Between its towns and cities, the rumpled skin of lowland Britain is covered and pierced in many ways, by church steeples, nuclear reactors, safari parks, six-lane highways, ruined monasteries, radio telescopes, wind turbines, landfill sites, golf courses. Mostly, though, it’s a patchwork of oblongs of open ground stretching to the horizon, blocks of single shades of green, brown and yellow, marked at the join by hedges and lines of trees and narrow lanes. Farmed fields, in other words. We perceive the countryside as if farmed fields were the default state, as if the two were synonymous. But why should this be true, when so much else has changed?
To the traveller passing at speed, even to the hiker or dog-walker, farmed fields are anonymous elements that contribute to a pattern. It’s the landscape the eye seeks, not any of the fields making it up. Most fields have no individuality to a stranger; at best, a fine oak in the middle, or a pretty horse grazing. Few can tell crops apart, or estimate a field’s size in acres. Visitors to the countryside see farms without seeing them. They see the odd farmyard, and they see a mass of fields. A passer-by can’t connect a field to a particular farm.
Besides, in Britain, a walk in the country is a constrained experience. Most fields – that is, most bits of the lowland countryside – are forbidden to outsiders, by legal, physical and practical barriers. The biggest barrier is purposelessness: even where a right of way exists, why use it? To walk from one village to another? We have roads and cars for that. Few who live in ‘the country’ – that is, in villages – stray from metalled roads except along a handful of known paths for ramblers and dog-walkers, often through woods or along waterways. Most of the vast mosaic will never be entered by any human being except the farmer, a trickle of contractors and, once in a while, a government official. Not that such people are often to be seen. Away from the roads, the space between human habitations in lowland Britain has acquired a ghostly quality. It is rare to visit the countryside or travel through it and see someone at work in a field; the occasional tractor, no more.
But the work gets done. The chequered pattern changes colour and texture, season by season. It’s surprising that we treat this epic, continual, land-defining endeavour as if it were both inevitable and eternal. The colliery tunnels have fallen in, the steel furnaces are winking out, the fishing fleets have gone for scrap; Britain’s trains are Japanese, its cars German, its clothes from China. And yet Britain still produces three-fifths of its own food. Farmers still raise livestock, plough fields, sow and harvest crops, at the mercy of the weather. They use technology unrecognisable to their forefathers, but the deep processes go back to the Stone Age and the first farmers. How is this possible? How have so many thriving practices fallen to the globalisation formula of ‘other countries do what you do better/more cheaply, so you might as well give up,’ while farming, an activity thousands of years old, continues to have mastery of the British lowlands, at a time when the world is awash with cheap (at least for rich countries) food?
Subsidies help, as does a market of 500 million people protected by high tariffs from global competition. The European Union has been good to farmers. This may now be coming to an end, for Britain may be about to leave.
In 1973, when Britain entered the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the EU, everyone older than their early twenties could remember food rationing, and the government’s priority was affordable, reliable food supplies. Farmers, accordingly, were subsidised by British taxpayers, but food from abroad could be imported duty-free. Once inside the EEC, a golden age for farm incomes began. Not only were British farmers plugged into the bountiful subsidies of the Common Agricultural Policy, which paid them on the nail for whatever milk, meat and grain they grew, whether there was demand for it or not; they were also sheltered by Europe’s tariff barriers. Although they had to compete tariff-free with their fellow European farmers, they were protected from full-on global competition.
The CAP isn’t quite so generous today. In the latest version, subsidies aren’t based on how much farmers produce, but on how much farmland they own, and payments to the biggest farmers – companies and wealthy landowners – have been trimmed by 5 per cent. It still gives out a lot of money. In 2015, British farmers received slightly more than £3 billion. If, on 23 June, Britain votes to leave the EU, subsidies to farmers become just another item in the national budget. They could be increased. They could be kept at the same level. They could be cut. Or a future government could choose to abolish them, as the radical free marketeers of David Lange’s Labour Party did when they came to power in New Zealand in the 1980s.
Many British farmers support Brexit. Others fear it would destroy them. The National Farmers Union has come out against, arguing that without subsidies, most British farms would go under. The leaders of the campaign to leave the EU contradict one another. Some, like the Ukip farming spokesman, Stuart Agnew, and the Conservative farming minister, George Eustice, insist that, post-Brexit, domestic subsidies would continue to flow, and may even increase. Yet the official campaign, Vote Leave, has made clear that it’s ready to sacrifice farmers to contrive a bonus from Brexit for the country as a whole.
Vote Leave’s first campaign poster declared ‘Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week.’ To understand the significance of this it’s first necessary to be clear that the oft-repeated £350 million figure is a lie. Not an exaggeration, or a question of interpretation, or a misleading claim, but a lie. It ignores the rebate Margaret Thatcher negotiated. When you factor that in, the EU actually ‘takes’ about £250 million a week from Britain. Deepening the dishonesty of the original lie, even that figure overstates Britain’s contribution by more than half, because the EU gives much of the country’s membership fee straight back. Subsidies to British farmers make up the biggest element of the money that’s returned, at £61 million a week.
A more accurate version of the Vote Leave poster would run: ‘Let’s abolish farm subsidies, raise taxes and use all the money we save by leaving the EU so we can spend an extra £350 million a week on the NHS.’ Wordy, but, for a lot of left-leaning Britons, an attractive plan. Throw in the promise of cheaper food if we drop tariffs on agricultural imports from Africa, Australasia and the Americas, as Michael Gove wants to do, and it gets even better. Just not for farmers. The spectre haunting the British farmyard is that the EU debate will turn public attention to what’s happening down on the farm, whatever the referendum result. There is, after all, another possible version of Vote Leave’s poster: ‘Let’s give our NHS the £61 million our farmers take every week.’
In The Lost Village, about life in Pitton in Wiltshire in the 1920s and 1930s, Ralph Whitlock describes the effect on British farming in 1875 of the sudden arrival of ships carrying cheap grain and frozen meat from Latin America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Prices collapsed, and the seemingly eternal patchwork of fields began to fray:
the marginal land … was abandoned first, and that included the chalk downlands, large acreages of which had been laboriously brought into cultivation in the years of prosperity. They included most of the downs to the north of Pitton. In the 1920s the villagers were aware of them as miles of dereliction, just over the horizon. It was possible to see the outlines of the deserted fields and even of the plough ridges, for they had been abandoned without even being sown to grass. On some the dominant vegetation was not even weeds but brown and grey lichen … 1875-93 were the worst years. Thousands of efficient farmers, trying to carry on farming in the well-tried tradition, went bankrupt. Landowners, despairing of finding tenants for their neglected acres, jettisoned vast areas of farmland.
Stuart Agnew farms just over four hundred acres on two parcels of land a couple of miles apart on the sandy soil of north Norfolk, near the market town of Fakenham. Agnew’s is a mixed farm, with sheep and chickens as well as crops, but it’s a measure of how conditions have changed that in the 1970s, his acreage would have been ample for an arable farmer (that is, one growing only crops) to flourish. These days an arable farmer needs a thousand acres – a landholding whose perimeter would take about an hour and a half to walk – to be sure of a decent living in East Anglia.
