Carrots and chaos…

This article, in the Guardian, discussing the problems of keeping Britain supplied with carrots and other veg during the recent, relatively brief, cold snap, contains this gem “There’s not as much slack in the system as there used to be, especially from Scotland, because the distances things have to travel are so big.

My italics.

This, bear in mind, is on a relatively small island, where the extremes – Land’s End and John O’Groats – have been shown to be within walking distance of each other many times. It is not, for example, France or Spain, the continental USA or, perhaps Russia – countries where distances are truly “big” – it’s an island that is just 800 and some miles long at the extremes.

The distances, then, are not actually that big at all.

Carrots used to be harvested in the autumn/early winter and stored until needed, in clamps, or possibly, these days, other systems, as were other root veg, a routine that worked well for centuries. Clamps were pretty much weather-proof, and they could be easily accessed at need.

These days, though, the old system has been sacrificed on the altar of “progress”, and carrots – and other root veg – are left in the ground until needed (that was common for parsnips, which benefited from a touch of frost to bring out their flavour and enhance their sweetness). The only reasons I can think of for this are cosmetic – freshly-dug carrots look better, and economic – clamps and other forms of storage are probably considered a needless expense, though that clearly needs to be reconsidered.

That’s been fine of late, for in recent years, even decades, extremes of cold weather have become a relative rarity in most places, but over the last few weeks a new generation has had a taste of the sort of winter weather their parents and grandparents had to contend with, and the veg in the ground has been  inaccessible, except with great difficulty – buried by snow and frozen hard. There’s a technical term for this – Fubar.

When the snow first fell recently, I bought a couple of kilos of carrots, and onions – cheap ones which, in my experience, keep better than the more upmarket varieties, like my favourite Sweet Spear seasonal carrots (though red onions keep even longer), so I felt no need to join in the pillaging of my local supermarkets (Sainsbury’s, by the end of last week, were even out of razors – what sort of fruitcake stock-piles them?), and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I was well supplied with food anyway. Nothing particularly exciting, but I wouldn’t starve.

As climate change is just as likely to bring us arctic weather as tropical in the future, it may well be a good idea to revert to the old ways of vegetable farming, and get root veg out of the ground as soon as they’re ready and into storage, and sod the supermarkets who like them freshly pulled. Maintaining continuity of supplies is more important than cosmetics. The same applies to potatoes, too – freshly dug is not nearly as important as actually having them on the plate.

The Guardian article goes on to describe the trials of the broccoli growers (though no-one ever went hungry through lack of broccoli), and the horrendous costs incurred by both them and the carrot growers in getting there crops to the supermarkets. And the question of who pays. That should be a no-brainer – the growers faced difficulties primarily because of the contracts forced upon them by supermarkets (like keeping carrots in the ground until needed), yet they’re at the wrong end of the money chain. It seems obvious, then, that the supermarkets should pay, as they can most easily afford to absorb the cost. The question, as yet, is still unresolved.

In addition, we need to concentrate on keeping roads gritted, ploughed and open, which, in many areas has been an abysmal failure recently – how councils ran out of gritting salt when tales from across the country suggest, as happened here, virtually bugger all in the way of gritting actually happened.

There is absolutely no point in growers pulling out all the stops to make their crops available, if the nation’s uncleared roads mean that store deliveries aren’t made, and the public can’t get to the stores anyway.

Since 2003, the law has required that Local Authorities have a legal responsibility to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow and ice.

“Highway” means any road, and its associated pavement. Here in Wirral, the gritting of major routes was, at best, desultory and clearly begrudged, with pavements and minor roads ignored completely, which I’ve mentioned elsewhere.

Local authorities are expected to keep two week’s supply of gritting salt in stock, yet from the gritting-salt-related crises around the country after just one day of snow, that hadn’t been the case – but even so the government was exhorting councils to use, first, 25% less, then a few days later, Lord Adonis (a guy in severe need of a reality check), told them to cut usage by 50%. Whether that actually meant a 75% total cut was unclear, but as I said, just how do you actually reduce a usage that, at best, amounted to very close to fuck all in many areas?.

So here’s a tip, guys, keep gritting salt for two weeks based on, say, the winter of 1985, not on recent winters, which have been more wet than icy, and we’ll all get by a hell of a lot better.

Then, if supermarkets and growers get their acts together on the veg-storage question (recent events have shown that leaving the crops in the ground is not a good idea), and roads are kept clear (even clear-ish would have been a massive improvement here in Wirral), then next time it snows maybe we’ll be able to shop normally, and not have to stock up for a goddamned siege.

Just a thought…