Terms like "Wild Farming", "Regenerative methods", "Holistic Land Management", "Pasture Cropping", "Carbon Sequestration" etc... are finally creeping up more frequently in mainstream conversations in the context of agricultural practices, environmental issues, consumer health & choices etc... But what do these mean? These terms are not always easy to understand and often dismissed as "folklore". It's hard from a consumer point of view to understand the practical applications of these terms & their direct implications in their daily lives.
For this reason, we have decided to prepare a condensed in the next few paragraphs for you to digest information easily. It s very difficult to make an educated opinion these days, especially in a world flooded with contradictory information. So for the sake of clarity, the following is our personal distillation of knowledge passed on from encounters with regenerative farmers, natural wine makers, scientists, texts & books, conferences, podcasts, studies etc... spanning from 17 Century essays on good land husbandry to modern scientific research papers. We hope it can spark your personal pursuit into the fascinating world of the soil, living better, breathing better and being an active cog in the soil regeneration movement if only by making more considered choices in your daily life and eating better.
First, a little context:
When David and I (Jeremie) started working in restaurants in the 1990s, the world was a very different place. The hospitality landscape, behind the façade of fun, glamour & gastronomy was a dark reality of low pay, long hours, abusive & sexist behavior, shabby work conditions and sourcing was often an after thought dictated by profit. Cheap, even in high end restaurants was the norm. Margins upwards of 78% was the minimum target in food and beverage which often meant sourcing cheaply and selling at a premium.
The awareness of the environmental & ethical implications of the industry's activities was very much non existent.
So in 2014, after more than 20 years spent from washing dishes in small independents to managing and cooking in some of London s top restaurants, Dave and I decided to go for it on our own and we chose to let go of all the fanciful crockery, furniture, lighting, glassware and conventional wisdom to focus on what was important to us: what goes in the glass, what goes in the plate and the people who bring it to your table.
As we started to meet small scale producers and visit farms & vineyards, see the animals' welfare, inspect fields, helped with picking, pruning & gathering and shared numerous meals with all these formidable characters from across Europe & the UK, David and I discovered, after 20 years in the industry, that we knew very little about the considerable dangers of big agriculture and knew even less about a quiet movement called "regenerative farming".
Regenerative agriculture is all about repairing the soil. It shows consistent positive results in producing better nutrient dense plentiful foods and offers real solutions to stop environmental damages, clean the air & engage animals, people & plants in a natural and practical collaboration which is sustainable and the most efficient promise of reversing climate change (caused in great part by the devastating effect of Big Agriculture on the soil). The remedy to so many pressing modern environmental concerns is literally under our feet.
Our restaurants seek out and support these producers. We believe our choices as businesses & consumers give the Regenerative movement real traction, authority and can contend with Big Agriculture as the future of large scale farming that can reverse and restore in a very short time, the destructive effects of chemical fertilizers on the micro organic biosphere, our tiny environmental allies.
When we met with farmer Andy Cato in a small corner of Gascony, he had been quietly experimenting in with wild wheat populations, sowed directly into grass & various farming processes. He was farming the way Nature does. Andy learned from books, from trial and errors, from Amish farmer principles which allow man, plant, animal & tree to each be a collaborative tool towards a common goal: soil regeneration & soil creation. Through meticulous observational rigor Andy s work is growing efficiently over 350 Hectares spread over the UK & France and is grabbing the attention of presidents, law makers & land owners. We spent 3 days at the farm mainly wide-eyed by the incredible work undertaken by Andy, his Percheron horses and his herd of Red Sussex cows.
After meeting Andy, David and I could no longer ignore the question of the SOIL. It s THE question of our age and standing with one leg in the air over the precipice of our survival, it s hard not to feel powerless & discouraged by the enormity of the task. So we've identified that the most efficient way to spread awareness was to breakdown the issue into fun environments and delicious food at our restaurants. When you appeal to the pleasure centers, the brain becomes curious. And that s a good start.
We hope the answers below may shed some light into what we do & send you on a positive and fruitful personal pursuit of what s good for you. Because whether it is the soil or you, it s not about feeding, it s about nourishment.
1- What is Healthy soil?
Under our feet is a miraculous universe teeming with life. There are about 1 billion microorganisms and 50.000 species in a table spoon of healthy soil!
