I just may be away with the fairies.*

On top of my work and life at the farm, developing recipes, writing about food and getting ready to promote my first book , organising Lens & Larder Retreats (with many more exciting workshops coming in 2016 that will involve writing as well as styling and photography) and, being a good mammy** by shuttling our son to the city twice a week for trombone lessons (quite an unexpected instrument, but he’s absolutely taken with it, and I piggyback these trips with necessary errands to be justly footprint pragmatic)

….……Clearly, I was not doing enough (this is the part where “away with the fairies” comes in) so I decided to go back to university this autumn to earn a multidisciplinary degree with an emphasis on food, farming, mindfulness and healing the environment. My first area of college study was journalism and mass communication, which circuitously carried me to the path of broadcast production, which, as I have spoken about before, was a very contrasting lifestyle than the one in which I now live.

Of the ten years I’ve spent in Ireland, eight of them have been on this farm in the southwest part of the country where the land is fertile and you meet more farmers than people who work in other professions. In fact, this may be true throughout the country, outside of the major cities. Every conversation seems to go back to farming. Or the weather. Then, back to farming again. No one cares about the time I got to work with Cruise or Clooney. That isn’t real life out here.


There are definitely more animals than people where we live. The grass is lush and many shades of green; everywhere you turn is a vision of verdant and I often wonder what would happen if the cows didn’t eat the grass, and the hedgecutters didn’t do their trimming. I imagine an island completely grown over in ivy and holly and dock leaves and evergreens and heather and just grass, grass, grass.

As I complete my weekly coursework, I am becoming a student of the food system; learning how it works, and how it doesn’t, in essence, just how broken it is. I am grasping how political leaders have reshaped policies and regulations and laws to benefit just a handful of massive agribusinesses and corporations who now control almost every aspect of the food system in the USA. I am carefully studying every detail of the Farm Bill, the primary agricultural and food policy tool of the United States federal government. I am watching endless video talks, reading books, articles and films on the subject of the complex global food system. I am comparing and contrasting with the Irish and European agricultural administrations.

It’s no surprise that I have long been an advocate for local food. I left America and married a 7th generation farmer. We grow much of our own food, which is rewarding, but also necessary and cost-effective. I am constantly inspired by how the world is embracing the farm-to-table movement. I have written and shared countless articles on this trend, which seems so exciting and positive and like everything is going in the right direction and all will be peachy keen. But, the sum of what is happening to our food system is much more menacing than even I presumed.

As I sit at my desk, I can see out onto a pasture where my striking husband is carefully checking on a group of maiden heifers. He looks tired and worn, and yet he always, always works with so much passion and pride. Richard is absolutely relentless in caring for the land and the health of the animals, trying everything to make our farm more efficient, more sustainable, and to bring in more revenue in order to take a rare break every once in awhile from his 7-day work weeks. He will never give up nor will he ever leave this land. Watching and working alongside him makes my heart swell with love and adoration and respect. And, it also incenses me. Hard-working farmers are not rewarded enough for what could be considered the most important work there is on earth, the work of feeding human beings. We don’t need to make riches, but a bit more respect and the ability to make a profit against all the expenses sure would be nice.


If you eat, you have a stake in the food system. In Ireland, in America, in every country in the world. Eaters must join farmers in saving the world’s food system.

Family farms in most developed countries are being backed into a corner by big agribusiness and corporations. Often the result is highly profitable factory farms which are not only unfair to animals, but are toxic to our environment. This current paradigm is damaging and unsustainable. And, sadly, it is moving full steam ahead. Fortunately, Ireland currently does not have any true factory farms, but they are cropping up in the UK and it could just be a matter of time before Irish farmers get hoodwinked into this type of intensive farming as well. We do, however, have big agribusinesses that commercial farmers absolutely rely on for their livelihood. And, if TTIP passes, Ireland’s food sovereignty will certainly be at risk. 

But, there is hope. As consumers, we can take action to work to change/stop this dynamic. Let’s try to look at food as GOLD. It should not be cheap, especially when you think of what goes into honest farming. Farmers should be paid more, not less, and less, and less. But, I digress.

