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The Upside Down: The Lie of the Land

John Mitchinson explains why we should listen to the farmers and why their plight deserves our attention

The Upside DownThe Lie of the Land

John Mitchinson explains why we should listen to the farmers and why their plight deserves our attention

It’s been a cold, dry spring. Even people who don’t spend much time outside are noticing that the weather is becoming more erratic. For those whose livelihoods depend on it – the farmers – it is serious: the growing season is at least a month behind.

I know this because I live in the country and have done so for almost a quarter of a century. We have at various times kept and raised pigs, sheep, chickens and bees. There’s nothing like trying to raise animals on a patch of ground to make you pay attention to it – and the weather it depends on. I’m not a farmer – a smallholder at best – but I’ve come to know and respect many who are: some old and taciturn; others young and full of hope. 

In her recent book Field Work, a profound and revelatory account of the reality of modern faming, Bella Bathurst nails the challenge of writing about them. Everyone has an opinion about farmers. They are like the police, she writes: “Once the kind of profession which the middle classes respected without really understanding, now it became the sort of profession which everyone disrespected without understanding either.”

The source of that disrespect is a general sense that farming has ‘gone wrong’ and privileged economic efficiency over the proper stewardship of the land. And the bald facts make uncomfortable reading.

Small farms of less than 20 hectares (50 acres) have been disappearing as fast as the species of wildlife that they once sustained: down from 158,000 in 1950 to 38,500 in 2015. Farming has been transformed in the years since the war by technological innovations in genetics, mechanisation and fertiliser – delivering us food so cheap that the average British household now spends less than 10% of its budget on it – down from 35% in the 1950s. If you want to get depressed about the state of British farming, it’s not hard to do. 

It wasn’t always thus (despite the farmers’ traditional reputation for seeing the worst in everything). One of the farms near where I live is owned by the Henderson family and, in 1944, George Henderson published his classic book, The Farming Ladder, a robustly positive account of how he and his brother acquired the farm and built it into a profitable business. It was a runaway bestseller, appealing to returning servicemen and offering them clear, practical advice about how to start their own farms.

Henderson’s vision of farming was on the side of innovation (for example: tractors, electrical fencing) but contemptuous of government meddling and subsidies, his philosophy summed up in three words: “Work, muck and thought.” 

It is interesting to read it alongside James Rebanks’ English Pastoral, a 21st Century farmer’s account of three generations of his own family. Rebanks’ grandfather farmed in the Lake District in the small, rotational way that George Henderson would have recognised: the close connection between livestock, manure, and land. His father resisted the urge to expand and mechanise like so many other farmers in the area, and now James has found a way to balance the requirement to earn money with the environmental priorities that good stewardship demands. By working with ecologists and learning exactly which ‘muck’ works best to restore healthy soil, wildlife of all kinds is now flourishing on his farm.

It is a cautiously optimistic book but carries some of the hurt and frustration that I recognise in the farmers I know. At one point he writes about the people who left the land for the city: “When we left, we were farmers. When we returned, other people, tougher people, were the farmers, and we just loved ‘nature’. We had become free of the harsh realities and were then several steps removed from what others now did in our name to feed us.”

Blaming farmers for the madness of the food supply chain is about as helpful as blaming workers in a factory for the pollution it causes. We wanted cheaper food and they delivered it, despite often falling victim in the process, hung out to dry by the unreasonable demands of supermarket contracts or the short-term sticking plaster of subsidies. 

Farmers deserve our attention: their plight is the story of late capitalism in microcosm. At some point in the last 50 years, the management of land was re-imagined as an industry, a pure business, where technology would deliver undreamt-of levels of productivity and growth. It succeeded, but at a human and environmental cost that most of us now recognise was too high. Figuring out how we reverse that process is a global priority. As Rebanks writes, we need “a politics that sees the land and what happens on it as being at the heart of building a more just and decent country”. 

It is not just the farmers noticing the weather.

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