Robin Mills went to West Bexington, Dorset, to meet Michael Michaud. This is his story.
“I was born in 1950 in Maine, USA, which is closer to the UK than it is to California. I always wanted to get away from Maine, but not too far away, which is maybe why I finished up here rather than California. My background, like so many Americans, is multicultural; my mother was Lebanese, and my father French Canadian. I was brought up literally in the backwoods of Maine, which is a paper-making state, so a lot of it’s very heavily wooded. My home town was called East Millinocket, which is really just a clearing in the woods, with a paper mill where much of the population of 2,500 worked. Most of my mates back then were from multicultural backgrounds too, they were Italians, Albanians, Czechs, French Canadians, Greeks, and many of them had at least one grandparent whose English they couldn’t understand. We were only the second generation born in the States, so we had strong cultural connections to the old country, and I think to an extent that fact defines me. I’m not only an immigrant to this country, but my family were immigrants back home.
That background really has shaped me I suppose, because one thing about immigrants is that they go to a new country to better themselves, to try to make a success of their lives. That’s true here in England; they don’t come here to be poor, generally they come here to work and be successful. My grandparents immigrated to improve their situation, and although they didn’t finish school, and their English was poor, my parents had a good education, and then many of my generation of the family went to university. So a bit of that upward mobility and aspiration has filtered through from my multicultural roots.
I did a Bachelors degree in agriculture, and then spent 2 years in Central America with the Peace Corps, which was hugely enjoyable; again, a cross cultural experience, and then I did a Masters degree at the University of Florida, followed by a PhD in Texas, both in agriculture. I suppose that’s quite odd really, because I have no agricultural background, and my parents were what you’d call blue collar, working class immigrants. Originally I was doing biology, but then I discovered agriculture, and soon realised it was just applied biology. I also thought I’d like to help save the world. Studying agriculture seemed to fit with that ambition because it would enable me to go to the third world and help them grow more food. So really I’ve been in agriculture, one way or another, since the 1970’s, and I’ve loved it. It’s been a good career for me; we’ve never got rich, but we’ve always been employed, and that’s been important to us. There’s something fundamental about growing things, and I know it’s a cliché, but I just love whatever it is about sowing seeds, knowing I’m going to harvest a crop a few months later, and I just don’t know why everybody doesn’t do it. It’s a great thrill that hasn’t waned over the 30-odd years I’ve been doing it, but there is a lot of work, which is hard, so we are now part-time producers because you can’t put in those kinds of hours all your life.
We came here, to West Bexington, about 20 years ago. Joy and I met when we were both working for PhD’s in agriculture; I was at university in Texas and she was at Aberystwyth. We met at a forage conference in Kentucky in 1980, conducted a transatlantic romance, and then got married and went to work in the Caribbean. We both worked at the University of the Virgin Islands, where I was in forage research, and Joy was an agricultural advisor. We were there for 5 years, saved up quite a bit of money, and then bought the house and land here and moved back. Our son Ben was born while we were still in the Caribbean and daughter Martha was born when we moved back. Joy’s from West Bexington, her family’s here and this is the village she was brought up in.
One thing I’d always wanted to do, being a child of the sixties, was to grow my own food, to have my own place and be self-sufficient. Joy didn’t, having been brought up on a farm and market garden, and she knew exactly how much hard work was involved. However, my idealism prevailed, and she indulged me: and I think that if I had the opportunity to do it all again I probably wouldn’t. We started out growing vegetables organically, just standard vegetables like cabbages and potatoes, but we found we couldn’t make it pay. We didn’t really have enough land, and it’s too wet. So after about 10 years we were going to give it up. I was doing inspections for the Soil Association to help with the income, and Joy was doing photography successfully at the time, and we thought let’s just give the vegetable growing up. Then we got together with an American friend in London who suggested we try growing chilli peppers and sell them by post. She was already importing dried peppers from the States, but was having trouble sourcing fresh peppers in this country. So we thought we’d give it one last try, and although our first couple of years didn’t work, after that it took off, and we’ve been doing it successfully for 12 years now. The crops are all in polytunnels and greenhouses, and with some help at weekends from school students, Joy and I have been able to keep our work input part-time. We also are involved with breeding new varieties and selling seeds, one of which is Dorset Naga, which currently ranks as one of the hottest chilli varieties in the world.
Living in Britain I began to realise how culturally diverse the population actually was, and although that’s perhaps not immediately apparent in West Dorset, with my background it really interested me. I was lecturing at Bournemouth University, and doing the Soil Association inspections, so my work brought me into contact with people from all over the world. The Metropolitan Borough of Sandwell, a midlands-based local authority, had commissioned the Soil Association and Bournemouth University as consultants to their local health trust to research urban food production, which they wanted to promote. The idea was to encourage people to get out and take more exercise by growing their own vegetables, and of course improve their health by eating them. So they asked me to liaise between the local allotment holders and the consultants. Now Sandwell, at that time had, and probably still does, the largest per capita percentage of ethnic minorities in the population of anywhere in the UK, outside of London. I got up there, after living in West Dorset for 8 years, and I just couldn’t believe it. When I talked to the allotment holders, who were Jamaicans, Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis, it was like I was home again. It was so exciting, as though the multicultural side of me, lying dormant all those years, had risen again. We got the report finished, but my curiosity made me think I really had to pursue this some more. I managed to get a grant from the Jane Grigson Trust, and I went all over the UK photographing and interviewing immigrant vegetable growers, writing articles and giving talks about them. I visited some of the growers many times over several years, becoming good friends with them and their families. One man, a Punjabi, I had to revisit several times just to try and make sense of his English, a weird combination of Punjabi and Brummie. The point of it all to me, and in the articles I’ve written about the project, is that it’s ok, we are a multicultural community, and there’s nothing to be afraid of: I’m an immigrant too. I also learnt that all these different immigrant communities like their own type of chilli peppers, which you can find in their local shops and markets, and that’s helped us develop our own varieties to supply those markets.
There’s nowhere you can live that’s perfect, but coming back here to West Dorset to live has been close. Our kids Ben and Martha have been to the local schools, and are both now at Bristol University, so we’re really proud of them. As a local town, Bridport is great on so many levels, especially community projects, everybody chipping in to try and make it a better place to live. My Dad was very strong on that kind of thing, and I am too. It was love at first sight when I came here to live, and I still love it.”