Dispatches from the grassroots: Farmerama and the new wave of food media

On the day we met, it was at the forefront of their minds: founders Abby Rose and Jo Barratt both have family on the other side of the world; and Katie Revell, their co-producer, had just spent seven days in isolation.

And yet, in the depths of lockdown, the Farmerama team released two investigative audio series, to untangle the complex and contradictory challenges of feeding Britain after the pandemic. “We set out to embody the national experience of lockdown,” says Barratt.

Farmerama is an unlikely success story in the burgeoning world of grassroots food media – not least for the fact that, in working terms, it has, so far, been a side-project. Barratt was until recently deputy CEO at the Open Knowledge Foundation, Revell works full-time as a video producer, and Rose is an app developer who builds tools for farmers and wine producers to monitor their fields, orchards and vineyards. Rose’s work, which is tested and used on her parents’ Chilean vineyard, has led to her being named on the 50NEXT list as one of the food world’s leading tech disruptors and on the Observer’s New Radicals list. “How do we do it?” says Revell. “A lot of Fridays, weekends and evenings.”

Founded in 2015 by Barratt and Rose in the wake of a farming and tech festival, Farmerama Radio was originally created to be “by farmers, for farmers”: dispatches from the field, designed to help the disparate farming community share knowledge. But as its scope has broadened, so has its fanbase, with the first mini-series, Cereal, catching the eye of the food world with a “seed-to-loaf” interrogation of modern bread. What they came up with won best podcast/broadcast and best investigative work at the 2020 Guild of Food Writers awards.

“So we’re low-key and yet, somehow, we did it,” says Rose. “The difference, I think, is that we’re immersed in our world.”

On the back of Cereal’s success, the team was offered funding and mentorship from Farming the Future, a charitable fund that supports innovative projects around British agriculture, with the aim of developing something around Covid’s impact on food supply. Dee Woods, a food and farming activist who sits on the fund’s advisory board, encouraged the team to think bigger. “I got them to think harder about diversity,” says Woods, “so we’d go back and forth, sharing ideas and suggestions for how they could tell the story of the whole UK.”

Barratt set about envisaging a plan for the series, Who Feeds Us?, with Rose establishing a network of collaborators up and down the country to source stories, and Revell working with audio producers to give each episode a distinct feel and structure. Fifteen stories were told: from an Armagh cheesemaker who lost 70% of his trade in 24 hours, to a Scottish baker who set up trading from a horsebox in her village, and found herself becoming some people’s only source of conversation in a day.

If we can get people to ask questions about the roots of their food, we’re a step closer to the future we want to build
Episode by episode, the series exposed not just Covid’s impact on the collective, but also specific challenges – most prominently with the story of Muhsen Hassanin, a farmer and butcher who had to vastly increase his rate of production, and slaughter, to meet the increased demand for halal meat across the UK.

Revell argues that these stories, in their broadness and diversity, refute the notion that the only people who consider where their food comes from are those with the means to do so. Their end result shows Britain’s food system in its totality: multiracial, multiregional, urban, rural, local, national. “If Cereal was about giving answers,” says Rose, “Who Feeds Us? is about prompting questions. And if we can get people to ask questions about the roots of their food, we’re one step closer to the future we want to build.”

Their latest series, Landed, emerged from the collaborative process of Who Feeds Us?, with Col Gordon – a Scottish farmer’s son who helped source stories for the team – stepping forward as the series’ lead character.

Told as Gordon takes over his family’s Highland farm, Landed explores lost history and colonial legacy. Gordon highlights research tracing connections between the slave trade and patterns of land ownership in Scotland, struggling to reconcile the benevolent image of the “small family farm” with his new understanding of some farms’ roots. Scotland must begin to reckon with this legacy, Gordon argues, offering a glimpse of a future that both acknowledges the past and grapples with challenges facing farming today. “At its heart is the question of how we can start to repair some of the damage caused by our exploitation,” says Revell, “both of people and of the natural world.”

This desire to drive change through storytelling isn’t limited to Farmerama; independent publications such as Vittles and Whetstone focus on representing underserved voices in food, whereas podcasts such as Lecker and Point of Origin (produced by the team behind Whetstone) seek to illuminate some of food’s cultural and social history. As questions of food supply stay in the news – through Marcus Rashford’s campaigns around school meals, the government’s initiatives for tackling obesity, or post-Brexit trade relations – the audience is growing.

Where Farmerama stands out is in its ability to attract new listeners while serving the farmers in the field who the podcast was designed for. Regular episodes maintain the same gentle pace and bucolic charm, presenting stories for no other reason than being useful to the food and farming community. The team notes how often its web traffic spikes when they put out an episode, driven by the less tech-savvy farmers who still “tune in” on a Sunday evening, instead of downloading through a podcast app. Andy Cato, self-taught organic farmer and co-founder of Wildfarmed, is one such listener. “In farming, every experiment takes a year – at least,” he says, “and sharing information has never been more critical. I wish I’d started listening sooner – I could’ve saved a lot of time and money on a few of my farm experiments.”

There’s no doubting the scale of change that Farmerama and its contemporaries advocate for. But in staying positive and practical, Rose argues, Farmerama can be a tool for people feeling powerless in changing the way we eat.

“Some listeners have written in to say they listen to us when thoughts and worries keep them up at night, because we’re here to reassure you that people have already started changing the system for the better, and you can too – in any way you choose.”

Five grassroots food podcasts and magazines
Pit
This independent magazine, where food and fire meet, has had a cult following for a couple of years, but saw its popularity explode during the pandemic. Thought-provoking features on everything from centuries-old Moroccan pit-roasts to the science behind the flavour of woodsmoke, will leave you keen to break from the staid traditions of British barbecue.

Item 13
Podcast about African food, told through the lens of chefs, historians, activists, sommeliers – even food label designers & content marketers. Encompassing perspectives from both the continent and diaspora, Item 13 is an essential listen Essential for anyone looking to expand their knowledge of Africa’s under-represented culinary history.

Pellicle
Set up by writer Matthew Curtis and brewer Jonny Hamilton, Pellicle is a thoughtful and engaging online magazine (with plans for print) covering beer, wine and cider, with increasing forays into food and travel features.

Fare
Bi-annual, print-only and tastefully designed, Fare selects a city per issue, and examines its food culture from multiple angles. This used to entail spending time on the ground reporting, but since the pandemic, the magazine has worked with guest curators, the latest being based in Uganda’s capital, Kampala.

Take a Bao
Malay-Chinese food writer Yi Jun Loh, a Cambridge engineering graduate turned food writer, launched his Asian food culture podcast in 2019. Across 10 episodes, it tackles Malaysian cafe culture, the popularity of salted duck eggs, and the cultural collisions that transformed Asia’s eating habits, with rigour and affection.