I went to see Agnew one May morning. Google Maps took me west out of Norwich on a fast road screened by trees from the countryside, then ushered me into the dense latticework of lanes on either side of the highway. It was hard to get a sense of the land beyond the hedgerows and woods and shaggy verges, but every so often the hedges would disappear and the landscape would reveal itself, the familiar swell and hollow, the individual fields without meaning because I was travelling past them at fifty miles an hour, because they were like other fields, because they had no grandeur in themselves and were just part of the gentle sweep of the ground towards the sky.
To their farmer, a field is a named enclosure with specific quirks and history and chemistry, an object of husbandry, an almanac of work done and work to do, and an item of account. The subsidy each one brings can be critical to a farm’s survival. A typical field under wheat in East Anglia might spread over ten hectares, or 24 acres. In a good year in Norfolk you could hope to get 85 tonnes of wheat out of a field that size, which would probably be used for animal feed. While 85 tonnes might sound like a lot, as I write, a tonne of wheat for delivery after the 2016 harvest is selling for just £111. The entire field would yield the farmer £9435. Against that, set the cost of the seed, fertiliser, sprays and fuel for the tractor that does the spraying, plus a share of the cost of the farm equipment, plus a share of the rent to the landowner or loan payments to the bank, plus a share of a myriad other costs – contractors’ fees, fencing, building maintenance, ditching. Only after that is there anything left for the farmer’s personal and family needs.
The subsidy is salvation. That same field yields just over £1800 in CAP subsidy, almost a fifth of the current value of the crop. And although the subsidy fluctuates with the exchange rate – it’s fixed in euros, but paid in pounds – it’s more stable and reliable than the price of wheat, which, in the past nine years, has twice doubled and twice halved, sometimes from one year to the next.
Since he became a Ukip MEP in 2009 Agnew has relinquished day to day running of the farm to his wife, Diana, who deals with their 35,000 chickens, and his son Jethro, who tends their seven hundred breeding ewes. The livestock are concentrated on the smaller, northern part of the farm, on the hundred acres Agnew actually owns, up against the former RAF airfield of West Raynham. The rest of the land he farms as a tenant. Under CAP, farmers get the subsidy either way, as landowners or tenants, as long as they are ‘active farmers’. In 2015, Agnew got about £40,000.
The family lives and works out of a large red brick house Agnew built after he bought the land. Around the house, coming right up to it, is sheep pasture, cropped and green as a golf course; close to the front door two ewes suffering crises of maternity were corralled in phonebox-sized wire pens. The newness of it all was signified by the immaturity of the saplings lining the drive to the house and the lack of natural shelter for the sheep.
Set further back from the road was the chicken shed. The hens are free range, which means that at certain times they are able to come and go between the shed and an outdoor area. Conditions inside the shed at night, when the hens are confined, were secretly filmed earlier this year by a local animal welfare organisation; the cameraman’s film, reported by the Mail on Sunday, showed a vast crowd of jostling, scraggly birds, although a subsequent inspection by the RSPCA concluded that, apart from an outbreak of enteritis, which was being treated, the birds were fine.
Further on still is the former airfield, now Britain’s largest solar farm, covered in rank after rank of inclined brown panels. Agnew has negotiated a deal to let his sheep graze underneath them. Since there’s also a plan to sow wild flowers around the panels, and since those flower patches might include ragwort, which is poisonous to sheep, Agnew has to divide the solar area into flower paddocks and sheep paddocks. Now he’s been informed that, since the land used to be a defence base, ‘whenever they sink a fence post, we have to get a bomb disposal expert in to check for unexploded ordnance. We are living in an age now where everything has to be wrapped in cotton wool.’
Agnew is a tall, powerfully built, garrulous man in his mid-sixties. A pupil at Gordonstoun at the same time as Prince Charles, cousin to a baronet with a large estate in Suffolk, he combines a confident, commanding air and the love of a good story with a peevish ability to articulate complaints in such a way that aligns his personal disadvantage with the disadvantage to the country. I asked him what would happen if, post-Brexit, farm subsidies were scrapped, and tariffs on imported food cut. ‘It would look like a lot of land not being farmed,’ he said. ‘People being laid off, and a worker would then be on benefits. A farmer who had been making money and paying tax would be wanting a tax refund.’ Just as fracking for shale gas should be encouraged to make Britain self-sufficient in energy, he said, British farmers needed to be supported to grow grain, because the country’s grain-importing ports were vulnerable to terrorist attack. It was clear he didn’t take the prospect of an end of farm subsidies very seriously. He felt that, if anything, EU subsidies weren’t high enough. Many countries, he pointed out, subsidised their farmers more generously.
As we talked I realised he was treating the referendum as if it were a general election; as if, instead of resolving a single issue, whether or not to stay in the EU, a vote to leave would usher in a new Britain, where farmer-hampering officials, Agnew-unfriendly regulations, scientists whose analysis he disagreed with and popular hostility to genetically modified food would fade away of their own accord.
He blamed the EU for forcing him to bury sheep rather than cremating them. He blamed the EU for stopping him growing GM crops (he was one of England’s trial growers). He blamed the EU for excessively tight control of pesticides and for forcing him to place an electronic tag in the ear of each sheep. ‘The trouble is it can fall out. Then it’s difficult to know what to replace it with,’ he said. ‘They say “This animal does not exist” and we say “Well, there it is, defecating and urinating on the concrete.”’
I suggested British national bureaucracy, British politicians and British public opinion were capable of banning GM crops and coming up with clumsy hi-tech ways to track sheep without help from Brussels. He wasn’t convinced. And although I went to see him to talk about Brexit and farming, because he wanted to leave the EU and was a farmer, we weren’t really talking about farming.
We sat in his kitchen, lit by bright daylight from big picture windows. He had a cold and drank from a pint glass of amber liquid – juice or some remedy. I’d read that he’d spent time in Rhodesia and asked him about it. He worked in Rhodesia in the 1970s as a young soil scientist preventing earth on white-owned farms being washed away by the rain. He became fond of the country, then run by Ian Smith’s white minority government in defiance of the rest of the world, including its former colonial master, Britain, and considers Smith’s Rhodesia a great agricultural success story. By that time the war between black nationalist fighters seeking majority rule (‘terrorists’, Agnew calls them) and the white-led regime was well under way. Agnew was sufficiently inspired by the Rhodesian cause to try to join the country’s army, but failed to make it through officer training. He came back to England when he realised Rhodesia was doomed and a black majority-ruled Zimbabwe was going to replace it.
‘I wouldn’t have joined the Tories because of what they did to Rhodesia. That was an absolute betrayal,’ he said. He still views that time through an inner prism giving a high-contrast spectrum of racial and political categories: the cruel, ruthless ‘terrorists’; the non-combatant blacks – he called them ‘Africans’ – who he reckons weren’t ready for the responsibility of running the country; the black middle class Smith was apparently trying to foster; the paternalistic British-descended white farmers who paid their black workers partly in money, partly in food; the harsh Afrikaner farmers who chained their black workers up; the even less pleasant Portuguese.
Of all his Rhodesia memories he was most energised by the story of a training course he went on with other soil scientists, some of whom were, for the first time, black. He described the mounting apprehension among the white students as the lunch hour approached, their fear that the black students would expect to join them for lunch, that the white students might be forced to go to a multiracial restaurant, or would feel obliged to try to get their colleagues into a whites-only restaurant, where there would be a scene; he described the joy and relief when the black students reassured them, without being asked, that they would find their own place to eat. The black students’ acceptance of their status, Agnew said, ‘started a better bonding process’.
