Change-Maker 4. Local Food & Farm Innovator – Pete

NFE’s Founder, Rachel Parsons, has been out and about meeting some of the New Forest’s most inspiring local legends… aka ‘Change-makers’…in today’s interview, Rachel met with Pete How… 

Micro herb farmer, agriculturalist, traveler, radical food system reviewer, egalitarian, dad and New Forest local, Pete is a farmer with a difference. He has specialised in developing agricultural systems for marginal environments that mitigate climate change, adapt to it, and reduce human impact on our ecology whist delivering truly nutritious, sustainable solutions for growers and consumers. Pete has worked overseas for most of his working life, with the farmers of Afghanistan and Kurdistan; living abroad through this time with his family. Passionate about equality in countryside access, food quality, transparency of food systems, and the opportunity of nut trees to lighten the demand that people make on the land when it comes to producing food proteins. 

Q. What is your day job now?

I’m growing micro herbs sold via our website directly to people who value their nutrition and want to buy flavour and locally; and to the best local restaurants. We want people to have a chance to take a break from their urban environments and breath fresh air in a natural environment. We can’t care for a planet that we’re not in a relationship with – so we love to offer this space for people to ‘meet’ with a natural environment. The hay meadow is beautiful in summer.

Q. Tell us about your farming?

The herbs are just beautiful. We grow them in a vertical farm which is extremely efficient and of course very resilient when it comes to a changing and increasingly uncertain, extreme, and erratic climate. The nutritional value can be more than forty times that of mature vegetables, and they are just so tender and tasty. So we have a lot of pride in sending them out knowing that they will delight and nourish our customers. Growing is a therapeutic and for me somewhat intimate experience. These plants breathe out oxygen; we breathe it in; we breath out carbon dioxide, they breathe it in. Experiencing this so proximately is quite healing I would say. By producing so much in such a small space it enables us to manage our outdoor spaces more gently – and nut trees are important for us here. They are wonderful for nature and the water cycle, and 400 times more efficient in producing proteins than beef for example. So these are key parts of our farming production system.

Q. You spent 15 years of living in the Afghanistan, working in international development in agriculture. What is it that drives you?

  1. I’m a bit nuts about agriculture to be honest. It’s just this very basic meeting of an everyday fundamental need. I find it super fascinating how people interact with their landscapes to generate food, fuel, and fibre, somewhere to work, play, and rest. I’m constantly thinking about what is possible for humans in terms of meeting our needs whilst enjoying a natural environment that thrives. We have the knowledge to do so much more than we are at the moment – which is an exciting prospect I think. The plants of Afghanistan are incredible. It is a place of diversity for so many important species – pears; pomegranates; grapes; pistachio; lentils; wheat; the list goes on. So for an agriculturalist is a place of great importance. And seeing how the people of Afghanistan have learned to cultivate these, including their well-developed regenerative systems that are ancient; has been a privilege. Of course with conflict these systems have been terribly broken, and we were helping people to breathe life back into them and recover them. To be honest I would say I burned out too in this time. Being in conflict zones, working hard to see progress but it being so slow and people suffering is of course hard. Afghans are a very beautiful and special people. I was in some extraordinary and sometimes remote places. Afghanistan includes foothills of the Himalaya with high altitude steppe at over 3,000 meters. So it was a deep privilege to live there for a time.
Working with this woman to calculate feed requirements of her sheep and goats, Kurdistan, part of a project introducing treatment of straw to improve its feed value for sheep, goats, and cows.
Making a soil scientist happy – results from on-farm conservation agriculture work that worked closely with many public and private sector stakeholders, and included about 60 farmers that developed advanced conservation agricultural examples in their own fields and trained their neighbours in the methods they developed and the results they achieved. 