This elevates our awareness of the soil from just being mud or dust to being a complex network of integrated living colonies of organisms. There is a crucial distinction between SOIL, the healthy collaborative living super organism that has evolved through billions of years and covers our planet- and DIRT, the inert matter derived from the killing of healthy soil by chemical input, monocrop and the fragmentation of the natural ecosystem into food groups. Just like "Natural Wines" (which suggests there is a non-natural equivalent) it s a shame we today have to make a distinction between Healthy Soil and just soil (which suggests there is a non-healthy equivalent). We will talk about the many varied virtues of healthy soil a little later and why it is so important to repair, improve and protect it. At a glimpse, a healthy soil prevents desertification, flooding, droughts, land erosion, pollution, freak local & global weather. Healthy Soil is also crucially the most efficient atmospheric Carbon Dioxyde sponge and fixes it into the ground to turn it into food for its micro organic inhabitants.
2- What is Heritage grain and why do we use it?
Heritage grains (also known as Ancient, Heirloom or Landrace) describe a pre-hybridised species of seeds. They are a mix of grains which evolved with time, cultivated by our Neolithic ancestors. They have genetic resilience to pest & are high in amino acid, vitamins, oils & nutrients and very low in gluten. They have deeper roots and are resistant to droughts and don t require much additional irrigation (conserving water, a very precious and thinning resource). They are delicious, healthy and versatile and make killer breads and pastries. At Jolene & Big Jo, we use field blend populations of heritage grains which are sown directly into grass and milled into flour onsite at Jolene & Big Jo.
3- And so what is Hybridized grain?
Most of today s wheat populations are hybridized. It s a semi dwarf, high yield, short root wheat type engineered in labs causing all the digestive havoc we know today. Since the 70s Gluten intolerance has grown from 1 in 2500 to 1 in 90 today. So what has happened to the grain that has healthily fed the world for thousands of years? Hybridized grains has been chemically adapted to create more yield (bigger volume) and resist the toxic onslaught of chemical input, in other words, it has been manipulated for commercial purposes and completely dependent on pesticide, herbicide and chemical fertilizers to grow (too fast) with devastating effects to the soil and consequently our health. The result of 60 years of hybridization has now created huge gluten levels in widespread wheat varieties and the technique called "Chemical Mutagenesis" is admittedly worse than GMO. It uses Highly toxic Sodium Azide as well as exposing the wheat embryo to Gamma and X-ray radiation to mutate them to be resistant to highly toxic pesticides & herbicides, as it is extremely weak and cannot defend itself against disease on its own. However, our human gut flora isn't immune to all these chemical manipulations and it s manifested by chronic diseases, allergies and digestives problems. There are now about 40 hybridised varieties of wheat planted each year over millions of acres of land globally and ending up in unsuspecting household shelves. These grains are not only a health hazard but the methods employed to grow them is also an environmental disaster.
4- Do you offer Gluten Free Bread & Pastrie alternatives?
If you have read this far, you now understand the distinction between Hybridized grains (High in Gluten and toxicity) and Heritage Grains (Low in Gluten & high in fibres, vitamins, nutrients, amino acids...etc). So asking for Gluten Free equivalents (which is a process which requires another cascade of chemical processes to achieve) is the wrong question. A better question for people who have a condition or are concerned about gluten content is: "what type of grains do you mill into flour?". We use the same healthy grains, grown in healthy soils that has fed the populations of the world safely for 1000s of years. We mill our nutritious grains into flours with a very small gluten trace but we do not offer Gluten free alternatives.
5- What is tilling/ploughing and why is it so bad for the soil?
To start answering this question we need to talk about the most efficient soil building machine in the world: woods & forest. Leaves in canopies, convert sunlight into nutrients by photosynthesis, dying leaves full of residual solar energy then fall to the ground, transferring their energy to other decaying matter- vegetal, insects, animals, microorganisms, organic waste etc... - and create a thick series of ordered layer of naturally fertile humus & top soil. These layers provide food for trillions of microorganisms, mycelium & roots that distribute these nutrients through connective root networks. An army of insects, microbes, fungi help to tunnel and aerate these layers so that seedlings can take root and feed themselves autonomously, without any outside input and very little water. This healthy, collaborative well oiled cycle, if left alone and uninterrupted by human intervention, is a huge soil biofactory with huge fertility prowess, well arranged in underfoot layers capable of absorbing and storing and fixing huge amount of carbon from the air into the ground and turn it into food. This process of capturing atmospheric carbon dioxyde from the air and fixing it into the ground is called Carbon Sequestration.