When we got back to 2016, Agnew talked about immigration. About immigrants from Eastern Europe disrupting the orderly running of schools and hospitals in Lincolnshire ‘by sheer force of numbers’. About farms needing cheap Eastern European labour, so EU immigrants already in Britain shouldn’t be sent back, but should be closely observed for five years, and deported if they misbehaved.
I told Agnew I wondered whether there wasn’t something quite Ukippy about the EU itself. Couldn’t Europe be seen, like the Ukip vision of Britain, as a them and us proposition, an exclusive club that wanted to limit access, to keep out undesirables and prevent its unique character being spoiled? On a world scale, couldn’t he consider Europe as an entity cohesive enough, homogenous enough, to be local?
‘I would have been happy with that if it were the Netherlands, Denmark, Scandinavia, perhaps France,’ he said, with sudden intensity of feeling. ‘I thought that was what it was all about. All these Eastern European countries … to try and say “That’s us” is very difficult.’
A patina of ancient power, the kind of power that comes with landed wealth and bonds of marriage and mateyness within an exclusive social group, lies over north Norfolk. Eleven miles to the north of Agnew’s house is Holkham Hall, where Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester, still owns farmland on the scale of his eponymous Georgian ancestor, the agricultural reformer Coke of Norfolk. Last year the Holkham Farming Company received £183,000 in subsidies; another Holkham enterprise, Holkham Nature Reserve Ltd, run with Natural England (conservation organisations are some of the biggest recipients of farm subsidies) got £205,000. Ten miles to the west of Agnew’s house lies the Sandringham Estate, the queen’s farm, subsidised to the tune of about £650,000. Between Agnew’s place and Sandringham is Houghton Hall, family seat of Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, now the home of David, 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley, Lord Great Chamberlain and beneficiary of £260,000 in subsidies.
The land Agnew’s house stands on was part, until relatively recently, of Marquess Townshend’s Raynham Estate. The Townshend family still owns the airfield; the solar farm, one of a string around the UK owned by a specialist investment fund, pays rent to the estate. In its heyday the estate had forty thousand acres. It’s shrunk to five thousand today, although that’s enough to bring the Townshends a subsidy of £360,000.
All families are old, but there’s something unusually persistent about the Townshends. The family comes up in written records as farming land around the various hamlets carrying the Raynham name as early as the 14th century, and they had a lock on the area by the mid-16th. The present marquess, Charles Townshend, lives in the proto-Palladian mansion, Raynham Hall, his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather built almost four hundred years ago.
I went to see him one morning, driving through the private park to the house and being shown in by a cleaner in housecoat and rubber gloves to a vast, black and white chequered flagstoned hall: the wrong entrance, I think – I’d been expected round the other side. Lord Townshend, seventy, bearded and a little tired-looking, wearing a body-warmer, blue cords, blue socks and moccasins, took me to a narrow scullery and made me a cup of instant coffee in a delicate teacup, apologising that the household was between butlers. ‘He was six foot three,’ he said of the previous incumbent. ‘He was tall enough to reach the windows.’
We went to the library, lined with 18th and 17th-century volumes and with a fine antique 20th-century electric heater in the fireplace. Lord Townshend showed me a beloved possession, an ivory-handled seal his ancestor Viscount ‘Turnip’ Townshend had used to endorse the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland in 1706. Besides being Walpole’s neighbour and brother-in-law, the viscount was Walpole’s partner in government. He was foreign secretary when Britain had two of them, one for Protestant countries and another for Catholic and Muslim ones (Townshend’s was the northern department). Then he fell out with Walpole, retreated to his estate and devoted himself to farming so successfully (hence the nickname: he proselytised for turnips) that in popular history Raynham competes with Coke’s Holkham to be considered the birthplace of the British agricultural revolution.
It was an awkward meeting. Lord Townshend agreed to see me after a personal introduction, and I thought I’d explained in advance who I was and what I was writing about, but it turned out he believed I was writing a historical piece about agriculture. He’d hoped he might be able to sell me some time in Raynham’s archive of 2.5 million documents, which he’s trying to catalogue and commercialise. When he learned I was writing about the EU referendum, he said he didn’t want to comment. When his discovery that I’d written about privatisation came in close proximity to my questions about the reasons the Raynham Estate had decided to farm its land directly, rather than through tenants, the framework of courtesy on which my presence in his house depended began to stretch and creak like the stays of a rope bridge in a high wind. It’s not that he was angry, but he seemed to fear I wished him ill, and it was too late to explain that even if I’d wanted to I couldn’t blame him for the enclosures, the flight from the land to the cities and the disappearance of the English peasantry.
His son, Lord Townshend said, ran the farming side. Having inherited the title and the estate late in life, just before his 65th birthday, he was focused on the house, which a senior historian at English Heritage had called the most beautiful in England. ‘I’m restoring Raynham Hall and bringing it into the 21st century. My second interest is keeping the family and the estate together.’ This wasn’t easy, he explained. ‘The house doesn’t lend itself to being open to the public. We’ve not got great wings or basements where the family can live as at Houghton or Holkham. They were built as showcases for the plunder of the Grand Tours. This house was built as a home, as a private house.’ That said, there are recitals, and anyone can arrange a tour, if they can get together a party of 14, at £30 a head.
When aristocrats still own so much land, when all the peers I’ve mentioned, out of the thousands of possibilities, attended the same secondary school, the one attended by David Cameron and Boris Johnson, it might seem strange to say that the powers of the lords of Norfolk have waned. But in some senses they have. They no longer wield local power over hundreds of tenants and agricultural workers and their families on their estates; commuters, retirees and second homers live in the villages now. Nor do they have the wider power their status once gave them in the armed forces of the Empire and in Parliament, reaching out from the manor to the world.Lord Townshend inherited his title just after the automatic right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords was abolished. In British national politics the dialectics of inequality are central, but in the politics of localism, nationalism and globalism, the politics of the EU referendum, a different dynamic comes into play. In terms of the citizen-Westminster-Brussels arc, it is less significant that the Townshends have a big house and thousands of acres of land, when so many have no house and no land, than that when I called Raynham Hall, Lord Townshend answered the phone. In an economy of faceless authorities and absentee landlords, he is present, and has a face.
Still, in an age of austerity, £360,000 a year is a lot of public dosh to take to the bank when one of your concerns is finding a new butler. I asked Lord Townshend about the scenario where, post-Brexit, farm subsidies were slashed, and farmers deserted the land en masse. ‘The idea that a loss of subsidies would lead to the dereliction of the countryside is defeatist,’ he said. ‘I just feel we have been, throughout history, able to get through any problem thrown at us by politics, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to continue to do it. I’ve enough confidence in our abilities to survive in England, based on our history, that we will do the right thing if subsidies disappear. We will still survive. And farm.’
After I left Raynham Hall I got lost in the lanes and the fields. Google Maps will lead you into the depths of the Norfolk countryside until the signal is too poor for you to be led back. I pulled over to get my bearings and an agricultural vehicle squeezed past, ten times the size of my car, sprouting prongs and blades, like a rover sent from another planet to explore the earth. When it had gone all was silent except for the sound of two wild stags banging their heads together at the edge of a field a few yards away, under the yellow spring oak leaves.
