The judges of the inaugural FarmED Chelsea Green Young Writers' Prize unanimously voted for SZ Shao's piece, which they praised for being compelling and inspiring.
The FarmED Chelsea Green Young Writers’ Prize is a new writing competition for people aged 16–30, part of the Farm & Food Literature Festival which takes place at FarmED in May. We were looking for exciting new voices who are passionate about helping to build sustainable farming and food systems that nourish people and regenerate the planet. We asked entrants to write up to 1,500 words about any subject across the spectrum of ecological food, farming and the environment.
The judging panel comprised award-winning author Nicola Chester, Muna Reyal (Head of Editorial, Chelsea Green Publishing UK) novelist Fiona Mountain from FarmED and Stephen Moss, naturalist, author and Senior Lecturer, MA Travel & Nature Writing, Bath Spa University.
SZ Shao's prize included a library of Chelsea Green books worth £700 plus a one-to-one editorial session with Muna.
Her prize winning entry is below.
Photo shows (l tor): Fiona Mountain, Nicola Chester, SZ Shao, Stephen Moss, Muna Reyal.
ROOTED POWER: What Farmers Can Learn From Their Plants
By SZ Shao
The soil is growing hands. They started reaching up through the compost early in March, arms an animated shade of pink, broad green palms outstretched in greeting. The farm is still largely dormant. Most of our fields are resting under black tarp and green manure, as the polytunnels turn out their slow harvest of leafy vegetables. Still, there are signs that deep winter is giving way. Envelopes stuffed with summer crop seeds arrive in the post. Our pakchoi surprises us by bolting, its flowers shockingly yellow in the monotonous greens and browns of agricultural land in winter. But more than any other signal of the new season, our rhubarb’s eruption into fresh life feels like the turning point. We coo excitedly at the return of colour to our landscape. After a long winter of chicory and cabbage, the promise of its bright, sour fruit is like seeing an old friend for the first time in a year.
The celebrated botanist and Potawatomi elder Dr Robin Wall Kimmerer invites us to approach plants not as inanimate resources, but instead, as respected teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass she writes: ‘Our indigenous herbalists say to pay attention when plants come to you; they’re bringing you something you need to learn.’ Dr Kimmerer’s body of work weaves together seemingly conflicting knowledge systems (scientific rationalism and indigenous animism) into a way of relating to plantlife which had a profound impact on my work as a farming apprentice.
Still, her perspective sometimes feels impossible for farmers to put into practice. This spring, the community farm where I’m training is managing seven acres with just three growers and a fluctuating pool of volunteers. The economic crisis stopped us from hiring another trainee. We had to launch an emergency crowdfunder to dodge bankruptcy. More than before, the need for efficiency is shaping our approach to the work. We carved out more space for lucrative crops like green garlic and cherry tomatoes, and considered sacrificing much loved but low value, labour intensive crops like leeks. Another grower urged me to work faster because at my pace, I wasn't even paying for myself. This April, guiding excited volunteers on a rhubarb harvest while also worrying internally about its low wholesale value, Dr Kimmerer’s words weighed heavy on my mind. It’s difficult to see plants as sources of wisdom when they're also your sources of income. Still, the thought lingers: what could rhubarb teach us, if we could open ourselves to learn? The first thing I learn is that rhubarb and I share a diaspora. These plants are also second generation Chinese immigrants to Britain. This probably shouldn’t be a surprise. From their lurid flowers to those freaky tentacular stalks, everything about rhubarb looks very foreign. Still, it catches me off guard. These plants enjoy a stronger sense of belonging in Britain than most human migrants here ever do. Following rhubarb as a teacher leads me to a history which is uncannily entwined with my own - as a Londoner, as diasporic, and as a farmer.
European imperialism was always a plant-based project. Tobacco leaves, cotton bolls, the fluids of sugarcane and poppies - in a very real sense, our empires were built on flower power. In this story, botany was never going to be innocent. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1788), whose nomenclature system is still a second language for farmers today, explicitly connected knowledge of plants with economic power. In his day, Europe was humiliatingly dependent on the Chinese Empire for a whole ecosystem of desirable plants. Tea is the best known, but medicinal rhubarb root was also in extremely high demand. A Qing Dynasty minister actually valued it equally to tea in a famous letter to Queen Victoria, furious about British merchants selling opium in Chinese ports: ‘Not to speak of our tea and rhubarb, things which your foreign countries could not exist a single day without’. Linnaeus hoped that honing botanical science would lead to valuable plants like these being grown on home soil, torquing geopolitics in Europe's favour by transforming ecological geography. This ‘colonial bioprospecting’ is what led to the creation of culinary rhubarb. In trying to breed medicinal roots from imported seeds and cuttings, edible cultivars slowly found a new citizenship in British kitchens.
