Archives for the month of: February, 2020

Over the years I have engaged in agricultural work in a number of ways, enjoying the physical labor, with a keen interest in the history of the relationship between humans and the land in specific places;  how this relationship has changed over time and how surprisingly many things remained the same, old wine in new bags, so to speak. Curious in what way we value our land, the food we grow to raise our children and the people who are invested in tending this process, the farmers, the farmworkers, the social relationships.

Sicily for instance, the ‘granary’ that for long sustained and enabled many empires and kingdoms on the European continent. The island that enjoyed a rich, thriving culture  in which different religions existed peacefully side by side during the Middle Ages while the rest of Europe was shrouded in ‘darkness’, however remained basically a feudal system when elsewhere the rise of capitalism transformed peasants from a life as serfs into freeholders.

In England the Charter of the Forest, signed in 1217 re-established the rights for free men to access to the royal forest, including large areas of commons, such as grassland and wetlands, providing food, grazing and other resources.

Unfortunately, this promise of equality did not hold for long, the free market ideology has created a similar hierarchy of poor peasantry and wealthy landowners for whom money is king. It didn’t develop as a free market but rather was established from above, imposed by a deeply rooted ruling class. Farmers were and still are at the low end mostly, and in our days, are at the mercy of corporate giants and their political puppets. 

Many of us realize that the dominant way we approach our land and our food is taking us into a downward spiral. Sharing-, circular-, care- are now proposed as alternative economies to counter this downfall. 

The organic movement for instance refers to organizations and individuals involved worldwide in the promotion of organic farming and other organic products, which already started around the first half of the 20th century, as an alternative to modern large scale agricultural practices.

It was however much later that the real push began to reconnect people in the city back to the countryside,  likely as a response to the 1962 publication of Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, chronicling the effects of pesticides on the environment, thereby effectively launching the environmental movement, and the notions of sharing and caring, 

One such sharing network started out in United Kingdom in the early 1970’s, “as an exchange between urban dwellers, who wanted a piece of rural living without giving up their existing lifestyle and small rural landowners, who needed help tending to their daily activities. It basically started out as recreative opportunity in which no money changed hands, but over the years this network, known as wwoof, worldwide opportunities on organic farms, has grown into a global network of connecting people in the organic movement that continues to adhere to the principle of moneyless exchange. 

In my early days of farming, I enjoyed being part of this network and the principles it stands for, but over the years I have grown more skeptical. What started out as an idealistic program has grown into a something more heterogeneous. Although great experiences can still be had, and hopefully this continues, it has also allowed for exploitation of cheap labor, situations where workers are vulnerable and taken advantage of. 

Although my experience is mainly from the land worker perspective observing the exploitative nature these host-worker relationships tolerate, it also lays bare a deeper problem with our food system. The fact that farmers and farm work is undervalued; good food cannot be produced for the price the market is prepared to pay, when (organic) farmers have to revert to cheap or free labor, and when wealthier landowners can exploit vulnerable workers, we have not really moved on from the early days of serfdom.

It concerns me deeply, the slow growth and transformation of well intended grassroots efforts into monsters of inequality and exploitation while on the surface,  apparent “awareness’ numbs our sense of reality and responsibility.  It is happening right under our noses if we care to take a whiff. 



The gift that keeps on giving. The cultures that can be shared, that connect us all. No, I am not talking about the internet or social media, but the microbial communities that grow our cheese, our bread, wine, makes our food alive and helps our bodies thrive. The Pasta Madre to make sourdough bread, the Mutter Kulturen, starter cultures in alpine cheese making. 

Unfortunately, many of these cultures are becoming extinct, replaced by synthetic bacterial mixes that are all pretty much the same or similar that provide consistency but represent only a fraction of the diversity of the wild mother cultures. 

For thousands of years these cultures sustained our lives. Unrealistic fear of microbes, zealous obsession with hygiene, and hunger for control all contribute to the current eradication of our mothers.


It’s a man’s world?

No man lives without a mother. It is time to turn the tables.