The Townshends got back the freehold of West Raynham airfield after it closed in the 1990s, but the houses where RAF personnel and their families lived were bought by a property developer who went spectacularly bust after the crash, owing a South African bank £20 million. Of 172 homes in what’s become a new village known as the Kiptons, many have been let or sold. The topography of rank is preserved: big detached and semi-detached officers’ houses in Kipton Orchard, terraced houses where airmen and their families lived in Kipton Wood. The promised gym, swimming pool and church never materialised, and there’s no school or doctor’s surgery, but residents say things have got better since the bank called in its loan to the developer and took on the responsibility of refurbishing homes and common spaces. There are buses now. When I visited Kipton Wood, the grass in front of the severe, solid, red brick terraces was neatly cut, and the children had a playground. The community shop, which doubles as a pub two nights a week, was open, waiting for a delivery of eggs from Diana Agnew.
‘Before the shop and pub were open we were bored seven nights out of seven and now we’ve got a darts team going. Got a proper community feel,’ said Zara England, a shop volunteer. ‘Four and a half years ago nobody spoke to anybody, the shop was privately run so you couldn’t afford to shop here anyway.’
Peter Harris, another volunteer, was one of the first to move in, from his native Fakenham, in 2008. His career as a road engineer had been cut short when he slipped while carrying a 75kg kerbstone and badly injured his back. He hasn’t worked since. The developer offered him a low rent on a shell of a house with holes in the roof, telling him he was welcome to fix it himself. The move appealed to his wife, who’d lived on the active base as a little girl, when her father was a radar specialist servicing anti-aircraft missiles. Now the Harrises have two small children; he’s in pain, on medication and hard to employ, while his wife has completed an Open University degree and is training to be a teacher.
I asked about the referendum. Harris said he didn’t feel he had enough information. Zara England brought up immigration, though not in the way I’d got used to. ‘The people who want to come out are pushing the race card, which I think is bang out of order,’ she said. ‘Polish workers work a damn sight harder than the English. People can whinge about how they can’t get a job because Polish Jim has got it, but would they flip burgers eight hours a day?’ She used to work for Burger King.
‘We don’t get much diversity round here,’ she said, ‘95 per cent of the children are white and of that probably 60 per cent are blonde.’
‘Back in the 1980s,’ Harris mused, ‘there was one black person in Fakenham and everybody knew him. Lovely chap. Now half the time you can walk the streets of the town and hear people speaking languages … you think you’re on holiday.
‘I guarantee you about 20 per cent of the people here will vote. People feel they’re screwed either way.’
When I’d spoken to Agnew about farm work, he’d described a kind of apartheid, where aboriginal Brits had come to think of field labour as ‘immigrant work’, and Eastern European gangmasters would only hire Eastern Europeans. That wasn’t quite the way Harris put it when he talked about his own early experience of farming. He just thought the farmers were mean. ‘I did two weeks on an organic farm when I was 16 … You have to go through taking all the weeds out, taking all the stones out. Picking up carrots out of the ground. As a kid of 16 you see yourself doing much better. If the farmers had paid better, I would have stayed.’
In a sense the people of the Kiptons live in the country, and in a sense they don’t. The feeling of living on a military base with a secure perimeter has been carried over from RAF days – people talk about ‘going off-site’ – and there’s no connection between the community and farming. There’s even a clause in the tenancy agreements forbidding the keeping of farm animals. Although it’s two and a half hours from London, one of Harris’s neighbours is a shift commuter: four days in the capital, four days in Norfolk. All the people of the Kiptons see of farmers is the tractor the bus gets stuck behind on the way to Fakenham.
‘You feel separate from them but at the same time you feel they are around you,’ Harris said. ‘You hear machinery most days in the fields. The sound of a shotgun. You can definitely smell the chicken mess when it comes across the fields.’
There’s a hierarchy of security even among farmers working relatively large farms. The most secure are the landowner-farmers, like the Townshend family or the big companies growing fruit and vegetables over thousands of acres in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. Next come farmers with long-term tenancies; like Stuart Agnew, they can still call a farm their own, even if they don’t own the land. Finally there are contractor farmers: farm managers and workers hired job by job, season by season, who take a wage to work land for somebody else. To make the leap from contractor to fully fledged farmer takes backing, or an inheritance. Farms big in acreage can still be very small businesses in terms of employees, and they are often family businesses. One of the great generators of unhappiness in the countryside has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with generations: some farmers have farms to hand on to children who don’t want to farm them, while others refuse to step aside to make way for children who are desperate to take over. If farm subsidies do take a hit, and farms become fewer, it won’t be because of a shortage of people who want to farm.
Some see their patrimony disintegrate before they have a chance to inherit it. James Lake did. His grandfather started a mushroom-growing business in Hertfordshire and moved it to Little Fransham in Norfolk, a few miles south of the Agnew and Townshend farms and the old airfield, in the 1960s. By the time Lake was born in the 1970s the family had 14 temperature-controlled growing sheds on three acres of concrete. They made their own growing medium out of a mixture of chicken manure and horse manure from Newmarket racing stables, then mixed that with mushroom spore-impregnated grain. ‘Put it in growing boxes, which would go into the growing shed, and six weeks later you would have mushrooms. All picked by hand. We had gangs of women, mainly. Blokes weren’t dextrous enough.’ That kind of farming got few subsidies in Britain but mushrooms were a luxury product in those days and the Lakes prospered. They employed 35 people. They began to export.
Lake maintains that his family’s farm fell victim to unfair practices. In the mid-1990s, Irish competitors – ‘they got a lot of European funding to basically sort themselves out’ – started supplying British supermarket chains with cheap mushrooms wholesale.
‘The supermarkets would say “We’d love to buy UK mushrooms but you’re going to have to do it at that price,”’ Lake said. British mushroom growers started going out of business. Their Dutch counterparts were suffering too. They reacted by buying ailing British mushroom firms, trucking in their own product and packaging it here, enabling the supermarkets to take advantage of ambiguous EU origin labelling rules to stick Union Jacks on the packaging. ‘Dad went down to Westminster with a few of the growers,’ Lake said. ‘[The politicians] just sat there and said “I can’t imagine the supermarkets would do anything like that.”’
They shut down in 2002, after trying to diversify their way out. ‘We looked at all different ideas, from going upmarket to growing more exotic strains and pre-sliced. We even looked at grow-your-own kits. We were getting 90p for a pound of mushrooms. We could just about pick them for that price but we couldn’t put them on a lorry and deliver them so we were getting more and more into debt. Also there was a virus going round, virus X. We got the start of that. We had to shut the farm down, empty everything out, sterilise it. We said “Enough is enough.” The year we closed 12 other mushroom farms of similar size or larger went under.’
The Lakes were comparatively lucky. After giving up their mushroom business they got permission to use the land to plant the most valuable crop of all: houses. They cleared their debts with a little left over. Now, after various different jobs, Lake is a contractor, driving agricultural machinery for other people, wanting a farm of his own but not seeing how he can get one. To start a viable farm from scratch, he reckoned, would cost a million pounds. ‘However much I want to have my own farm, I don’t think I would want the stress and hassle of having to borrow that much money.’
He was speaking in the spacious sitting room of his house, a house built with mushroom money in the good times. I’d arranged to come over after eight in the evening because that was the earliest he could manage. He’d already cancelled one meeting over farm work. A few days earlier he’d started work at six a.m., spraying, then gone combining at lunchtime and carried on till 3.30 a.m. the next day, working by the combine harvester’s headlights.
