredients were sourced from the farm.
For sure, the family was no doubt earning money from the passing tourism trade as well, yet I couldn’t help but think that from a food perspective, they looked to be practically self-sufficient.
I’m not saying it was a carefree existence — there’s no such thing — in the way some “First Worlders”, rather patronisingly, highlight the “joyous” way primitive tribes live. Nonetheless, the more rudimentary nature of it appealed in many ways. Quite literally, you get to taste and, all going well, enjoy the fruits of your own labour. Beats marketing for faceless third parties in any case, one can only assume.
It’s akin to when you cook your own meal, you generally have a greater appreciation for it compared to when it’s prepared for you. We can extrapolate, then, that if you grow and harvest your own food, you’ll enjoy it even more.
One step back, two steps forward
A back-to-basics, back-to-nature approach is often viewed as regressive. The fast-paced city life is where the action is. Where is that rapidity taking us, though? Many of us appear to be running just to stand still.
What if we took it down a few levels, appreciated the more fundamental elements of life. Give time its due. Not everything must be, nay can be, “now, now, now”.
One of the few positives from the various ineffective measures imposed upon us due to the coronavirus crisis is that some people are discovering that we don’t need to be on the go 24/7. We can take our foot off the pedal and still go forward.
This isn’t a call for a rejection of modernity and the digital world — that would be professionally suicidal for many of us right now. It’s about obtaining a better balance.
Some are slowly waking up to the fact that there’s a lot of unnecessary “padding” in our lives, non-essentials that have been cleverly sold to us as stuff we can’t live without.
One hope is that the movement against our disposable, fast-fashion lifestyle, in all its unsustainable manifestations, grows stronger.
From a food perspective, it would be nice to see those who can do much better to be self-sufficient not only take affirmative action but be given the required assistance and time to do so as well. Teach a man how to fish and all that.
Focusing more so on the bare necessities, reconnecting with the land that feeds us, does not have to come at the cost of progress and modernity. On the contrary, they can go hand in hand.
Listen to Wrong Way’s Colombia Cast here.