Countryfile, Hydroponics and The One Straw Revolution

Blue garden plant

Nature on the doorstep

On Sunday, as I started to brood over the prospect of heading back to work, I decided to retreat from the garden and spend a few non-active minutes in front of my laptop watching a past edition of Countryfile.

For those of you who don’t know, Countryfile is a fine example of British television broadcasting, which usually involves me scathingly observing overenthusiastic presenters traipsing around the United Kingdom’s countryside, interviewing, poking and generally annoying various forms of livestock and people.

(Please note: I realise how much of a grumpy old man I sound – my wife despairs)

In one section of the viewed episode, a particularly chirpy presenter visited a school that had set up its own indoor garden; proudly utilising hydroponics to grow the fruit and vegetables on a ‘floating’ flowerbed that would then be used in the schools kitchen.

The setup was impressive: there were enormous fish tanks which filtered out the waste produced by the fish, passing these nutrients into a separate tank of water in which the roots of the crops grew. By doing so, the school ensured a locally sourced, fresh supply of produce for their daily dinners all year round.

The tone of the piece was a positive one, but whilst I admired the reasoning behind the scheme, it did leave me feeling a little unimpressed.

The question was, why?

A major contributing factor towards my general distain for the scheme is likely due to one having just finished reading the book The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka; a text that I found incredibly influential, with many pertinent points that aligned closely to my own thinking with regards to food production.

Mr Fukuoka promoted a natural way of farming on his Japanese farm, dedicating decades of his long life to prove that he could produce crop yields – using low intensive, non mechanised methods – that were comparable to those of conventional farms that relied heavily upon chemical fertilisers, expensive machines and modified seed.

He showed that a refined way of farming, utilising no machines, chemicals or even cultivation of the soil enabled a totally sustainable way of producing food with little to no harmful effects on the natural surrounds.

Whilst there were elements of the book that I didn’t agree with, or couldn’t see working in large scale agriculture, it was an impressive read.

It also raised very good philosophical questions over the way that humans tend to approach problems; seeking the application of science and technology to overcome issues, when more natural, low-tech methods will usually suffice. In fact Mr Fukuoka suggested that in our quest for knowledge and ‘progress’ we often end up creating future problems that then require further work to overcome. We are literally making life more difficult for ourselves.Purple Plant

With these thoughts whizzing round my mind, it was no surprise I wasn’t that impressed with the fancy hydroponics system displayed on the laptop in front of me.

Whilst I totally support the idea of producing local, traceable food and getting young people involved in its production, I felt it would have been much better for the school to approach the idea in a low tech manner.

Why make the issue of food production complicated and challenging? Very few students would look at a confusing hydroponic system and think ‘I could do that’.

However, if they had been shown how to sow seeds, make compost and construct vegetable beds, not only would they have gained more hands-on involvement in producing their food, they would also have gained practical horticultural experience and  be much more likely to give it a go themselves.

And that’s not to mention the amount of electricity, non-recyclable materials and expensive effort that went in to this hydroponic project; going against the grain of the message that the school was ultimately trying to promote.

Some will undoubtedly label me as old fashioned and ignorant for having a sceptical view of such schemes, but I can’t help but feel that the way to get people more involved in growing food is to get back to basics.  Show how it can be done cheaply, easily and in a manner that does little harm to the environment. In that way, we can hopefully encourage as many people to grow their own food as possible.

I think there’s a lot to learn from Mr Fukuoka.

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