The image of this island as a clean, lush landscape upon which happy livestock graze at their leisure, is currently being milked— pun intended – for all its worth in support of the Year of Food 2016.
But when it comes to the state of farming and eating in Northern Ireland, not everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet.
Rita Wild is one dissenter from the “isn’t our wee agricultural system grand” party line. She is the organising force behind Boxa, a simple yet effective supply scheme that sells organic and ethically-reared beef, wild venison, lamb, chicken, pork and fish directly from farmer to eater.
It’s farm to fork in the most literal – and honest – sense.
Ask Rita if she thinks the current food scene in Northern Ireland is great, and she’ll give you a typically blunt answer.
“No,” she said. “It was great 40 years ago.”
Isle Van Staden (left) and Rita Wild. Photo by Jenny Holland
When entering into a conversation with Rita, it’s best to leave any sacred cows, organic or otherwise, at the door. The lady’s not for turning.
“Farming has changed so much in the last 40 years, it’s unrecognizable. We’ve gone from 22,000 family farms to 9,000 in the last 40 years. I’m not prepared to sugarcoat.”
It is a paradoxical time in our food culture. Even as we are given ever more evidence of the damage done to our bodies and to nature by how and what we eat, our fascination with all things food related – from farmers to chefs to cake makers – continues apace.
And even though marketing strategies for supermarkets and big agriculture continue to align themselves with images of a handful of cows munching on green grass, actual policy in Northern Ireland pushes ever further toward intensive agriculture.
Rita Wild stands against all that.
“I’m a food fascist,” she admits cheerfully, describing Boxa as “sort of a coop, sort of a club, sort of a benevolent dictatorship.”
But that enforcement of principle is put to a useful end: “We use our combined resources to get the food we want.”
Yet we continue to be caught in a perpetual cycle of overconsumption, our brains constantly stimulated by a never-ending stream of 30-second Tasty videos, vast supermarket aisles, and fast food restaurants on every High Street.
Which explains, in part, the pull of the Boxa scheme. It evokes old ways of eating, when choice was limited and convenience eating did not exist – but neither did childhood obesity.
“I really back what Rita is doing,” said David Laughlin, an organic dairy farmer in Co. Londonderry who helped Rita set up the Boxa scheme in 2012. “We can get good quality meat to the general public at an affordable price. When she approached me I absolutely embraced it with both arms.”
Working with Rita, he added, “has built a huge customer base for us.”
Knowing where the food is coming from is very important to Boxa customers.
Tancredi Caruso, an Italian living in Holywood, Co. Down, buys chicken and fish from Boxa. “I think it’s more control, and the quality is much higher. It gives me more confidence.”
Rita says transparency – about everything from provenance to pricing – is at the core of the Boxa scheme.
Another Boxa buyer, Jennifer Walsh-Rupakheti, who owns Namaste Yoga on Belfast’s Ormeau Road, said the system benefits each participant – right down to the animal.
“It is a total win-win for everyone. The farmers get a fair price, the animals have a high standard of welfare and the customers get ethical food at a fantastic price.”
Animal welfare ranks very high on Rita’s agenda. She is a fierce believer in rearing an animal as nature intended it to live, treating it kindly and killing it humanely.
“An animal has to be able to express its own nature – so a pig has to be able to express its piggy-ness,” she said.
For example, in Rita’s estimation, ethically reared ducks must have access to water. But because splashing about in ponds causes the animals to lose weight, conventionally-raised ducks don’t get to swim. As a result, Boxa does not offer its customers duck.
While animal welfare and supporting small-scale agriculture are worthy and important elements of the Boxa scheme, the real game changer in Rita’s work lies in her pricing formula.
The financial woes facing conventional farmers at the minute are well documented. The price of milk has collapsed, and that is putting a massive squeeze on farmers across the UK, with Northern Ireland being hit particularly hard. For David Laughlin, who went organic 20 years ago because he could not see a future in conventional farming, the organic label has provided a steady financial base. “The price of organic milk has been relatively stable and doesn’t suffer the same peaks and troughs,” he said. “I would stop farming before I would go back to conventional farming.”
Boxa pays its farmers more than what they get in the conventional system. Having worked out with the farmer exactly how much the animal costs – from impregnation to slaughter – Rita has come up with a formula that pays them for their labour, time and investment, not what the commodity market dictates.
And Boxa not only pays the farmer more than supermarkets and processors pay, but also allows for lower pricing on the customer end, too – removing the high-price stigma from the term organic.
How does she do this?
The first step was to figure out the cost of production. While that might seem like a sensible starting point for any business, the conventional farming system currently takes no account of what farmers’ costs are.
“They don’t get paid according to cost of production, they get paid the market price,” Rita explains. “So what it costs to produce is irrelevant to them – they get what they get for it. Whereas I was going, no, that’s stupid, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s not sustainable.”
Together with David Laughlin, Rita worked out the cost of production at around £4.20 a kilo, added 20 pence per kilo for profit for the farmer “which is perfectly reasonable,” she said, and voilà , they had worked out the cost of a box of beef.
“Which meant that I could give people a box of beef for less than they would pay at Tesco for exactly the same cuts. It’s actually cheaper for them to buy local, grass-fed, dry-aged, Soil Association-approved beef than it was to go to Tesco’s. And the farmer was getting more from us than he would get if he sent the animal down the road for slaughter.”