Theoretically, a withdrawal of subsidies for British farmers could open up new opportunities as the price of farmland fell and existing farmers sold up. But most of the insiders I spoke to felt it would simply speed up a process that was already under way, of consolidation, of small and medium farms being absorbed by larger ones. ‘The bigger farms are getting bigger,’ Lake said. ‘The days of the small family farm are numbered. Your traditional mixed farm, where you’ve got land, some cows, some pigs, some sheep, are pretty much over. You have to go big or go home.’
‘There’s a pretty real risk that if we came out of Europe the level of support for farming would be under pressure,’ said Hector Wykes-Sneyd, a Suffolk land agent. ‘The results of that would be quite interesting. You will see a lot of land coming out of production. It will also lead to something that’s been going on quietly, not necessarily very obviously – economies of scale, big operators. If you can afford this extremely expensive machinery, if you have the acreage to support it, you can farm huge acreage at low cost. I would see that process continuing.’ The farmer who employs Lake used to farm the seven hundred acres of land he owns with just three and a half people – himself, two workers and a student to help out at harvest time. He still has the seven hundred acres, but on top of that is tenant on another 250, and contract farms a further seven hundred. The area of land he’s farming has more than doubled, yet three and a half people is still plenty to do the job.
Those who couldn’t scale up, Wykes-Sneyd said, would suffer. ‘If [subsidies] disappeared entirely there would be a lot of farming organisations that wouldn’t make a profit. A farmer has this innate desire to keep farming their land and do the best by it to the extent the old belt-tightening exercise is very real. It’s amazing how people will get through years where other companies would have folded up. But if you take subsidies out that will not go on very long.’
I remember my school history curriculum bigging up Turnip Townshend and Coke of Norfolk, the great landowner reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who did such clever things, and raised yields, with crop rotation and clover and rationalising peasants off their bitty fragments of the commons. This narrative of the agricultural revolution has come under attack in recent years. The most frequent line of criticism is that the likes of Townshend and Coke weren’t innovators, but brilliant publicists and proselytisers who worked out how to systemise and promote much older ideas. A fiercer attack came from Robert Allen in his book Enclosure and the Yeoman (1992). Allen describes two English agricultural revolutions, one by small yeoman farmers in the 17th century, another by landlords in the 18th. The yeomen’s revolution, he maintains, led to a big increase in crop yields, with the same amount of labour; the landlords’ revolution used less labour to grow the same amount of crops. The earlier revolution, in Allen’s view, enriched the country as a whole without mass unemployment; the more celebrated landlords’ revolution only benefited the landlords.
Allen’s sally, loaded with data as it was, wasn’t decisive; Turnip and company have their redoubts in the academy yet. But the bigger point is that we are still on the reforming landlords’ vector, of ever larger farms run by ever fewer people, economies of scale, the application of science to the problem of growing food, and the pressure to acquire highly specialised and hence highly expensive machinery. Inflation since 2007 is 31 per cent, while the price of a tractor has doubled, but for that money you get a tractor that drives itself in a perfectly straight line down a field, guided by GPS. All the farmer has to do is turn it round when it gets to the end. The word Wykes-Sneyd used to describe modern farming was ‘precise’: the precision with which vegetables will be planted in a field, again using GPS, so that they can be harvested by machine without loss; the precision that comes of using the right pesticides and fertilisers, in exactly the right quantity, at exactly the right time.
And those quantities, on a big, conventional British farm, are large: about 250kg of nitrogen, potash and phosphate fertiliser per arable hectare. Lately farmers have been putting increasing amounts of sulphur on their fields to compensate – I know it sounds unlikely – for the essential sulphur they used to receive from acid rain. This kind of mechanised, chemical-intensive, large-scale farming is widespread around the world, wherever farmers can afford fertiliser. Lord Townshend described to me how he’d been assured by the Algerian minister of agriculture that ‘Turnip Townshend was where we started learning our agricultural procedures.’ The principles of the agricultural revolution – big farms replacing small ones, maximising food production through science – were followed by 20th-century socialist progressives.
David Laborde, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, pointed out to me that this kind of farming rendered absurd notions of food self-sufficiency for Britain, or even Europe. Britain grows three-fifths of its own food but has no phosphate reserves. Nor does any other EU country. The nearest phosphate is to be found in Morocco.
I’d approached Laborde with two questions I thought were straightforward. One was about what ‘cheap imported food’ actually meant in 2016. With oil, it’s easy. There’s one world price, but the cost of getting the oil out of the ground varies from place to place, mainly according to how difficult it is to get at and how much local workers are paid. It’s simple, for any oilfield, to work out how low the world price would have to go to stop oil extraction being profitable.Saudi oil is cheap; North Sea oil is expensive. How to find similar benchmarks for food?
As I talked to Laborde, I realised how naive my question was. It’s not just that the Saudi Arabia of rice, the Saudi Arabia of prawns and the Saudi Arabia of soya beans are all different. It’s that with staple crops like wheat, there are multiple different grades, varieties and uses, making it hard to compare like with like. There was a more obvious problem. I was imagining a scenario where Britain no longer subsidised its farmers and simply imported the cheapest food from wherever it was available. I’d forgotten that, just because Britain no longer subsidises its farmers, other countries won’t stop subsidising theirs. Some cheap imported food is cheap not because it’s grown where it’s most rational to grow it, but because it’s subsidised. The United States, India and China all subsidise their farmers heavily, as do many smaller countries. And if all subsidies and all tariffs were magically to disappear? ‘The production of food in developing countries, especially in Africa but also in Latin America, would start to grow,’ Laborde said. ‘You would have poor farmers in those countries getting out of poverty.’
This seemed like an answer to my second question. I wanted to know what Britain should do about subsidies to farmers if the wellbeing of the world’s 800 million undernourished people were its only concern. Would the risk of British farmland going unfarmed be outweighed by the benefits to the world’s poor if subsidies were scrapped after Brexit? Yes, Laborde said; but Britain outside the EU was not a big enough food producer to tip the scales of global dearth and plenty one way or the other.
And if, as predicted, the world population peaked at ten billion – could the planet support that many mouths? Again, the answer was yes, but a more nuanced yes. The issue, he said, was not so much whether enough food could be grown – it could – as whether the poor would be able to afford it. To understand what he was talking about, you have to look at another, more recent agricultural revolution.
In the early 1980s, British farming encountered an unexpected crisis. Propelled towards prosperity and a sense of their own success by generous European subsidies, ever more ingenious scientific techniques and an agriculture ministry still fixated on the idea that its only aim was to maximise and streamline the production of food, farmers lost the trust of the British people. As the old CAP subsidy regime generated grain mountains and lakes of surplus milk, it began to dawn on the non-farming population that the drive for yield to the exclusion of all else was altering the appearance of the countryside in a way they didn’t like. Each year, ten thousand miles of hedgerow were being dug up. In eastern England, up to 90 per cent of trees at field boundaries had been felled to create space for bigger fields and the manoeuvring of new, bigger machinery. Conservationists were beginning to note the waning of familiar British species; hedge destruction, monoculture and pesticides meant that increasingly they had nowhere to live, and nothing to eat. Friends of the Earth began peaceful direct action against farmers. Farmers burned conservationists in effigy. In her 1980 polemic, The Theft of the Countryside, Marion Shoard unsparingly articulated the alienation, as she saw it, between farmers and the people as a whole: she called them ‘executioners’ carrying out a death sentence on the English landscape, turning it into ‘a vast, featureless expanse of prairie’.