Rhubarb’s naturalisation took place in a London with a radically different food system than today. There was a fleeting window between industrialisation and the laying of Britain’s railways in the 1840s-50s when this was a city of market gardens. Before trains allowed fresh produce to be transported at speed to its ballooning population, London somehow had to feed itself from nearby. It’s hard to believe now, but in 1800 several hundred acres of Pimlico (right next to Westminster) was farmland. Here, farming was a fact of urban life. People were known to walk to London from as far as Wales looking for seasonal agricultural work. Turn the soil in some areas and you’ll strike a strata of glass - the remnants of old greenhouses and cloches. This was the world which rhubarb took root in when Joseph Myatt planted a dozen crowns in his Camberwell market garden. The plant had already been in the city for some time1, but from Myatt’s Fields, rhubarb was born again as a native Londoner. In 1824, Myatt optimistically sent his sons to Borough Market with five bunches and a recipe for rhubarb pie. This was apparently hilarious to the public, who only knew rhubarb from the laxative roots of the original varieties. Myatt’s boys only sold three of their bunches that day, but next time, they went with ten and returned with none. Rhubarb's rising popularity was intertwined with the fortunes of another plant central to European imperialism: sugarcane. Sugar produced by enslaved Africans was boiled into jam and stirred into tea, giving British workers the energy necessary to survive Victorian factory labour. Rhubarb tarts, crumbles, jams. This odd fruit owes its assimilation into British culture to a complex history of unspeakable exploitation and creature comforts.
The small-scale, sustainable, ethical food system which my generation of farmers so badly wants can sometimes feel like a pipe dream, especially when times get tough economically. Biosphere collapse, atrocious waste, modern slavery, widespread malnourishment and a truly terrifying carbon footprint will be the legacy of our current food system without radical change. Feeding our cities will be 1 In 1815, workers at Chelsea Physic Garden accidentally left a plant covered over winter and thereby discovered forced rhubarb central to that change, but the sheer scale of the change which must happen is overwhelming. Approaching rhubarb as a teacher showed me that a revival of localised farming around our cities wouldn’t be so unprecedented, but actually a return to old ways. Perhaps radical systemic transformation is more than just ‘possible’ - after all, it happened here before. Our rhubarb went to seed early this year. By mid-April, tall clustering flowers were rising from the roots, a sure sign of stress. Pulling disappointingly weak stems from overcrowded crowns, we belatedly realise they probably needed thinning and composting this winter. These are hungry plants. The rhubarb grown in Victorian market gardens would have depended on a serious supply of manure, both horse and human. This free, plentiful resource was transported from the city's streets out into the earth of its hinterlands, where the cycling of energy between animal and plant bodies could begin again.
More than anything, this interconnectivity is what rhubarb brought into focus for me. It's natural for farmers to fixate on the crops which represent our labour - but we aren't actually farming the plants themselves. We are farming relationships. We are tending relationships between plants, soil, pollinators, pests, diseases, predators and people, guiding flows of energy through an ecosystem of beings so interdependent that it’s nonsensical to think of them as individuals. Science is increasingly supporting this paradigm shift, especially as we realise that healthy soils rich in microbial and fungal life are vital for plants (and therefore us) to survive.
Botany has come a long way since Linnaeus, and to me, Dr Kimmerer’s approach represents its highest stage of development yet. Her invitation to bring different knowledges into service of love for the living world is something all of us can implement. We failed our rhubarb this year. We fumbled the task of multispecies care which is at the heart of what farmers do. My apprenticeship ends this winter, and I’ll leave this patch of land which I’ve helped steward these past few seasons. Before I go, sometime between the madness of autumn on a farm and probably some ongoing financial stresses, I will make time to compost and thin our rhubarb. Approaching rhubarb as a teacher has gifted me a sense of kinship with this weird, beautiful migrant, and an altered perspective on how cities can and have fed themselves sustainably. Rhubarb has given me all this. It’s only fair to return the favour.
Bibliography Kathryn Darley, ‘Joseph Myatt (1771-1855)’, available at: https://josephmyatt.weebly.com/ josephmyattbiography.html Rebecca Earle, ‘Jam Yesterday, Jam Today’, University of Warwick Knowledge Centre (2019), available at: https:// warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/knowledgecentre/arts/history/jam/ Clifford M. Foust, Rhubarb: The Wondrous Drug, Princeton University Press (1992) Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, Penguin (2020) Daniel Lysons, 'Market gardens in London', in The Environs of London: Volume 4, Counties of Herts, Essex and Kent (London, 1796), pp. 573-576. British History Online. Available at: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/london- environs/vol4/pp573-576` Sydney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Penguin Random House (1986) Londa Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World, Harvard University Press (2007) Jeanie Smith, ‘Neat Houses and Battersea Bundles: Market Gardening in London’, Guildhall Library blog (2016), available at: https://guildhalllibrarynewsletter.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/neat-houses-and- battersea-bundles-market-gardening-in-london/ Lin Zexu’s letter to Queen Victoria (1839), available at: http://media.bloomsbury.com/rep/files/ Primary20Source2013.020-20Lin.pdf