When I was asked to write an Organic Tales of the Country, I fleetingly wondered whether that meant producing 900 words without artificial fertilisers, such as a thesaurus. But my brief was soon made clear: could I write something light-hearted about organic food production? I tried, but the organic movement, it quickly turned out, lends itself to humour in much the same way as the pro-euro movement does. It is not an inherently amusing subject.
So I phoned my Herefordshire neighbour Monty Don, presenter of Gardener's World and enthusiastic champion of organic gardening, as reflected in his excellent new book, which I plug here unashamedly, The Complete Gardener. Could he think of anything funny to write about organic food? He could not, but he did concede that there is humour to be found in the tendency of some organic enthusiasts to disappear up their own fundament in a puff of solemnity.
Coincidentally, and while never disappearing up his own fundament, Monty then grew rather solemn. A lot of cash-strapped Herefordshire farmers would like to be organic, he explained, but are put off by the expense incurred during the lean years while they rid their soil of pesticides in order to gain the Soil Association's seal of approval. If only the Government would initiate a comprehensive subsidy scheme for those converting their land, then hey, or rather hay presto, farmers might become more enthusiastic about growing organic produce. "But if what we want is mass-produced, cheap food," said Monty, gloomily, "then it can't be organic." And I also talked to the admirable Helen Browning, who used to chair the Soil Association and has been farming organically, near Swindon, since 1986.
She is not one of those who disappear anywhere in a puff of solemnity, and prefers to be referred to as a former chairman of the Soil Association - "chairwoman sounds too much like charwoman" - which is one in the eye for those who write off organic standard-bearers as so many politically correct lefties. And here's another in the eye: some of the organic movement's most vocal early champions were alarmingly right-wing, such as historian Arthur Bryant and the writer Henry Williamson (who liked otters and Hitler).
These days, political ideology plays no part in the Soil Association's raison d'être, snappily summed up by Helen. "A teaspoon of soil," she said, "ought to contain more individual organisms than there are people on the planet." With this fabulous statistic in mind, I next turned to Colin Tudge's catchily titled book So Shall We Reap (how everyone who is liable to be born in the next 1,000 years could eat very well indeed; and why, in practice, our immediate descendants are likely to be in serious trouble). Succinct it ain't, but it does address the $64,000 question: what does the organic movement really have to offer? In answering, Tudge cites Mao Zedong's reply when asked about the effects of the French Revolution: "It's too early to tell."
My mother, who is hard of hearing, half-overheard me the other day talking about what she assumed to be a new car, such was my enthusiasm for its open-topped sleekness, my admiration for its user-friendliness, my appreciation of its usefulness. In fact I was talking about my new wooden compost bin, lovingly made, on-site, by our occasional gardener, Alan. It is the decomposing apple of my eye, and represents a leap forward in the process of making our few acres of Herefordshire fully organic.
Until now, we have had one of those plastic composters bought from a garden centre for £24.99. Which is much better than nothing, but is already full to bursting with vegetable peelings, Shetland pony droppings, chicken business and the like, and in any case, is not particularly pleasant to the eye.
The new bin, by contrast, is a delight to behold, and I have never so looked forward to reaching that stage which experienced gardeners drool about, when the compost is dark, rich, crumbly and even fragrant. According to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's father, quoted in Hugh's majestic River Cottage Cookbook, finished compost should resemble "a good Christmas cake". Writes Hugh: "I'm not sure I'd go that far."