Matters came to a head one weekend in June 1984 when a single Norfolk farmer, David Archer, provoked turmoil at the top of the government. Archer had a farm in the Halvergate Marshes on the Norfolk Broads, an area of wetland grazing between Norwich and the sea where for centuries domestic cattle, wild birds and wild flowers have co-existed. In the early 1980s farmers, with the support of the Ministry of Agriculture, began to press to drain the land and plant crops on it. The Times called Halvergate ‘the Flanders of the great war between farming interests and the objectives of nature conservation’. The government tried to persuade the farmers to stop voluntarily while it worked out what to do.
On Thursday, 21 June, Archer told civil servants he was opting out of their voluntary scheme, and that, the next Monday, he was going to start draining the land for ploughing. The only way he could be stopped was by a direct order from Patrick Jenkin, the environment secretary. Cabinet papers released recently show a furious squabble between Jenkin and his counterpart at the Ministry of Agriculture, Michael Jopling. Jenkin wanted to make the order, rather than lose part of the ‘traditional landscape in the Broads’ and face the ‘outcry from the conservationists’. Jopling accused him of panicking and of threatening the customary Tory defence of private property. Thatcher intervened on Jenkin’s side over the weekend; the order was made, and Archer was forced to stay his ditching gear. But the fundamental problem had become too vexatious for its resolution to be postponed. How to make farmers respect the needs of conservation without standing in the way of their need to grow food and desire to make money? How to reconcile a public good – the beauty of the countryside, the sound of birdsong – with the fact that the farmers had both legal and customary occupation of the space in which these public goods were supposed to be maintained?
As far back as 1969, there’d been a recognition that demonising farmers wasn’t the only way to go. At the Silsoe Exercise in Hertfordshire, farmers and conservationists had worked together on an actual farm. An idea began to emerge that, rather than trying to subjugate farmers to conservation, farmers might become conservationists. After all, they were already on the government payroll; why not simply tinker with the contract? A new set of organisations, the Farming and Wildlife Groups, or FWAGs, appeared as interpreters between the two hostile cultures. Fifteen years later, when the government needed to resolve the conflict on the Broads, a set of principles already existed.
In 1985, the government set up the Broads Grazing Marshes Conservation Scheme. The name was cumbersome, the location obscure, but it was the start of a new revolution in European agriculture. Up till then the only way governments had found to slow the rush to ever more intensive farming was to pay farmers compensation for not doing something they would otherwise have done. Farmers got subsidies for farming, or subsidies for not farming. This was different. Farmers who signed up to the scheme were given an extra subsidy on top of the old one for farming according to a detailed programme drawn up with wildlife experts. They were expected to limit the number of animals they grazed, cut hay no more than once a year and restrict pesticide use. For the first time, farmers were being paid by the state to do something other than maximise food output or slam on the brakes to stop over-production. They were being paid to be farmer-conservationists: a formalisation of a role farmers always thought they had anyway, that of stewards of the land.
At first , the European Commission and other national governments were baffled by and suspicious of what John Sheail, in his history of British environmentalism, calls ‘the concept of making payments to farmers to farm below the maximum’. There were mutterings that it was illegal. But the commission came round, and Europe took up the concept. For the first time, member states could subsidise farmers to provide a public good as well as to grow food. Farmers were contracted not only to protect the aesthetic value of the countryside and wildlife habitats but to increase recreational access to their land for the public.
In the beginning, in Britain, the practice was confined to famously pretty and fragile farmed landscapes like the Broads, the Cotswolds, the Lake District, Shetland and Loch Lomond, which were designated Environmentally Sensitive Areas. Thirty years later, farmers anywhere who are prepared to adhere to complex, rigid, tightly inspected regimes of conservation and access can earn handsome sums on top of their regular subsidies by becoming stewards of the countryside.
More significantly, the idea has been embedded in the CAP itself. The farm subsidy system has two parts. The first is what non-farmers understand by ‘farm subsidies’: direct payments to help farmers farm, based on acreage, known as Pillar 1. The second element, Pillar 2, is for what’s vaguely known as ‘rural development’, which covers everything from preserving traditional farming practices and preventing the depopulation of the countryside to conservation and public access. Stewardship payments come out of the Pillar 2 pot. But since 2004, farmers getting Pillar 1 payments, the basic subsidy they rely on, have also been obliged to carry out an extensive list of ‘cross-compliance’ measures, many related to the environment. If they don’t – by not leaving wide enough wildlife-friendly borders around their crop fields, for instance – they’ll be fined. Since last year, a third of Pillar 1 payments have become tied to an additional set of ‘greening measures’. These are decisive steps by the EU towards obliging farmers to become custodians of the countryside. All the figures I’ve given for farm subsidies up to now include both the greening tithe and Pillar 2 payments. Much of the Holkham Estate subsidy is for conservation, rather than conventional farming; and just under a tenth of Agnew’s subsidy last year came from conservation, a proportion he would like to see increase post-Brexit, though he seethes at the requirement to erect an ‘EU gratitude plaque’ of statutory size.
‘If we did nothing we would have a UK that would lose the water vole, that would never see a lapwing,’ Heidi Smith, of Norfolk FWAG, told me. ‘The turtle dove would go. You would go out on a summer’s day and not see any butterflies. Most farmland is drenched in broad spectrum insecticides so there are no insects to be found anywhere. Farming birds are threatened because they have nothing to eat and nowhere to live.’ But FWAG has to work with farmers, not against them. ‘FWAG is very careful we don’t see ourselves as too niche,’ she said. ‘There is a huge amount they can do without giving up their chemicals.’
Richard Wright is one of FWAG’s star clients. He won an award in 2014 for conservation work. He farms a little over four hundred acres on the Broads, halfway between Norwich and the coast, 185 acres of grazing for a herd of 110 beef cattle on the marshes beside the River Yare and the rest arable on the low slopes above. Last year, according to government records, he got a basic subsidy of £33,265.59, and half as much again from the stewardship package.
He took me up to a place where his barley field met his wheat field and showed me the kinds of thing he has to do to earn his stewardship money. ‘The grass strip you see there,’ he said, pointing to the edge of the barley field, ‘is impregnated with flowers, specially for bees. At the moment the flowers are coming up; in about four or five weeks’ time they’ll be about that tall, and they’ll come out in flower all through the summer into the autumn, so the bees will be able to feed on them.’ I looked at the broad strip of uncultivated land running all around the field. Why was it that width? ‘We’re paid to do a set area. The payment will be compensation for me not having corn on there. We do one metre extra. Just so we’re covered. Just to be on the safe side. We can’t afford to lose that money.’
He showed me more. The beetle bank, a ridge of soil that encourages insects and turns into a nesting site for grey partridges; the insects will eat aphids that prey on the crops, which will let him reduce his spray use. The bare patches in the fields are for skylarks to nest in. ‘Three years ago we’d have seen one, two pairs of skylarks; we’re now up to 15, twenty pairs. And it’s rising all the time. We’re contracted to have ten of these skylark plots on the farm. It’s what we’re paid for. But I’ve looked at it and said, “Well, actually, if we’ve got so much success with the skylarks, there’s that many more needs nesting sites.” We’re actually up to like 15 plots this year. Each year we’re putting in a few more extra plots at our own expense.’
