Nama Yasai.

Literal translation
‘raw vegetables’.


Words by Matthew Hook
Illustrations by Spencer Wilson



Japanese ginger (myoga)
  
    There's rarely a spare seat at the counter in Soho's Koya bar. Thick, Udon noodles are endlessly slurped, rice and tempura dishes fuel the Soho public, going back to work full steam or powering through that last big window shop. The throng continues in a steady stream from early breakfast into the night, and the queue is very nearly a complete cross-section of the neighbourhood on any given day, all with heads buried deep in a bowl of hot soup like exalted pilgrims. 

    Office types on a rushed lunch break rub shoulders with hungry tourists, newbies sent there by friends or apps, and the veterans, those customers that have mastered the menu, who come alone to squeeze past a naïve party of six and into a narrow spot at the counter. They know there's magic to be had on the daily specials board, though it can be daunting for some, the list tends to feature a few things you’ll not have heard of, and you would be forgiven for your ignorance, as some of them are strangers to British shores.

    Koya has a small farm in Sussex to thank for these exotic foodstuffs. Nama Yasai (literal translation “raw vegetables,”) is the passion project of Robin Williams and Ikuko Suzuki, a duo with a few green acres just outside the town of Lewes, where they have made their family. They’ve supplied Koya bar, and it’s gone-but-not-forgotten older sister Koya for years. Since 2004 the pair has turned their wits to growing their Japanese produce in English soil, and they’ve grown something more than a few exotic novelties, they’ve built a model for what can be achieved with some good dirt and thoughtful farming.


Japanese aubergine (Nasu)

    I arrive early on the fast train from London, Robin and his gang of assistants – mostly student volunteers here to soak up some of the agricultural insight– have already been out in the field since the little hours, on their knees pulling weeds from a few rows of Tayberries. The conversation is deep into the subtler points of weed prevention, growing things being a constant hot topic out in the field.

    I manage to pull Robin away from swinging around his giant scythe for a tour of the farm. We take a stroll through the fields, look over a few mulberry trees in the test phase, still years away from letting on whether it was all worth it. There are wild sloes, rosehips, rowanberries and blackberries, happy additions to a farm that celebrates independent plants. Kabocha pumpkins grow in a mad sprawl. There are no carefully manicured hedgerows here. Plants are allowed to grow as they want if last years crop starts to self-seed and sprout in other parts of the field, why not let it? .

“even with all the research literature in the world, working in tandem with the natural world can be as predictable as a bad night at the casino”

Sansho


    Robin reassures me “It’s a bit of a mish-mash, but it is deliberate, it keeps costs down and helps with diversity,” biological diversity is key to Robin's vision, working towards a constant balancing act between the many hundreds of actors on his farm. In the sticky air of the greenhouses are growing Nasu (Japanese aubergine), negauri (bitter melon, and worth a Google image search), Yuzu trees and a host of experiments and companion plants. They have no direct financial value but serve to keep up that biological diversity to get natural systems to do the job that fertilisers and pesticides have subsumed in conventional agriculture. It maintains a semi-natural semblance of an ecosystem, keeping wasps, bees and other buddy insects around and staving off infestations of anything with too much of an appetite, in a practice known as conservation biological control. Marigold, dotted around the greenhouse, is for example aphid kryptonite, at least in principle. Robin is quick to point out, however, that even with all the research literature in the world, working in tandem with the natural world can be as predictable as a bad night at the casino. The best way to accomplish it is to get to know your land, find out what will work in it.

    Robin used to work in I.T, it treated him well and afforded him the chance to take on Nama Yasai in 2004. Despite the apparent contradiction of a tech guy in an empty field, Robin found a use for his methodical brain “It taught me that there’s always a solution.” Robin also proved to have more than enough get-up and go to get the farm producing fast. He put in the solar-powered pump that brings water up from an underground stream himself, which keeps him self-sufficient and supplies an extensive, again self-installed, irrigation system. The composting toilet he built, with woven walls of green wood that have since retaken root in the soil, a real testament to giving back to nature, in every way.