If you can’t afford organic, local, “Whole (Foods) Paycheck”style shopping, you can still participate in making cultural change. Become an informed shopper: is your milk from your region? Are your greens locally harvested? Is your chicken from your country? We can all engage to change the laws and rules in our countries. We all have a stake in our food system and we should all be working (even in small ways) to balance the power between corporations and people. We can choose democracy and participate in a rally, start a local petition, or even simply vote for a candidate who is an advocate for change. We can sign up for a CSA, buy direct from farmers, shop at your local farmers market….even once a month will begin to make a change. Everyone can do these things. There is no special skillset.

Grandma Johnson’s Milk Vinaigrette
My grandmother used to make the most perfect and simple salad dressing. For every meal, we would have this light, creamy and tangy dressing ladled over freshly picked, ultra buttery Bibb lettuce from her massive kitchen garden that she insisted on maintaining long after she moved from farm to town. To this day, when I make this dressing and eat a salad, I dream of sitting on her back porch watching bed linens float in the wind behind flourishing rows of lettuce, cucumbers and sweet peas. When you make this recipe, I challenge you to buy your milk from a farmer, or if you buy at the store, buy the milk that comes from a local independent creamery. The same goes for the lettuce and greens. You could even buy local eggs and make your mayo from scratch and use apple cider vinegar from a local orchard. I promise it will taste of ambrosia, in many varied, sustainable ways.

Grandma Johnson’s Milk Vinaigrette
Serves 4
½ cup/120ml fresh milk
4 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tbps white vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
Whisk all ingredients together in a bowl
Toss liberally with freshly harvested salad greens
Eat and Feel good.
Scullery Notes: Store in sealed container in fridge, will last up to a week.

Slan Abhaile,


*Irish slang for crazy, mad, nuts…you get the gist.

**Irish term of endearment for mommy, mother, mom

Photo by Imen McDonnell, Styled by Sonia Mulford-Chaverri and Imen McDonnell 



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14 Responses to “Milk Vinaigrette: Saving Our Food System”

  1. Cynthia says:

    Oh my. I am only now (December) getting around to reading this post. So exciting that you are studying all of that.

    Here in the USA, the TPP poses threats to local food systems even before the TTIP (TTP has reached agreement and the President says he is bringing it to Congress ASAP). Long story short, and as I think you are learning, supporting local is great but there are big things out there with the power to impact whether smaller players can survive. Policy matter (read Michael Pollan’s “Ominvore’s Dilemma”, among others). So we need to pay attention to policy.

    For your readers in the USA, here is a link to an article on the TPP and it’s impact on local food.
    Read it. Then go to the website of your Congressional representative and send him or her an email.

    Then make this delicious looking salad dressing! Thank you for the beauty you bring to the topic.

  2. I can not begin to describe how I love this post Imen. It is written with so much love and passion, not only for your husband, but for the land you live on, and that feeds you. I wish I could grow my own veg, I tried, but our soil isn’t very good and I do not know where to begin to make it work. Our garden is small, and my husband doens’t want me to completely turn it into veg garden as I have failed my veggie patch time and time again. Our search continues for a smallholding, where we can at least try to be be self sustainable. One day. One day 🙂

  3. Great post! Absolutely agree with you. You’re an inspiration!

  4. Krista says:

    Yes!! You are so inspiring to me, Imen. When I get bowed down by farm life, coming here encourages me to keep on trucking. XO

  5. Carmel says:

    More people need to sing this song. I think there is a misconception that good food costs more. But in the greater scheme of things if we eat less but make sure what we eat is of better quality then we ultimately save money. We’ve become so far removed from our source that there are so many children growing up who have no idea where their food comes from. I truly wish that life science was a compulsory subject in school. I don’t mean biology – I mean the science of living, nurturing and respecting. These ideologies were such a baseline for most pagan ceremonies and now we’ve simply and sadly forgotten. We insist on education satisfying the need to count and read, but somehow the importance of feeding ourselves isn’t deemed important enough by policy makers. Believe me, I have no more money than anybody else (in fact much less) but I was lucky to have been exposed to good home cooking and I was taught the value of obtaining something slowly.

  6. Kim McGuire says:

    Here, here! Couldn’t agree with you more, Imen. We’ve been growing our own organic herbs, apples, strawberries, rhubarb, tomatoes and other food-stuff for years in our neck of the woods. My in-laws had a glass house and they were the inspiration for our home grown goodies. I cannot believe you’ve added going back to school to your busy, busy life. Best of luck with everything. You’re an inspiration!

