For my course, food systems, we went to England. But we didn’t go to London or the, perhaps, expected travel locations. We went to Totnes. Totnes is a small-ish rural town of about 8000 people, located amongst the rolling, hedgerowed hills of Devon in the southwest corner of the country.
I left for the airport at the crack of dawn with my duffel bag clamped to the rear rack of my rental bike, because, you know … Copenhagen. Well, not really at the crack of dawn, because the crack of dawn is at 4:30, but I’m not a morning person so it might as well have been. I beat the rain.
We took a plane and two trains to get to Totnes, a full day of travel followed by a check-in at our hostel, the Windmill House, and an introductory lecture by our English hosts, Hal and Inez of Transition Totnes.
Our focus for the study tour would be sustainable agriculture in rural England and the benefits and challenges encountered by all the various methods employed. Sustainable agriculture is agriculture that is socially just, economically sound, and environmentally sound.
We learned about the importance of ecosystems in nature and how they interact with our food systems and how we can use those systems to our advantage when growing food in a more sustainable manner.
We learned about permaculture, agroforestry, biodynamics, which was explained to us as “organic plus more sh*t” by the farmer, large-scale organics at Riverford Organics, community supported agriculture, and an incubator for small-businesses in sustainability among other things. And Totnes, with it’s steep, rolling landscape faces challenges with many crops. But it’s perfect for dairy farming.
We saw a lot of cows.
We travelled by foot, taxi, and “Bob” the minibus, and were grateful that we didn’t have to travel by coach bus. In reality, though, traveling by coach bus likely would have been impossible as the mini bus could barely navigate the extremely narrow back roads flanked by the ever-present and very immovable hedgerows.
Our days were full of site visits, lectures, and very good food including an incredible three-course meal at Riverford Organics and two equally delicious meals from a small, women-owned catering company that sourced many of their ingredients from local growers.
And then there was our day of nature exploration and late-afternoon canoe trip down the River Dart that lasted into the evening with some very muddy stops for tea, a student-cooked campfire dinner, and a pub. Earlier that afternoon we hiked the moors in Dartmoor National Park. This land was uncultivated and while still used for livestock grazing the vegetation was much more sparse at that elevation allowing for incredible views of the landscape surrounding us.
And the weather was perfect.
All three of our full days in Totnes the weather was 22 (72) degrees and sunny. After several weeks of what I’ve been told was a terrible Danish June, it was wonderful. Some of us may have gotten a little sunburnt.
It was an intense week and we absorbed a lot of information in those long days during our brief time there. It was really incredibly valuable to have this intensive time learning about sustainable food systems and to see some of those systems in action.
There’s a lot that I’ve taken away from my week in England and from the places I’ve seen and the people I’ve met. There is no silver bullet, no right answer to the question of how, or even if, we can feed a projected worldwide population of nine billion people. But I think that we can learn from the food systems that we learned about on this study tour and apply that knowledge in the future in our own personal lives, in our communities and beyond.