Food News

What does a farmer think of food trends?

When it comes to ever-changing food fads, the trick for farmers is to winnow the wheat from the chaff, according to Paulette Whitney.

By Paulette Whitney
The kale fad

Trend is a dirty word when you're a farmer. We have to play the long game.

It's a tricky thing. The kale that was a fad a couple of years back - not withstanding people having eaten kale for millennia - took me a few seasons to master. Planted too early, it succumbed to marauding grubs; too late and the first frost checked its growth before it had even begun. When I'd finally grown enough to satisfy demand, the smoothie fanatics had raced off in their activewear to find some turmeric and açai berries, and I was left with just the few customers who understood the timeless joy that braised kale brings.

Micro-greens, historically sprouted in pantries or on windowsills by people with a hankering for greens in the cold months, become a bizarre use of resources when shipped for miles. I once weighed the snippings from a pot of micro-shiso - actually purple mustard greens, misleadingly labelled as shiso - and the seed used could have grown 50 shiso. Oh, hang on, mustard plants. My five bucks bought me five whole grams of tiny, tasteless food, along with a plastic pot, bag and label destined for the bin.

Perhaps the oldest fad in human history is foraging - I don't think Cro-Magnon man could nip down to the shops for a KitKat. Foraging is laden with pitfalls: contending with contaminated soil in industrial sites, dog wee on anything lower than a great Dane's crotch, weed killer used often by council maintenance crews, and plant identification risks. Once a proud young cook Instagrammed the "wild parsnip" he'd harvested from a creek. It was hemlock. We let him know right away, but let's not have a dead philosopher get in the way of a fashionable plate.

As someone obsessed by bush foods, I find them to be the most morally challenging. Never mind the rarely discussed myriad sustainability issues that come with gathering wild plants; I think the biggest concern is cultural appropriation - that in seeking to find an Australian cuisine we miss the opportunity for lessons from and connections with the custodians of this knowledge. It's a complex question; I'm lucky enough to have a friend who is an Indigenous Tasmanian to guide me through the pitfalls, but gathering Australian edible plants and preparing and presenting them for novelty alone does a disservice to things that offer so much more than "new" flavours. It's rare to see them used in a way that shows respect for the keepers of the culture.

We farmers are not immune, though, to the lure of the new, to jumping on bandwagons. I've sat agog at lectures on microbes and new science that shows us how to nurture those tiny lives in the soil. I'll pore over seed catalogues looking for new delicious or disease-resistant plants, and find the lure of the new impossible to resist - providing, of course, that it's delicious. The burgeoning kimchi culture has seen me planting rows of Chinese cabbages, and Mexican food has given me licence to experiment with tomatillos, epazote and Mexican coriander. All these things feel like they're having their time in the sun in Australia, but they're so delicious that I suspect they'll move from trend to classic, as did so many foods we now consider to be everyday fare.

By all means, please hang on to the trends that do good. Buy fair-trade chocolate - as a farmer, I'm right into living wages for other producers. Choose free-range animal products - as an animal myself I can vouch for the joys of movement and sunshine. And bring your own basket to market, then you won't have sea turtles mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish, and you'll look so great riding your bike home with your "I liked this kale before it was cool" bunch of greens whipping in the wind, declaring your antipathy to passing fads for all the world to see.