Tilling and ploughing however reverses this natural process. As soon as the upper layers of a field is disturbed & turned upside down by tilling and ploughing, it releases the carbon dioxide that was stored into the top soil back into the atmosphere. This method disrupts & destroys the ecosystem of microbes, roots & excavators (worms) as well as flipping the rich lower layers of humus onto the surface, which are then exposed to the elements and are lost with rain run offs or direct sunlight. Moisture is also released into the air drying up the soil and creating erosion. The result being a soil impoverished, devoid of microorganism and insect activities, with damaged mycelium and root system incapable of moving the nutrients around the land. On top of this, the heavy modern machinery used for tilling and ploughing the ground compacts the soil into a hard slab where seedlings cannot establish their roots and where rain water cannot drain creating water logged area, creating flooding and drowning any precarious crop growing on it. As you can see, this method upsets & destroys the natural fertile conditions of the soil. The crop must then rely on dangerous chemical inputs, pesticide and herbicides to be able to grow at all which impoverish the soil further and which transmits toxicity to us further down the food chain as well as in the water aquifers below. In summary, tilling and ploughing create a perfect storm of wrongs for our health and the soil sub structures and releasing carbon dioxide back into the air, eroding the land and increasing desertification as well as releasing moisture into the air which in turn contribute to an upset weather system. Organic farming uses tilling and ploughing of the soil. Sure Organic is better for you but it doesn't provide solutions to our environmental deficit.
For this reason, we have decided that all of our vegetables and grains for all our restaurants come from no till, no plough chemical & pesticide free soil (and other elements too discuss later)
So what is the alternative of tilling and what is cover crop?
A more efficient way to rest, prepare and improve the soil fertility after harvest is to plant grasses and the important cover crop (pea family, legumes, pulses etc...) As the name suggest, cover crop is an organic blanket whose sole purpose is to cover & protect the soil after harvest in the winter months or in apsture rotation. It stops surface nutrient runoff by breaking up the soil with roots and create pathways through porosity and microorganic excavators attracted to the nutrients in the roots for rainfall to be absorbed hence slowing down soil erosion. It fixes Nitrogen (food) into the ground, it improves soil texture by holding loose soil with roots, increase moisture retention adding organic matter to the ground, it stops weed growth (an empty brown field is an invitation for weed) etc... Cover crops does all the things tilling and ploughing is designed to do without damage and adding huge natural & sustainable benefits to the ground.
What s the advantage of milling your own flour onsite?
This is a little bit like grinding your coffee beans just before you make your coffee. The fresher your flour the more it contains aroma, taste, oils, vitamin, nutrients etc... So we mill our grains into flour when we need it and use it within a week of milling. Most flours in packets have been milled a few months ago, are
then sold by the KG and will stay in your cupboard for a few weeks still. By the time you come to use it, it is as nutritious as inert powder and you may as well be using plaster in your recipes. Modern flours are also milled in huge commercial roller mills, which crushes hybridized grains, releasing toxins into the flour. Bleach is then used to improve improve shelf life before bagging and distribution. If you are serious about your flours, you should just buy the grains, which store all the goodness in their kernels for years and use a kitchen table top mill to turn them into flours when you need it. Very much like your coffee grinder in your kitchen.
if we care so much about animal welfare, why don t you have more vegan options?
Animals play a huge part in the building of a healthy ecosystem. Cows especially. They are the Zen Masters of the Fields. Reared properly, cows will save the planet " (great book "Cows Save the Planet" by Judith D. Schwartz)- Regenerative farming champions cows for their grazing and fertilizing abilities. By managing grazing areas properly, cows break down the ground gently allowing seedlings to take roots energize root systems with each mouthful tugging at the plants & their poops are full of useful bacteria that are deposited on the ground like land reinforcements for the armies of microorganisms below. That also brings birds and other animals who feed on insect, who then die, decay and continue the cycle of recycling organic matter into building soil and before you know it, the biodiversity has increased 10 folds and you've created a balanced ecosystem which regenerates the soil. This was the huge benefit that the great migratory herds of wild cows in Africa and the Buffalos of North America were bringing to the land, regulating & regenerating it seasonally. What is dangerous is the over grazing of the same area of land by cattle farms (which trample the same area of ground to destruction and most recently cows which are bred solely and intensively for their meats, being fed grains and growth hormones to achieve adult size unnaturally quickly. This is the activity which is a huge contributing factor to the destruction of the land, sub standard animal welfare, wastage and polluting of clean potable water reserves, massive intensive chemical monoculture of maze and soy on the land to use as cattle feed, and the release of massive amount of C02 and methane gas into the atmosphere. This process needs to stop and becoming Vegan to derail this specific intensive activity is one active way of protesting and reducing meat demand from unethical mega farms.
