Finding purpose in life can be remarkably tricky. For me, any sort of purpose came late on, especially when I look back at my school days and compare myself to the rest of my fellow classmates who all apparently saw the light from the get-go, wanting to be doctors, lawyers, scientists, and so on. It was most probably the school's curriculum that did it for me, or rather didn't do it for me. Centred around maths, further maths, physics, chemistry, classics, economics and languages, these subjects were no match for my particular brain. I was more interested in subjects like food and art and being outside, which were all rather seen as recreational subjects in the eyes of this particularly academic-led system.
I had always lived in the countryside, and it was only until I completely disconnected with my education, that I began to realise that what I really wanted to do in life was indeed be surrounded by it and its edible delights. After university, fuelled with a growing knowledge of food, foraging and general recipe making, I founded a food company with my partner Lilly, which sought to educate and supply local farm shops and retailers with food products made from wild foods - wild garlic, nettles, wild sorrel, you name it!
Over the first couple of years running the company, I travelled far and wide to food markets, festivals and fairs to sell our worth and connect people to their food. I was taken aback at the majority of people who came to our stall and didn't know about British food staples, let alone its wild foods. Yet, it was brilliant to share the word on healthy food and promote sustainable foraging, especially to the younger generations.
At most events, I would meet one or two remarkable individuals, makers or food producers, who were also exhibiting a stand at the fair or festival and had a deep connection to the natural environment and its traditions. My mind was opening up to the industries of arable, beef and dairy farming on all scales, beekeeping, butchering, baking, mushroom foraging, cheesemaking and much more. The more people I met, the more I wanted to celebrate what they were doing, in particular sharing their knowledge and experience.
Take the Appleby family, for example. I met the Appleby family at a local market in Shropshire where I was selling our foraged goods. Not only do they make fabulous farmhouse Cheshire cheese using raw milk, the Applebys have a wealth of knowledge of the local landscape and history, not to mention the British cheese culture. They were a perfect example of someone/a family/community that I had to capture and share with others, through my writing and photography - the latter which I had recently taken up with an old camera.
Fast forward a year or two, after winning a few awards for our food products, I decided that my writing and photography was going to take priority. It was something I loved doing, spending most of my waking hours writing, researching and travelling. I also realised that practical experience, getting out there in the fields, was how I was going to further my learning. Plus, at this stage of our food production, I was well and truly allergic to wild garlic, which we were making into various forms of pesto and wild garlic sea salt with the fabulous Halen Môn. As much as I loved doing it, we ceased production.
Then, in late 2019, I founded Our Isles, a platform to explore and celebrate rural life and the natural environment. It was established because I wanted a place to put all my research, writings, photography, poetry and, well, my love for nature, into one place and share it with everyone.
Our Isles has now evolved to two book publications, three national exhibitions, a wealth of articles, poetry, photography, printmaking, and an online editorial called Stories within Our Isles that invites rural creatives to share their own stories and work inspired by the rural sphere.
During the establishment of Our Isles, my obsession with cheese and farming grew ever more dangerous. I was consuming farmhouse cheese daily whilst reading book after book on the industry. What I found was a culture ladened with diversity, artistry, science and love, and I wanted others to know about it!
On my travels for both the food company and Our Isles, I had already tasted a vast array of cheese and met many makers and farmers. For me, the regionality of farmhouse cheese was something that struck me most, a product that expressed people and place, and more specifically, soil, terrain, climate and animal. This obsession lead me later on to writing and photographing my most recent book, A Portrait of British Cheese, which celebrates regionality, artistry and recipes. It also focuses on the farming side of cheese, which, for me, is one of the most vital aspects.
Over the course of being involved in food, I had always felt the farming industry didn't have the best representation, with many summarising 'farming' with one derogatory opinion. But I knew that the industry was overwhelmingly complex. Farmers were some of the most inspirational people I had met, many of whom telling me that this representation was present because they were far too busy out on their farms to actually oppose it - this was just before social media really kicked in.
So, with the Our Isles platform and aesthetic behind me, I felt I could really narrate the stories of those particular progressive, regenerative farmers to a wider audience. I read a lot too, having many brilliant book recommendations from the farmers I started to narrate. I soon understood that farming is completely diverse in every sector. It is the building blocks for our food and an industry we all need to be involved with, we all eat.
And that's when I came across the regenerative agricultural world, almost stumbled across it, meeting the very farmers who were leading the movement. After establishing Our Isles, I started my role at the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) under the wise guidance of Patrick Holden - who I knew already having met him at Holden Farm Dairy, his farm making Hafod Cheddar. I worked with SFT for just under a year, loving and learning every day. Then, last year, I moved to Pasture for Life (PfL), who I am still working for part-time. The role I am in now allows me to narrate the farmers and community who are leading this regenerative agricultural movement.
So, that's where I am now, and where I feel I have found purpose. I work to narrate what's happening in the food, farming and rural spheres, with the aim to conserve for future generations to enjoy. Every day I am learning, many of them outside on a farm or in food production area, and that's exactly where I want to be.
As I write this, I've just come back from Oxford Real Farming Conference, an event in Oxford that saw over 5,000 people attend in-person and online. Only 14 years ago, 25 people attended. What I love about regenerative agriculture is that it is a collective revolution to find a way of producing nutrient-dense food (for a healthier nation) and farming in harmony with nature (to improve biodiversity) and managing land accordingly (to reserve climate change). I am not skilled or patient enough to be a regenerative farmer, so the next best thing for me is to narrate their journey and share it to the wider world.
As both a farming and food industry, we have come a long way in the last few decades, realising that the state we have placed nature in is unacceptable, and quite simply, unliveable. We are still far from anywhere near perfect but it's exciting to be in amongst a movement that is ever-moving towards its regeneration.
Words & Photography: Angus D. Birditt
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Angus D. Birditt (@ourisles)