Tthe trio behind the award-winning podcast, Radio Farmerama, have spent much of the past year thinking about the coronavirus. The day we met it was at the forefront of their minds: founders Abby Rose and Jo Barratt both have family halfway around the world; and Katie Revell, their co-producer, had just spent seven days in isolation.
And yet, deep in the lockdown, the Farmerama team have released two investigative audio sets, to unravel the complex and conflicting challenges of feeding Britain after the pandemic. “We decided to embody the national experience of the lockdown,” says Barratt.
Farmerama is an unlikely achievement in the booming world of grassroots food media – not least for the fact that, in terms of work, it has so far been a side project. Barratt was until recently Deputy Managing Director of the Open Knowledge Foundation, Revell works full time as a video producer and Rose is an app developer who creates 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, earned her to be named on the 50 NEXT be one of the main technological disruptors in the world of food and on the Observer New list of radicals. “How do we do this?” Revell said. “Lots of Fridays, weekends and evenings.”
Founded in 2015 by Barratt and Rose as a result of an agricultural and tech festival, Farmerama Radio was originally created to be “by the farmers, for the farmers”: dispatches from the field, designed to help the farming community disparate to share his knowledge. But as its reach widened, its fan base widened, with the first miniseries, Cereal, grab the attention of the food industry with a “seed to loaf” questioning of modern bread. What they came up with won the award for best podcast / broadcast and best investigative work at 2020 Culinary Writers Guild Award.
“So we’re low-key and yet somehow we did it,” says Rose. “The difference, I think, is that we are immersed in our world.”
Behind Cereals success, the team was offered funding and mentorship from Farming the Future, a charity fund that supports innovative projects around UK agriculture, with the aim of developing something around the impact of Covid on food supply. Dee Wood, a food and agriculture activist who sits on the fund’s advisory board, encouraged the team to think bigger. “I got them to think more about diversity,” says Woods, “so we exchanged ideas and suggestions on how they could tell the story of the whole UK. “
Barratt set out to consider a plan for the series, Who feeds us?, with Rose establishing a network of collaborators across the country to find stories, and Revell working with audio producers to give each episode a distinct feel and structure. Fifteen stories have been told: from a cheesemaker in Armagh who lost 70% of his business in 24 hours, to a Scottish baker who set up in a horse stall in his village, and found himself becoming the only source of conversation for some people in a day.
Episode by episode, the series exposed not only the impact of Covid on the collective, but also specific challenges – particularly with the story of Muhsen Hassanin, a farmer and butcher who had to dramatically increase his production and slaughter rate to meet the growing demand for halal meat across the UK.
Revell argues that these stories, in their breadth and diversity, refute the idea that the only people who consider where their food comes from are those who can afford it. Their end result shows the UK food system as a whole: multiracial, multiregional, urban, rural, local, national. “Yes Cereal was to give answers, “says Rose,”Who feeds us? is to prompt questions. And if we can get people to ask questions about the roots of their food, we are 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 – the son of a Scottish farmer who helped come up with stories for the team – stepping forward as the series’ main character.
Told as Gordon takes over the family farm in the Highlands, Landed explores lost history and colonial heritage. Gordon highlights research tracing the links between the slave trade and land ownership models in Scotland, struggling to reconcile the benevolent image of the “small family farm” with his new understanding of the roots of certain farms. Scotland must start to heed this legacy, argues Gordon, offering a glimpse of a future that both recognizes the past and grapples with the challenges agriculture faces today. “At its heart is the question of how we can begin to repair some of the damage caused by our exploitation,” says Revell, “to both people and the natural world”.
This desire to drive change through storytelling isn’t limited to Farmerama; independent publications such as Vittles and Whetstone focus on portraying underserved voices in food, while podcasts such as Lecker and Point of origin (produced by the team behind Whetstone) seek to shed light on part of the cultural and social history of food. While issues of food supply remain relevant – through Marcus Rashford’s campaigns around school meals, government initiatives to tackle obesity or post-Brexit trade relations – audiences are increasing.
Where Farmerama stands out is in its ability to attract new listeners while serving the farmers on the ground for whom the podcast was designed. The regular episodes maintain the same mellow pace and bucolic charm, presenting stories for no other reason than to be of use to the food and farming community. The team notes how often their web traffic increases when they post an episode, prompted by less tech-savvy farmers who always “log in” on a Sunday night, instead of downloading through a podcast app. Andy Cato, self-taught organic farmer and co-founder of Wildfarmed, is one of those listeners. “In agriculture, each experiment takes a year – at least,” he says, “and information sharing has never been more critical. I wish I had started listening earlier – I could have saved a lot of time and money on a few of my farming experiences.
There is no doubt about the magnitude of the change that Farmerama and his contemporaries are advocating. But by staying positive and practical, Rose argues, Farmerama can be a tool for people who feel powerless to change the way they eat.
“Some listeners have written to tell us that they listen to us when thoughts and worries keep them awake, because we are here to reassure you that people have already started to improve the system, and you can too – de n ‘whichever way you choose. “
Five popular food podcasts and magazines
This independent magazine, where food and fire meet, has been a cult for a few years, but has seen its popularity explode during the pandemic. Stimulating features on everything from century-old Moroccan pit roasts to the science behind the flavor of wood smoke will make you want to break away from staid British barbecue traditions.
Podcast on African cuisine, told through the lens of chefs, historians, activists, sommeliers – even food label designers and content marketers. Encompassing perspectives from both the continent and the Diaspora, Item 13 is an essential listening Indispensable for anyone looking to deepen their knowledge of the under-represented culinary history of Africa.
Created by writer Matthew Curtis and brewer Jonny Hamilton, Film is a thoughtful and engaging online magazine (with plans for print) covering beer, wine, and cider, with increasing forays into food and travel features.
Bi-annual, printed only and tastefully designed, Rate select a city by number and examine its food culture from several angles. Previously this involved spending time in the field reporting, but since the pandemic the magazine has worked with guest curators, the latest being based in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
Take a Bao
Malaysian-Chinese food writer Yi Jun Loh, a Cambridge engineering graduate turned food writer, launched his Asian food culture podcast in 2019. In 10 episodes, it covers Malaysian cafe culture, the popularity of duck eggs salty foods and the cultural collisions that transformed Asia. eating habits, with rigor and affection.