He showed me bat runs, linking stretches of hedge for bats to follow, hoovering up insects as they fly along. He showed me an edging strip that looked like a strip of weeds. It was a strip of weeds. Weeds for the flowers, for the bees, for the birds, for the insects. In another field, more weeds; a ‘low input’ crop of barley planted with 40 per cent less seed, treated with 30 per cent less fertiliser, sprayed not with weedkiller but with weed stunter. The soil was busy with a wild bird seed smorgasbord of kale, linseed and mustard. Long, dry stalks of gold-of-pleasure stuck up sparsely like a bald man’s combover come loose. ‘Winter time, you come here, clap your hands, there will be flocks, a hundred, a hundred and fifty linnets, goldfinches, skylarks, all manner of birds,’ Wright said.
I asked: ‘Do you ever have moments when you kind of shake yourself and you think “They’re paying me to grow weeds”?’ He laughed. ‘It’s what we’re paid to do. But the point is, our aim is to create a mosaic. You cannot just pick the options. Everything is in it together. Birds can come in here and then when they grow up they can nest in here. It’ll be ideal for little chicks to run around in. It’s low density, it’ll give them canopy from predators, but they can move around in here, feed off the insects. Everything is linked.’
Alongside all this, or within it, Wright is carrying out conventional farming as it’s been practised in Britain for generations. The wheat might go for animal or human food, perhaps Weetabix, depending on the quality. I looked at the young green seedlings. How much land did it take to grow one Weetabix? About a foot square, Wright reckoned. The barley is grown for a whisky distillery in the Highlands. Wright’s acres should produce enough for 264,000 bottles of Scotch.
He took me through the life of the field: in August, it’s harvested, and the stubble is left over the winter. In February, it’s ploughed and sown. Once the seed sprouts, the first of two fertiliser applications goes on. I could see the white nodules of fertiliser lying on the top layer of soil. Wright was about to spray the field with herbicide. Later there would be one, possibly two fungicides, and, depending on the verdict of an independent agronomist, a pesticide. What would happen, I asked, if he didn’t spray or use artificial fertilisers? ‘You’d have a massive infestation of weeds and disease and a massive reduction in crop yield.’ And was there anything he’d put on the field if he wasn’t constrained by the new rules? ‘No restraints whatsoever? I’d put houses on there. I’d make a lot more money.’
Wright’s father was a farmer. So was his grandfather, who started working life as a farm labourer in wartime before getting a farm of his own. Wright is likeable, a cheerful, patient 56-year-old, born in the place where he farms. He spoke with real enthusiasm and pride of his conservation work. All the same there was a strain of defensiveness, a sense of injustice, that kept coming through; a feeling that farmers as a class have been and continue to be defamed, and that a retraction was warranted. He criticised organic farmers for making poor single mothers feel bad about not being able to afford their products. He criticised Britain’s animal-welfare-motivated ban on intensive pig farmers (he used to be one) as backward. At one point I looked up and saw Wright’s Land Rover parked on a ridge under a lone tree, framed and illuminated by the mellow May sunshine, and remarked that it looked like a Land Rover advertisement. It was a throwaway comment, but Wright was quick to tell me his Land Rover was a working farm vehicle, not a luxury car for the school run. I remembered something James Lake had said: ‘The image of a farmer here is of tweeds and a Range Rover, whereas in France and Germany a farmer is just a member of society.’
What surprised me was the anger Wright felt towards big conservation organisations, particularly the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I’d assumed he’d see himself as at least partly in the same sphere as the charity, given that he was doing so much conservation work; he’s a farmer-conservationist, the RSPB are conservationist-farmers (the RSPB is the fourth largest UK recipient of farm subsidies, with almost £7 million last year, not all of it for conservation work). But he didn’t. ‘The RSPB has just got a million pounds to buy a piece of land further down the valley which they will turn into a nature reserve. They will downgrade the farming there. They’ve got government funding to buy it, government funding to look after it, they will get all the farm subsidies on it, they’ve got teams of people who are employed to make sure they get every penny they can – their membership will pay to visit and look at the wildlife on there – they do not want to say “Well, actually farmers are doing conservation.” They want to discredit farmers, because their main thing is the income from the public. To keep that going they have to be seen as the only saviours of the countryside.’
I asked if he’d embraced the conservation side of his work, or was sad that he had to do it this way. ‘My father isn’t happy with this, because he was brought up to produce food,’ Wright said. ‘I can see the benefits. The birds sing etc. And it does bring in an income. When you’ve got the price of corn, one year it’s £110 a tonne, a few years ago it was £200, the payment we get for [conservation] gives us a little bit of a level income. I’ve got a family to feed, a mortgage to pay … We’re not like the big corporate charities who get lottery funding to buy land, government funding, tax relief for being a charity, even though they are becoming a 21st-century version of the landed gentry.’
He was grateful for one aspect of his new life: he gets to meet people when he talks about his work. Mechanisation has isolated farmers. Wright and his brother farm alone where once 14 people worked. ‘I can go seven to seven, I will see no one, I will speak to no one,’ he said. ‘Until we did this and won the award and there was a piece in the paper about it our standing in the village was rock bottom. We were just farmers who destroy everything. But when the public hear about this, all of a sudden: hey, you’re the guy who does that – the butterflies! The birds! And our standing in the village has shot up.’
As I was leaving he told me I’d forgotten to ask a question.
‘Which way I’m going to vote in the referendum.’
‘Which way are you going to vote?’ He’d already told me that post-Brexit the fight to control the countryside would intensify.
‘It’d be bad for farming, but there are some things more important than farming.’
‘What things?’ He wouldn’t say.
From the summit of Wright’s fields, you have a fine view of the Broads, green and glittering and perfectly flat, scored with drainage ditches that surround each square of grazing land, and the silos of the Cantley sugar factory on the far side of the Yare. Two thousand years ago, when it was Roman land, and the language of the natives was either Latin or a form of early Welsh, the Broads was tidal, a delta landscape of water and mudflats. The coastline was a mile further out than today. Three wide rivers, the Bure, the Yare and the Waveney, opened out into a great estuary, four miles wide at the mouth, where the seaside resort of Great Yarmouth now stands. The geography of Roman Norfolk can still be seen; the remains of the town of Venta Icenorum lie close to a small, shallow stream, but in its day it was a port for sea-going vessels, which would sail east, past Wright’s farm – his arable fields would have been the right bank of the river – and out through the Great Estuary to the North Sea, between the Roman fortifications of Caister and Burgh Castle, whose flint ramparts are still there.
It’s uncertain how much climate change had to do with the collapse of Roman Britain and the subsequent settlement, or conquest, or trickle-in, of the Angles and the Saxons, or how far climate change was responsible for the silting up of the estuary that transformed the landscape and eventually created the Broads. What we do know is that the landscape was transformed. It’s one of the moments in history that the deniers of human-induced climate change cling to – look, climate changes all the time, it’s not us! – but the disappearance of the estuary within recorded history is a salutary reminder of the impermanence of land and the folly of destabilising, as we are doing, an already unstable climate. Farmer-conservationists like Wright have moved a long way from their old mindset, but according to some radical farmers, when global warming is the peril, they haven’t moved nearly far enough.
