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There’s dirt and there’s soil – and it’s the difference that makes for great tasting food

I never contemplated that I could willingly sit through a seven hour presentation on soil and its meaningfulness when it comes to farming livestock. What does cheffing have to do with farming? A lot, as it turns out. It’s to do with origins – the provenance of our offering…

When invited to attend a weekend of discussing soil quality, soil nutrition and ‘Microbiological Farming’ at Shortlands Station in the Maniototo (the main supply farm for Provenance Meat), I have to admit my wife and I were a little hesitant on how even the very contemporary topic of sustainable farming practice could keep us focused for a whole weekend. It was kind of like being invited by a good friend to go Morris Dancing. Umm, yes, ok…

Well, I could never sit through a Morris Dancing convention but I would happily sit through another presentation by the incredibly passionate and knowledgeable guest speaker Graham Shepherd, a soil scientist, agricultural consultant and director of BioAgriNomics.

BioAgriNomics says it is “an independent agricultural and fertiliser advisory company focusing on linking soil conditioning, soil function, plant nutrition, animal health, farm productivity and a farms environmental footprint with smart fertilisers and smart farm management practices.” Again, what has this to do with cooking?

When Graham stood up, one of the first things he asked was, “do you use solid fertilisers to grow the plant, or do you use fertilisers to feed the soil to grow the plant?” All of us sat there for thinking there had to be a trip up in that question since it is so obvious – you would look after the soil. But it is disappointingly clear that this farming practice and the use of natural fertilisers to initiate and encourage microbial activity is followed by very few in the farming sector.

By working on the healthiness of the soil you are able to produce lush green herbage that in turn influences the health, growth and nutritional content of the stock grazing on it. The root system also helps maintain a balanced microbial ecosystem that maintains itself without the need for harsh chemicals such as super phosphate.

Activating the natural microbial activity within the soil encourages natural fungi and bacteria to fight off infestations of unwanted pests and parasites, increase worm growth (and so aerate the soil), bring PH levels to a natural optimum and stimulate plants to form a deeper root system that extends all of this beneficial activity deeper into the soil.

I won’t get into the details or benefits of how this is pivotal in reducing the nitrogen released into the atmosphere as well as the benefits of increasing carbon sequestration in soil. Being a chef doesn’t qualify me to point fingers or preach farming practices to anyone.

However, as a chef I can say almost everyone I know, including chef colleagues, have a growing concern over global food shortages, food waste and the effect this is having on our environment. I see this concern is starting to influence chefs, as well as myself, regarding from where we source our ingredients.

In the end, to use the old cliche, “you are what you eat”. Where your food comes from, how it is grown, its nutritional content are all important.

Provenance isn’t the name of our company by chance. We emphasise the origin, security and safety of our product since we know these same concerns are shared by many around our globe. We also do this because we know that naturally grown food – such as lamb – is not only good for you, it tastes exceptionally good too.

So, taking the opportunity to align myself with a company that has taken an ethical stance in changing to a more natural farming system, seems a no brainer to me. The benefits don’t arrive overnight but the reward of knowing you are helping make a difference is instant. So is the great tasting food that results. But that’s for another blog…

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