Think Instagram is only for pretty pictures? Think again, the rise of social media is giving farmers and growers a platform to speak directly to the public. Hugh Thomas talks to the farmers using their Tweets to educate people on where our food comes from.
Farmer, Julius Roberts – a.k.a @telltalefood – totals a mega 21K followers
A few months ago, Padella, the infinitely popular pasta restaurant just outside Borough Market, posted an image of a plucked grouse, with the caption, ‘soon to be ragu’. The comments came in their hundreds: ‘Disgusting photo’, ‘I’m so put off eating this dish now’, and ‘No point in lying in what we’re eating’. The restaurant subsequently marked the photo with a ‘sensitive content’ warning.
We already know social media can provide a – shall we say – dynamic battleground for debate. But is that as far as it goes, or can it be used to really enlighten and educate people on where our food comes from?
There are some who believe so. Over in the Stour Valley is Julius Roberts who, at 26, quit cheffing at highly-rated London restaurant Noble Rot to set up his own smallholding. His Instagram @telltalefood documents him getting to grips with his new lifestyle.
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The thing that always astounds and scares me most is the depth of connection these animals have with each other. Such tender relationships that truly transcend our understanding of their nature. This is Juno and Gloria. Mother and daughter, who spend every hour of the day and night shoulder to shoulder. They were sadly separated for over a year until I traded a billy goat for Gloria. I had no idea that they were related… but when she arrived they recognised each other instantly and I don’t think I’ve ever seen joy quite like it.
Julius rarely – if ever – leaves any detail out. He talks of the time the fox got to his chickens. Twice. He talks of watching over pregnant goats with a baby monitor in -4ºC and in the middle of the night, looking to catch the kids straight out the womb to make sure they don’t freeze to death. He talks about the difficulties in taking his four mangalitsa pigs, who he fed and watered twice a day for two years, to slaughter. ‘I’m so scared. They’re going [to the abattoir] on Tuesday,’ he said on his Instagram Stories feed.
“We’re really disconnected with where our food comes from”
Given his previous occupation, Julius’ reactions towards the requirements needed to create food are as eye-opening for him as they are his followers. ‘I started the telltalefood thing not necessarily knowing what I was doing, but exploring our relationship with food. I’ve learnt we’re really ignorant and disconnected with where it comes from’, he says on his Stories. Despite the emotional affinity he’s cultivated with his livestock destined for the slaughterhouse, Julius believes eating animals, when reared humanely and with respect for the natural environment, is the only way to go. ‘We need animals to create fertility in the soil,’ he told The Telegraph.
On the other extreme in terms of scale, there’s Leigh, who jointly runs a 1,100-acre farm in the Yorkshire Dales. She’s behind @hilltopfarmgirl, which reaches its 19,700 Instagram followers with musings on important agricultural practices, like regenerative farming, keeping native breeds, and pasture grazing.
In one post, she writes of her Belted Galloways: ‘Native breeds have been so brilliant for our farm, they help us to farm naturally with the uplands rather than fighting against it.’ In another we see the cows again, but this time in the butcher’s display: ‘I know some people might find it hard to see our Belted Galloways as beef’ the caption reads. ‘While we realise it’s not for everyone, our ethos has always been to respectfully care for our animals, giving them long lives, grazing only on pasture with freedom to roam and exhibit natural behaviour.’
How growers are bypassing mainstream media
Kate Collyns of Grown Green in Wiltshire, has found similar benefits in Twitter. ‘Social media helps growers and farmers talk to people directly and tell them what the issues currently are, without being edited or filtered through a newsroom. During the hot summer last year, there was very little mainstream media coverage on the problems farmers were facing. Not only in horticulture, but especially livestock farms, where many were having to plunder their winter feed stocks as there was no grass due to drought.’
As far as people’s attitudes towards farmers’ quality of life are concerned, Kate says there’s also plenty of work to do. ‘I don’t think some people realise how little many farmers and growers earn, and how dependent their income is on factors they can’t control, such as the weather and pests. I’m happy to discuss that on social media though, and continue to campaign for a fairer food system where farmers get more of the money customers pay for their food.’
— Grown Green (@KateCollyns) January 28, 2019
The list of issues faced by the farming community isn’t getting shorter. Social media could help change that. Then again, with all those pictures of stocky playful Galloways and lush sweeping landscapes, how’s anyone to know when something’s just an advert or – like much of Instagram – a nice photo? Paraphrasing one of Leigh’s posts, the best way to appreciate what farmers do and why they do it, is by trying the end product.
Farmdrop works directly with local independent farmers to make sure your money is going to the right people who care about animal welfare and the environment. Read more here on how your pound can save British farmers.