    Robin isn’t a fan of bureaucracy; in his mind, it keeps him away from his leafy progeny out in the field, and ties farmers down to their office chairs with so much red tape filling out applications that he tries to avoid at all costs. It’s why he isn’t certified organic. He points out that there is a distinction between brand organic and the actual on the ground application of chemical-free farming. He tells me about the political factions even within the organics movement, references a shady-sounding ‘anti-ploughing lobby.’ And so his farm is a benchmark for doing things au naturel, the air is thick with winged creatures, both protecting and eating his crop, that wouldn’t be tolerated on a conventional, pesticide-heavy farm. The philosophy of one Masanobu Fukuoka heavily influences his more laissez-faire practices. Fukuoka is one of the five pillars of the organic movement, alongside fellow sage Rudolf Steiner and his bio-dynamics, more than just a trendy tagline to add to cloudy wine.


Daikon


Kabocha


    Fukuoka coined the term “Do nothing” farming in the mid-twentieth century after developing a system of agriculture which puts faith in the natural workings of the world, with just a little coaxing from the human element. He popularised the clay seed ball, a technique involving wrapping up seeds in a little bomb of fertile soil to be germinated safe inside the protective clay shell away from predators so kick-start a plants early life. It’s now a fan favourite amongst the guerilla gardeners, environmentalists who hurl the balls into public spaces and industrial wastelands to revitalise them with wildflowers.

    He popularised the clay seed ball, a technique involving wrapping up seeds in a little bomb of fertile soil, to be germinated safe inside the protective clay shell away from predators to kick-start a plants early life.

“heads buried deep in a
bowl of hot soup like
exalted pilgrims”



    He believed that farming in this way was a part of the larger and loftier goal
of “the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” He put his faith in the complex systems of microbes that naturally occur in the ground for producing fertile soil, advocated abandoning ploughing, pruning, excessive weeding, and took these ideas around the world. The later years of his already jam-packed life he busied himself with the not insignificant task of reforesting global deserts affected by humanmade degradation. His book, ‘The One Straw Revolution’ has become a bible for organic farmers, Robin and aforementioned anti-ploughing fanatics included, though ever the pragmatist, he reminds me that no one system works for everyone, it’s a constant process of trial and error, and a battle to keep the balance. “You’d be surprised how quickly nature takes over.” Something Fukuoka also learned in the early days, when he managed to ruin his father’s orange groves in a test run of his fledgeling idea.


Bitter melon (nigauri)


    Back in the prep kitchen at Koya, a Nama Yasai delivery has arrived, stacked high with alien greenery, and the most recent addition to the kitchen team casts his eye over it dumbfounded.






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Dear Cow.




A year long search for Daisy,
a cow with flowers in her hair.
Words & Photos by Christian Doyle





Bullock. West Sussex

“We have divorced ourselves from the fact that the plastic wrapped frozen pink protein
was once a living breathing animal.”


  I imagined that your average British dairy farm was a straightforwardly benign producer of delicious products. I’d always bought organic butter, a little cheese and loved any treat which involved double cream. I didn’t know the reality of our dairy system, believing the imagery on my milk carton of a happy cow (let’s call her Daisy) depicted in flower strewn meadow with a buttercup in her mouth.


Organic Dairy Farm, Devon

    One of our first visits was to a dairy whose website featured just such a cow, a calf at her side with reassuring words concerning the care of each animal, the pasture she grazed on and a blurb about the farming pedigree of the owners.

    I had high hopes as we drove into the yard just before dawn for the early morning milking session. There must have been over a 200 cows standing silently waiting to take their turn to be milked for possibly two hours before being let out to be fed on dank silage and to stand ankle deep in slurry. I kept up an argument with myself about the fact that this is the way it is; who am I to judge, it’s not my role here. 
  

Boy Calf, Cotswolds Organic Dairy
Beef Bull, West Sussex Farm - out all year round, free to forage and to roam


    Most of us understand that a calf has to be born for the mother to produce milk. What I didn’t know was that when that calf is born, and after receiving health-giving colostrum from the mother (also creating a bond between mother and newborn) the calf is noisily and distressingly removed at a few days old. At the higher welfare farm it is put into a pen with others of the same age, able to call to the mother and touch her, but not to feed on her. It will be bottle fed with lower quality milk or with formula.