For her labour, Rita charges 10 percent commission to farmers and 10 percent handling fee to buyers.
She also keeps prices low by not having any administrative or marketing costs.
And she does not operate under the legal framework of a cooperative, because that too incurs costs.
“This is why buying food at the Co-op is no cheaper than buying food at Tesco,” Rita said. “And I wanted to make organic and wild food as cheap as I could make it.”
So no website, branding, or packaging, and a simple system of an email every month to 440 people, announcing the latest offerings.
Last December, Rita hosted a Boxa lunch, where dozens of her customers traveled to Ballylagan Organic Farm in Straid, about 20 minutes north of Belfast, on a cold, clear day. Her chef for the day was Ilse Van Staden, a South African chef, butcher and women’s Ulster rugby player.
The Boxa pop-up lunch was Irish food identity, on a plate. Photo by Jenny Holland
Ilse and Rita bonded over biltong, the South African cured dried beef that Ilse now makes (organic, of course) for Boxa customers. They also share a strongly held food ethic: waste nothing.
“Over here, people would be quite squeamish if you name something, people will not eat it,” Ilse explained after the Boxa lunch was over. “Coming from a farming background, everything has a job. So whether or not you name that calf, that calf’s job is to go into the dairy herd, and when they cease being of use to you, you’re going to cull them and you’re still going to use the meat. Same with chicken. If the hen doesn’t lay eggs anymore, what are you going to do, discard the body? No. We were brought up with ‘you use everything – that is a sign of respect.’”
The Boxa lunch menu was simple and hearty – and all organic, ethical and wild. The starter was a thick carrot soup, downright luminous in colour. The main course was wild venison, shot, Rita said, somewhere around Newtownbutler, Co. Fermanagh. There was nothing green on the table, no side order of French beans flown in from Africa. Everything on the menu was grown, raised or killed in Ulster. The only alcoholic drinks available for purchase were a tart cider and apple brandy from Highbank Orchard in Kilkenny. Both were delicious, but utterly unlike more conventionally sourced offerings. It was Irish food identity, on a plate.
Roasted organic carrot soup at the Boxa pop-up lunch.Photo by Jenny Holland
Though she’s now an enthusiastic eater of well-raised and organic meat, Rita used to be vegetarian because of her objections to the industrialized process of rearing and slaughtering the animals. She spent 30 years nagging family and friends to give up animal protein. Then one day, running an errand for a family dinner, she went to the supermarket to buy organic meat. “I nearly passed out when I saw the price of it. I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
So she had a revolutionary thought: “I’ll find a farmer and I’ll buy directly from the farmer.”
“We started chatting and getting on like a house on fire, he was telling me his cows were milked automatically” and a a time of their choosing, Rita said, instead of being herded into pens for milking. “I thought he was taking the piss. I thought ‘he thinks I’m a city girl, robotic milking of your cows, have you ever heard of it?’”
Her initial disbelief was put to rest when she witnessed the robotic milking for herself -- allowing, she says, for self-determination among the cows -- and then ventured to buy his meat. She started with a 12-ounce sirloin steak for New Years Eve.
Eating the meat from dairy cows is far from standard practice in Northern Ireland, or in most other countries – except as mince for budget conscious humans or food for pets.
But that was not always the case – back before the days of industrial-sized feedlots most cows were kept for both dairy and meat. (The native Northern Irish breed of Moilie, for example, is an excellent source of both. )
So when Rita served David’s sirloins to her guests, it was with a caveat.
“I said ‘I want you to be completely and brutally honest with me, I want you to tell me the truth, do you notice the difference?’”
Their reviews came in – and they were raves.
“They couldn’t get over how different it was. It was at that point that I went, ‘oh’ – here’s how you change people. You don’t nag them. You give them the good stuff. Because you cannae argue with that – it’s right in front of you.”
Boxa, at its core, is about making people happy about food again.
“I call it 360-degree fair trade,” Rita said. “Because it’s completely fair. It’s fair to the farmer, it’s fair to the workers, it’s fair to the consumer, it’s fair to the environment – 360 degrees.”
That fairness is enshrined in the proximity she deliberately arranges between farmer and buyer. “It’s about creating a food system that people can trust, that is as close to the producer as possible.”
Instead of being separated from the product by middlemen, massive stores and mileage, the Boxa customer has direct access to the men and women who produce the food the customers consume. “All my members have all the phone numbers of all the farmers.”
“If I have to hand to you, if I have to put it in your hand, it’s really hard for me to be bad to you,” she continued. “If you have to take it from my hand, it’s really hard for you to be bad to me. I want to put trust and proximity to the producer back into the food system.”
According to Rita and David, at least, the Northern Irish public – normally a cautious lot – are becoming more receptive to the idea of organic food.
“The demand is starting from a low base, but it’s growing. There’s no doubt it’s growing,” said David. “There is the will to do it and there is demand there.”
Organic could lose the expensive tag “not too far down the line.”
Jenny Holland is the founder and editor of www.sugarpiece.com. A former newspaper reporter, speechwriter and singing waitress, Jenny is a committed home cook, bike commuter and newbie runner.
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