My job is to look at the world and wonder... "How can we make things better?"
My wife and I have been kicking around the concept of a “five mile restaurant” for a couple of years now. At its core, it’s about hyper-local eating: a restaurant where every single ingredient has been sourced from producers within a five mile radius.
Choosing local and seasonal food is one of the most beneficial things we can do with our diets: having a far greater impact than eating plant-based for example. If someone’s eating plant-based it’s practically impossible to get all the various foods they need for a balanced diet in any one locality year-round, which means much of what ends up on their plate brings with it thousands of food miles.
I believe the concept can go much further than simply cutting down food miles, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Globally we need a shift away from industrial, monoculture, mechanised farming and a return to small-scale (family-sized) farms that produce both plant and animal products.
These traditional models produce more food per unit of land than industrial systems. And organic farming produces more food per unit of land than chemical-based methods. What’s more, mixed, organic farming is sustainable… and we should not even consider any approach that isn’t at least sustainable.
My idea is to integrate the farm with the restaurant. So customers will not only enjoy fresh, local, and seasonal fare, but they’ll see exactly where it came from.
For most produce there will literally be no middle man. The field-to-table journey is literally a stone’s throw! We’ll harvest what’s in season and use our creativity to turn outstanding organic produce into mouth-watering dishes.
We have lost our relationship with our food. What is now a commodity used to be an intimate part of our lives. From our hunter-gatherer days right up to a few hundred years ago, daily life for most people would revolve around growing, foraging, gathering, preserving, preparing, cooking and sharing food.
I feel a massive and deep sense of reward from growing my own produce, gathering eggs from my poultry, and even the somber and serious matter of harvesting a bird for the table. I would like more people to share that social and reverential experience.
Another important aspect of connection is food through the seasons. Many of our methods of flavouring food have actually come from preservation methods: curing, smoking, pickling, fermenting, etc. The reason we had to do that was so that we could store food from abundant times so that we could still eat through the lean winter months. I would love to rediscover those methods of preparation.
In addition, foraging for wild food helps us to reconnect with our local geography and with the seasons, as well as delivering a greater range of interesting ingredients and tastes.
Feasting used to be a communal activity that many of us have now lost. Instead of preparing and enjoying meals together, now we can microwave a “meal” in a matter of minutes or grab a packaged snack from any number of outlets.
In a Five Mile Restaurant, the focus of the food experience would be communal. Nobody knows exactly what’s going to be on the menu, even on the day. It depends on the weather and any number of factors. So it would break the safe and boring monotony of predictability.
We would build large barbecues and clay ovens so that all the food could be cooked using wood – which is a regenerative fuel, drawing more carbon from the air than it releases. Cooking with fire also has its own deep place in our hearts and in our DNA. We evolved chatting around the campfire, so why not put the campfire back at the centre of our food celebrations?
As I mentioned, farms that both grow plants and raise livestock are the most efficient and productive. Small-scale farms feed 70% of the world’s population today.
The reason why we have moved away from small-scale farming to massive, industrial models is not because factory farming is better at producing food. It is not. It is unsustainable, destroys the soil and pollutes waterways, and delivers less food of a lower quality than the small farm.
The reason why Big-Ag is dominant in the West is simply because that’s the model that can generate the most profit for corporations: the chemical companies, the seed sellers, the grain buying cartels, and the meat packing conglomerates.
We simply cannot continue like this. And we cannot wait for the corporate world (which controls Government) to decide to change tack. WE have to do it. And that means finding ways to set up new small farms on systems modelled after nature.
Nature has already figured out everything we need to grow abundant food, and she never uses monocultures (growing just one thing in one place). Instead, when we grow crops, pigs and other animals can go in to clear the land ready for what comes next. They’re happy to do the work and will turn crop residues and weeds into healthy manure.
After a few cycles of veg crops have depleted some of the land’s goodness, it can be put to grass and grazed for a few years. Grazing perennial pasture not only sequesters carbon from the atmosphere (making it regenerative), it is also the healthiest way to raise anything from cows to chickens. The chickens will even help pick the parasites and their eggs from the cow’s manure and kick it all over the ground as they’re doing so.
And, of course, totally grass-fed (plus forbs and other goodies) meat, dairy, and eggs are the best food you can get. When the animals get to enjoy their natural environment, they’re happier and healthier, have less disease, don’t need antibiotics, and give us products that are similarly healthy, higher in good things like Omega-3 fatty acids and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid).
Rich, combined methods of farming like this are labour-intensive and require sensitivity and thought – the antithesis of the machine approach of Big Western Agriculture. That’s why it isn’t profitable for the corporations, who continue to promote bigger and bigger fields worked by bigger and bigger machines controlled by fewer and fewer people.
We need more people farming on small farms. That means we need models that are both sustainable ecologically and economically. I think the self-sufficient microcosm of the Five Mile Restaurant concept could fit that requirement.
Many farmers are responding to the general decline in raw food prices (that’s what capitalism does) by seeking ways to add value to their produce on the farm. So you can turn barley into beer, flowers into perfumes, or beef into biltong… right there on the farm.
Five Mile uses the same principle. By cutting out all middlemen, we would produce, add value, and retail right there on the premises, generating the maximum profit on the produce.
If we can make one Five Mile Restaurant profitable, that could create a channel for getting more people back to the land, probably by putting the Five Mile model open-source so that anyone can pick it up and go.
Local and seasonal food continues to be a growing trend in catering, and there is every reason why it should continue. A profitable business model would help new entrants to secure land (whether purchased or leased) and get the capital investment needed to start up (which could be lower than a traditional restaurant or farm).
Finally, the Five Mile model offers wonderful educational resources for people of all ages, helping them to reconnect with the land that provides our food.
I’m sure schools and colleges will appreciate the opportunity to experience every aspect of a traditional farm in a relatively small space, plus seeing the full journey food takes from earth to table – all on a single site.
Additionally, many people are getting interested in rediscovering traditional, artisan techniques for raising, preserving, and preparing food, which offers additional revenue opportunities for Five Mile Restaurants.
Plus there’s never any shortage of people willing to volunteer on organic farms, many through organisations such as WWOOF or Workaway. Can you imagine what a great, enriching experience a young person could get, spending a summer working on a permaculture farm, learning about produce and food, and enjoying incredible meals every day?
Overall, I really believe this Five Mile concept is one that could help heal many of the aspects of our society that are sick or dysfunctional today: breakdown of family and neighbourhood life, disconnection from food, all the health problems that come from processed food, disconnection from the land, the weather, and the seasons, animal welfare issues, soil loss, water management, etc. etc.
My personal dream is to flesh out this model into a business plan and hope to secure land to try it out in the next couple of years. Watch this space.