Many modern cheese making facilities, being it small or industrial type, look like scientific laboratories in which conditions can be controlled and cheese making can be standardized, even for many of the artisan styles. It is a result of our modern lifestyles, in which food consumption is far removed from its sources and intermediate pathways need to be hygienically guarded to minimize any kind of hazardous situation.

Making cheese is actually elegantly simple, and once humans figured out the way to preserve milk in this way over 7000 years ago, there was no stopping us. Cheese has been in the making ever since, but over the last 150 years or so more and more, the natural is replaced by the synthetic.

What happens when you leave milk on your counter. It will turn sour! This is the essence of making cheese. The ambient bacterias (Lactic Acid Bacteria) will turn the sugars in the milk (lactose) into acid and causes it to thicken. We can help by adding some more bacteria, a scoop of yoghurt, some kefir grains, or some whey of a previous batch of cheese. Letting it drain will separate the whey from the curd. Of course over the years we have enhanced our skills and recipes. Cheese, a living thing, starts its life as milk at around Ph 6.7 (7 = neutral), it will lower (acidify) in the making process, but cheeses can have a range of acidic values (>4) and change during their lifetime. Sour blobs on the farm, but that was then. 


Pasteurization has helped to keep milk fresher longer, especially since it had to be transported over longer distances to reach the growing number of people living in cities. First cows were kept in urban areas before industrialization, but during the early 20th century the supply chains lengthened and risk of disease from raw milk increased. Enter pasteurization.

Through the idea and method developed by Louis Pasteur, the milk is heated up with the intention to eliminate pathogens, to destroy and deactivate organisms and enzymes that contribute to spoilage. 

This was a good thing, but it has also affected our trust in good milk. The milk that comes from healthy cows and other animals living on a grass-based diet. The milk that contains many good bacteria that can turn milk into cheese, not only tastes good but rich in a number of ways. Instead, industry has taken over and provides synthetic mixes to be added to (pasteurized) milk, from which we can make the same cheese over and over, like wonder bread.  Something is lost in translation, biodiversity is diminished. The rich acidified fluid that makes my gut sing, is best when the road from udder to table is short. It is also a great way to get a better understanding of what is going on with a crucial non-renewable resource on a human scale: our soils and grasslands.



The land looks peaceful, marshland bordered by undulating green field lined with oak and hedges.

Apart from the occasional British flag waved in the villages, everything seems to be the same after independence day. The odors in the land are familiar and omnipresent.

It is winter, the pasture land is regenerating, the animals are inside, except for the sheep. The cows are fed on hay and silage, which together with manure makes up the typical winter pasture land smell. 


Good hay is good for cows. For cut grass to become hay for winter though, it needs to dry fast. The problem in the UK is that good warm weather in a five to six day row in summer time is scarce. Enter silage. More and more farmers turn to silage to feed their animals through the winter, but it is also affecting the milk, winter milk is just different and you cannot make an alpine style (hard) cheese for instance. Basically, silage is fermented grass, green foliage crops preserved by acidification. When cut and heaped up, the foliage is usually pressed into bales and wrapped in plastic film. 

Grass milk is good. The organic way, very different from conventional practices, where cows are fed  primarily on grains to increase (meat) production. Organic milk is good. Non-organic milk not necessarily.

Milk provides omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which are both essential nutrients for humans. However too much omega-6 and too little omega-3 can increase the risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes, it is a matter of balance.  A recent study found that cows fed on organic grass produced milk with a better fatty acid profile, an omega 6/omega-3 ratio of nearly 1to 1, than for conventional whole milk, for which the ratio turned out to be 5.7 to 1. Take your pick, the odors are a bonus, but do pay attention. 

Silage can be odorless, vinegary, rancid-butter like, or sweet smelling tobacco, but when it smells musty or moldy, move on, your cows won’t like it, and milk and cheese will not be good either. Hay with a little bit of roughage is great, silage only when it smells good.


Stacked Silage


I have been involved in making dairy products from organic milk for over a year now, learning how milk changes with the season, the animals, and the place, the terroir of milk. How love for the animals and taking care of the milk, feeding it, and curating the curd, results in wonderfully tasting forms of nutrition. The Somerset cows, the marsh and upland grass, a specific mix I hope to learn and taste more about.