Q. What change do you want to see in the future?

  1. I want to see more people re-connect with the land. I want to see food grown by and for the people that are eating it. I want this closer connection between growers and consumers – both in distance and understanding because this is fundamental to the opportunity to care for our land better. When you buy something on a supermarket shelf, in the simplest terms, you’re agreeing to have produce grown in a certain way. You’re agreeing with how people are treated in the supply chain, what sprays are used and how the ground has been cultivated. You’re agreeing to modes of transportation and storage and packaging. Very often I think in fact if the consumer understood what they were ‘voting for’ to they would prefer a different price and a different product – one where there is fairness and care and sustainability. Our supermarkets are asking us ‘buy’ barren landscapes, damaged soils, reduced bird song, unfair treatment of farmers and so on. It’s a tough picture and its actually not food grown for you or me at all. Its not grown for nourishment and flavour and a sustainable planet all. Its food grown for companies and for the highest volumes at the lowest prices with long shelf life and transportability. I think there remain a population of growers who could bring our landscapes to life with biodiversity and nourishing food with flavour and goodness in a whole sense and which people would be pleased to pay for, but we have lost some of this and we would do well to take a turn in a different direction. We can do something about this. Plant a fruit or nut tree in your garden, sow a tray of micro greens for your windowsill. Identify a grower that you can buy directly from. Find an opportunity to visit a farm. COVID made people rethink. We saw challenges to the global supply chain for the first time since the second world war. Support of local farmers was really good example of the power of community resilience and food connections. Don’t ever let that learning go. It’s good for the soil, planet and for your body.
  2. Q. What annoys you?

  3. I think the disconnect between people and growing is sad. I think its made us poorer in a real sense and is a fundamental issue in planet-care. It’s only a few 100 years that we’ve not all been growing. The human body and mind and soul are nourished by the work of nurture, as well as the colours, shapes, smells, and flavours of plants and landscape. We evolved with this context and biologically I think we need it. So access to the countryside is so important – we all need it. In the past people found their space in the countryside and established a home for themselves, cultivating land and caring for animals. Powerful people ‘cleared’ the land and took private ownership without recompense. To see this happening even now in 2022 with multi-millionaire Alexander Darwell successfully winning a high court judgement to withdraw the right to roam on Dartmoor is totally regressive. 
  4. Q. Can you give us one idea that would make a big difference?

  5. Sow something and nurture it. Use UK grown nuts to replace some of your protein requirement from any other source. Buy food from mixed farms – the Organic Standard is a good start, even if its just ‘a little bit more’ of your food. But the best of course is direct from someone you trust.

Q. How did you get here, in this place, in the world, today?

At 10 years old I knew I wanted to work in agriculture and international development. So I spent a lot of time with this focus, studying, working, observing, practicing. My work with smallholder farmers in the global south has been extremely influential, especially in challenging environments which demand that we think in a particular way which is very relevant to learning how to grow with climate change having the impact that it
is having. In a sense I could say that what I am doing here in the New Forest is recuperation. It’s therapeutic endeavor after years of working in conflict environments. But its still doing what i’ve always done – developing an agricultural system that is sustainable and resilient, that offers up the best of food in a way that the planet can afford to give us, and open to helping other people to engage with the countryside and with doing and thinking about these things too in the hope of a healthy future.

  1. Q. How do you get down time?

  2. Hmm… I grab my mountain bike and head out the forest, or paddle board and get to the coast, but its hard to get away from the farm much. So for now a lot of what I do is very gentle and therapeutic; it’s simple and nourishing. So these part of my work are my downtime too! I’m trying to make an environment for plants to thrive in, so that is always a lovely environment for people to thrive in too I would say. Anthropologically I think we thrive where our dinner has done well; warm, fertile, light, green places. In the evening I go into that growing room, with all my lovely micro herbs, and do the water and final check, I take a moment, I slow down, I breathe. I love it. It’s very special.
  3. Q. Give us a tune for your change-maker vibes. Something to inspire us.
  4. 1. Kay Tempest, No Prizes
    2. Tracey Chapman, Talking about a revolution
    3. Susanne Vega, The Queen and the Soldier


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