    The mother cow goes back into production to be milked twice a day until the next pregnancy/birthing cycle. The worse case scenario (but entirely routine) is that the calf is put into a solitary ‘crate’ like a dog kennel away from the herd and denied the most basic need for a young animal; to sleep with its family for warmth, comfort and protection. Many boy calves are merely shot immediately after being born as it is believed that this is a less cruel practice as the mother will not have had time to bond with it. If kept for veal he may have a few months longer to live or even be exported or sold on for fattening.

Young beef calfs, West Sussex


Calf and mother kept together until weaned.  
At The Calf at Foot Dairy, Somerleyton, Suffolk.  
Milking by hand, one at a time

    The natural age span for a cow is around 20 years old - in the dairy industry she is usually finished at 4 when she ceases to produce the required milk yield - and as an ex-dairy cow will be processed into burgers and sausages or dog food. Then there is the castration of bull calves, de-horning with acid or burning, ear puncturing for tags not forgetting branding numbers on dairy cows back sides. In case we hadn’t entirely done enough. I’m not sure how much more you could do to an animal without it dropping dead, in a writhing heap of agony.

Rescued Dairy Cow at Ahimsa Cow Sanctuary, Rutland.  She will be allowed to live out her life - about 20 years - free to roam and to forage.

   
We have divorced ourselves from the fact that the plastic wrapped frozen pink protein was once a living breathing animal with its own needs, loves, friendships, place in a hierarchy, strong maternal instincts and fear of death. As somebody pointed out when an animal jumps free from a lorry destined for the slaughterhouse (as in the Tamworth pigs’ story some years ago) they become overnight celebrities, but hundreds of thousands of equally characterful animals are sent off every year without a second thought.

    Current figures from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs state that in December 2017 alone there were over 200,000 cows, bulls and calfs sent to slaughter in the UK. Some old, some very young, some pregnant .


“a small number of Jersey cows
are left to roam and forage, to lie down and ruminate 'in pastures green' and to visit and to groom each other.”


Mother and son - West Sussex Common -
grooming is part of the bonding process between adults and young


    Even in the most humane of micro dairies with small herd sizes, the same primary cycles apply. Where there is a massive difference is in the keeping together of mother and calf, the method of milking and the level of personal care and empathy. At the Calf at Foot Dairy in Suffolk, a small number of Jersey cows are left to roam and forage, to lie down and ruminate 'in pastures green' and to visit and to groom each other. They are called in individually once a day for milking by hand, with their calf being allowed to stand beside them. The cows know their own and each others’ names. When ‘Daisy' is called in, the other cows look at her and as she trots obediently accompanied by her calf. No slurry, no shouting, no fluorescently lit shed, no clanging bars and chains just the gentle whir of the milk pump.



Calf at a few hours old.  
Many aunties paid visits to check all was well.  
Cotswolds Organic Dairy


   
    The milk from this dairy is expensive by supermarket standards, at around £3 a litre; this is the actual cost of milk from a clean, calm and high animal welfare, low stress dairy. And there is precious little profit. My local newsagent sells ‘British Milk’ (with dancing, smiling cow of course) for £1 for 2 litres. Where does that milk come from and under what conditions has it been produced?

    ‘Pasture Fed’ or ‘Organic’ doesn’t necessarily mean that animals are in that fabled meadow all year round. They need to be housed over winter for months on end and fed hay or silage, the price of which needs to be passed on to the customer so that the farmer makes a decent living. One farmer pointed out that she is getting less for a litre of milk than the cost of its production. Farmers have the right to a stress free life too and should be rewarded for the hard work they put into their animals’ welfare.







The cow who started it all.  
Family pet, Midhurst West Sussex



I’ve made a reluctant choice to give up cheese, butter, cream and meat, but I buy raw milk as a luxury supporting that little dairy in Suffolk with its whole-hearted commitment to proper animal welfare. In the end, I did find Daisy, foraging in a hedge of chestnut leaves tended to by people who care about their animals and who want to change the system, while barely scraping a living for themselves.





Sources:








The Sustainable Food Trust
AHDB (Agriculture, Horticulture Development Board)
Dairy Co The Structure of GB The Dairy Farming Industry
The Farmers’ Guardian
The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers
Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
House of Commons Library ‘UK Dairy Industry Statistics’
Gov. UK ‘Cattle, Sheep and Pig Slaughter’
Rosamund Young ‘The Secret Life of Cows’

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