  7. Linda says:

    I agree completely! I also think that it is important for us to shop with our kids and show them that shopping for local, sustainable food is important. Grow plants in the yard, have a relationship with your local farmer(s). Know where your food is from and how it gets to your table.
    Have you read any of Michael Pollan’s books? . He has some of the same concerns.

  8. What a wonderful post Imen on many levels. Currently I’m collaborating gratis with Fair Trade USA to promote their message and try to make more people aware of how we as single consumers can help with global issues by purchasing intelligently and being more socially responsible. I am not in a situation to buy local at the moment, but it’s something I always advocate on my blog and in social media. I think we can create a sustainable agricultural model especially if we buy local. Organic is another topic in which I truly believe. There are too many harmful chemicals (and GMOs) in our food system, in our land and watershed areas, all in the name of large agribusinesses and ‘trying to feed the world’, when in reality it’s in the name of profit of big corporations and the pharmaceutical industry. But again, if we just realise that by purchasing our necessities on a local level, even small organic farms are also sustainable, then maybe we can beat this destructive trend. I agree farmers should be paid more for their hard, intense work. I also agree that those who live in less fortunate circumstances deserve better lives with access to education, health care, etc and that’s why I’m supporting Fair Trade. I’m not sure food should be ‘more expensive’… then only the people with more buying power will have access to healthier foodstuffs. But I do think that by going back to basics and local, as you’re recommending, is a great way to start changing things for all of us. Sadly, the TTIP seems to be going in the direction politicians and big businesses want… I hope we can all still fight against it and I hope the EU won’t sign it. As Molly Scott Cato says, “I’ve seen the secrets of the TTIP, and it’s built for corporations not citizens.” That tells it all.
    xx Debra

  9. This resonates so much over here on the east coast on Canada. I recently interviewed Mark Schatzker, author of the fantastic book The Dorito Effect, on The Food Podcast. The book touches on all that you’re saying. His approach is to find flavour, real flavour, and in doing so, we will reconnect with our local farmers and communities. You can find the link here to the interview.
    Love you’re work. And the devotion to the trombone!

  10. Lisa says:

    Do everything you can to keep the ginormous factory farms out of Ireland. They will ruin all the is quintessentially Ireland. Love the blog. You are just crazy enough to handle, & juggle, taking on a bit more schooling! Enjoy the ride.

  11. Darina Allen says:

    Great post , absolutely agree with your sentiments and am deeply concerned about TTIP , the farming community needs to scrutinise the proposed agreement and make their voices heard before it is too late ….DA

  12. Miranda says:

    OMG Imen, this has been the basis of my conversations in these last few years!!! How these companies are killing the smaller, better farms, wher food is not mass produced. How these cooperatives pay next to nothing to the farmers for their produce and then sell those for thrice – or even more – the price at supermarkets. I see that a lot here in Portugal, and it’s disgusting. I refuse to buy meat, poultry, milk – and derivates -, vegetables and fruit that are not from Portugal. Sometimes, I find it hard, because where I live I do not have access to a farmer’s market at close distance, and when I get to the local supermarkets, the only choice is either spanish fruit or french, and I don’t want to eat that. NOthing against their produce, it is just not local, and I want my portuguese produce to be consumed by portuguese people who live in Portugal, ot shipped off to some far off country, sold for next to nothing when the portuguese farmers have been paid peanuts for all their hard work… this is very complicated, this issue, you know – of course you do!! – as it also involves what the UE forces us to produce and what they allow us to sell locally. I’m totally agreeing with you!!

  13. Eleanor says:

    I couldn’t agree more. My husband and I have been growing a good portion of our own vegetables for the past few years in our suburban backyard garden. We are now picking up our roots and leaving the burbs outside Manhattan for a small farm outside of Nashville. It is so troublesome to me that it is more affordable to buy ready to cook meals in a box than to use REAL ingredients and make it from scratch. Not that fresh, local ingredients aren’t wotth their value, because they ARE, but how will we win this war when it is so cheap and easy for people to rely on big business to feed them?
    We will continue to grow what we can ourselves and we are looking forward to (finally!) having the space to have our own chickens, fruit trees and such. We are not prepared or equipped to feed a community, but hopefully we are teaching our children a valuable lesson that they will in turn, be able to share with their children as well. It’s got to start somewhere.

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