Our meat comes from farms who have a balanced and healthy ecosystem geared for the regeneration of the land and who only retire an animal after a healthy and long life on the land. We also tend to use every part of the animal in dishes, stocks and broth when we order it so that nothing is wasted. Our dairy also come from biodynamic farm where the cows are not plugged in to milk extractors. We have an acute awareness of the cycle of all farm animals, poultry and game that we use in our restaurants and sourcing them from ethical provenance is just as important to us as sourcing our vegetables, our wines, our eggs and pretty much every ingredient found on our premises.
What is agroforestry?
Very much in the conscious pursuit of supporting balanced and healthy ecosystem, we have come to understand that trees also play a huge role into binding an ecosystem together. Their roots break up the soil and are a home for countless micro and macro organism who work in collaboration to improve soil health and building nutrient super highways. Agroforestry works to create an environment for cultivation which mimics as closely a possible the most efficient ecosystem on earth previously mentioned: the forest. Intensively farmed fields often look like vast expanse of flat earth making it easy for huge mechanised machines, tractors, combine harvesters, sprayers to navigate on. You will hardly see a tree on these fields. Agroforestry understands the importance of the trees as homes to animals and insects and the mass of organic matter which derives from the seasonal changes of the tree which contribute to the production of soil. By carefully using the land with a mixture of pasture, crops, trees and animals, the soil can bounce back very rapidly from being arid and unproductive to being teeming with life and creating a very fertile environment which by now you have come to understand to be beneficial to organic growth and carbon capture. Soil absorbs 10 times more Carbon Dioxyde than all the plants and trees on the planet. With this in mind, it is important that modern agriculture recognises that it must support processes that manufacture soil. This means creating biodiverse and vast interconnecting ecosystems which mimic woods and forests. This means the re introduction to trees on in the fields. Wakelyns Farm in Suffolk is a great example of Agroforestry.
The vast use of petrochemical products around the world destroys the soil, poison crops, impoverishes biodiversity & communities, kill microorganisms, excavators & pollinators, cripple farmers into dept & financial dependency, pollute rivers & aquifers, divert water courser for intensive irrigation, contribute hugely to atmospheric C02, desertification, land erosion and reduce animals to products when they can contribute so much more to the health of our land as well as ours.
It may feed humans, but without providing the required nourishment for our health and immunity and it does so at a terrible cost to he environment (floods, droughts, severe freak weather), communities (land battles, famine, displacement) land (erosion, desertification) immune system & health (gut microbiome depletion, natural defenses severely weakened) the global economy (lockdowns, NHS, Emergency Funds) animal welfare etc... We need to take care of the Soil so it can take care of us. In the words of F.D. Roosevelt "a Nation that destroys its Soils, destroys itself".
It's not all gloom and doom though. We can feed the world and nurture the Soil at the same time. It s called Regenerative Farming and it is the process of (un)cultivation the way Nature intended, because Nature Farms Best" to use a phrase from our friends over at Wild Farmed Grain. The good news is that more and more younger and established farmers are starting (or converting) to farm like Andy: sowing seeds directly into grass, allowing different plants to grow side by side, bringing grazing animals into the fields to promote & complete nutrient cycles, never tilling or ploughing the soil or spoiling it with chemicals and heavy machinery. This method produces resilient, nutritious crops while consistently improving the soil and surrounding ecosystems. It is called Regenerative or Wild Farming as it follows the natural patterns of how an ecosystem would operate if left uncultivated. Some of the richest soils on earth are found in forests, where a huge diversity of organic material is left to flourish and decay, continually enriching the soil, unspoilt my machinery, chemicals & the constant pursuit of more yield. Good farming practices are the ones that mimics and improves Nature, not fight it.
As consumers, we are no longer "what we eat". We are "what we eat eats eats eats eats..." What is perverse is the idea of the "5 a day" slogan. It is inherently a brilliant scheme IF these 5 greens you pick come from a healthy soil. If they don't, our desire to eat healthy actually fuels Big Agriculture and therefore makes the consumer indirectly complicit in the wrecking of the planet.
So at Big Jo, and all our related restaurants, we make sure that every step in the food that ends up on your plate is sane, healthy, nutritious, sustainable & repairs the ecosystem at large. Every time you visit Jolene or Big Jo or any of our restaurants, you are taking part in this positive change. You are contributing greatly as consumers who make a stand with your everyday choices. On a civic level, you are practicing the most efficient protest against political inaction. On an individual level you are looking after yourself & your immune system. On a spiritual level, you are raising your awareness of your place within the natural world and on a practical level, you are saving the world! All this in your daily loaf…
So thank you and well done!