One such is Peter Melchett, the former head of Greenpeace UK, who owns the 890-acre Courtyard Farm in northwest Norfolk, near Hunstanton. He’s also a hereditary peer, also an Etonian, also in receipt of a six-figure subsidy (£107,545 last year). But he’s the only member of the Norfolk farming aristocracy to have spent two nights in a Norwich jail, in 2000, for attempting to purge a local farmer’s field of an experimental crop of GM maize.Like Wright, Melchett is a farmer-conservationist, and rewarded for it by the subsidy system. Unlike Wright, he’s an organic farmer; he’s the policy director of the Soil Association, which certifies most British organic produce. Mainstream as it has become, organic farming still struggles with the fact that in the way we talk about it, we treat it as the deviation. But there’s no semantic reason for this; we could turn it round and call organic farmers ‘farmers’ and the rest ‘chemical farmers’.
Melchett took me for a walk. We left his house, two former labourers’ cottages knocked together, clad in lavender and wisteria. A Norfolk Grey hen pecked at the wisteria flowers. We passed through an orchard where the grass was up to our knees and the cow parsley grew almost as high as the trees. The apple trees are old Norfolk varieties, Sandringham Royal, Norfolk Beefing, their fruit seldom sold in supermarkets. Further on an old wood was being extended for wildlife: new oaks, beech, ash, holly and blackthorn. In a place where the ground was littered with crack willow catkins Melchett bade me not to linger. The blue crates spread out among the trees were full of bees. Elsewhere a wild-looking stretch of scrub and grass marked the place where the former owners of the land, the L’Estrange family, had allowed the gathering of furze for fuel by the newly landless poor their enclosures had created. ‘We still have turtle doves migrating from Africa to the farm,’ Melchett said. ‘What people would have called wasteland is where the turtle doves still nest.’ It was all very beautiful; a carefully thought-through and managed order with a rough, sometimes unkempt surface and abundant space for wildlife. And space, too, for crops, fertilised not synthetically but through the careful rotation of plants that put nitrogen into the soil.
It is friendlier to wildlife, and, Melchett argues, to human life, than chemical farming. It is also, by his own admission, a fiddly, labour-intensive process, and, crucially, one that produces less food than chemical farming. Melchett’s cereal yields are between 60 and 70 per cent of his chemical counterparts, and shop prices correspondingly higher. He says this misses the point. Not only do such simplistic cost analyses ignore the public goods that organic farming bring; they don’t take into account the hidden costs of chemical farming – the devastation of bird and insect populations, the pollution of water through run-off from the fields, the unsightliness of vast, monotonous fields. These are the opposite of public goods and still more slippery to value. But someone has to pay in the end. ‘The organic system will cost more to farm, but hugely less to society,’ Melchett said. ‘I’m not doing anything that will make Anglian Water spend money cleaning up the water.’
The greatest public bane, Melchett maintains, is farming’s contribution to climate change. All farming, including organic, contributes to this because of the methane emitted by belching livestock. But where organic farming brings the financially unrewarded public good of storing high amounts of carbon in the soil, chemical farming brings the financially unpenalised public bane of enormous carbon emissions during the manufacture of synthetic fertiliser.
Here we come back to David Laborde and his point about feeding the ten billion: we can grow the food, but will the poor be able to afford it? Maximum farming – getting the most food out of the soil wherever you are by whatever means possible – means different things in different places. The high cost of fertiliser means many poor farmers in places like Africa are closer to organic than chemical farmers, through necessity rather than choice. But Laborde’s fundamental point was that any deviation from maximum farming, whether to farm organically, to farm for beauty, to farm to ward off climate change, to shun GM crops, to put taste before bulk or to farm for birds rather than people, had the potential to make food unaffordable for the poor.
The implications of this depend on the interpretation. One interpretation – the raise-up interpretation – is that the protection of the environment is no less vital to the wellbeing of the poorest than their daily bread, and that countries like Britain should follow that philosophy both for its own people’s benefit and as an example to the world. The other way of looking at it, the level-down version, is that feeding the less well-off at all levels – the relatively poor of Britain, the absolutely poor of the world – takes precedence over all else, and to restrict farmers’ ability to do this is elitist at home, selfish abroad.
If the policy of the EU is increasingly tending towards raise-up, Melchett believes the native tendency of the British government, embodied in the corporate mind of the Treasury, is level-down. ‘The Treasury has said for years that it is in the interests of UK plc to get food from anywhere in the world where it is cheapest. That’s been the consistent Treasury view, under successive governments, which is why leaving the EU would be such a disaster for farming and the environment.’
When the English government recently had the chance to carry out its own, independent CAP reform – in agriculture, there essentially is an English government, with the four parts of the United Kingdom having separate policies – it proved eager to go on subsidising the big landowners. When the new EU subsidy regime kicked in last year, member states were given the freedom to reduce the basic payments received by the biggest farms and shift the money towards rural development – towards stewardship schemes like Wright’s. All national governments had to trim subsidy payments over €150,000 (£110,000 in 2015) by at least 5 per cent, but if they wanted to cut them by more, they could.
Seven European countries used the new powers to cut subsidies to big landowners and transfer money to smaller farmers and environmental schemes. So did Wales, Northern Ireland and, rather timidly, Scotland. In England, the government did nothing. The queen’s huge farming dole stayed. The piquancy of the situation was intensified by the fact that the EU Commission and its abominator, Stuart Agnew of Ukip, were on the same side: both wanted subsidies to the big farms slashed. Melchett’s certainty that a post-Brexit Britain would drop barriers to cheap imported food, and the evidence that England, left to itself, would go on subsidising big farmers, isn’t necessarily a contradiction. It suggests Brexit would return the country to the pre-EEC days of duty-free imports and subsidised farmers, but with many fewer small farms, and fewer obstacles to the expansion of large-scale, mechanised, chemical farming.
There is a danger of oversimplifying the wildly heterogeneous farms and farmers of Britain. I spent time with the mainly arable farmers of Norfolk but I could have visited the dairy farmers of the West Country or the hill farmers of Northumbria or smallholders with fewer than 12 acres who don’t qualify for basic subsidies. Out of 107,000 English farms that were subsidised last year, only 2829 – less than 3 per cent – got more than £100,000, and 10 per cent got less than £1000. As the millions of people who lost their jobs through commercialisation, privatisation, globalisation and technology change will tell you, a subsidy isn’t necessarily a way to get richer; it can be just a way to keep on doing what you do.
Nor can you assume farmers will have straightforward attitudes about one another. The Marquess of Cholmondeley is a ‘big farmer’, but his neighbour Peter Melchett likes him because he’s gone organic. James Lake, a farmer with no farm, speaks warmly of the Cokes of Holkham, with a gigantic farm, because ‘they’re quite down to earth – they’re businessmen now.’ Melchett abhors farmers like Agnew because they’re pro-GM, yet Agnew wants more money spent on farmer-conservationists.
What is clear is that leaving the EU would leave the British countryside more vulnerable. It takes Britain out of a protected political space in which there is a fiercely contested balance of power between environmentalists and agribusiness into an open global arena where agribusiness has the muscle.
There was a telling moment in my conversation with Agnew when he began to rage against the fact that while Britain bans the growing of GM crops, it can’t ban their import, because of World Trade Organisation rules. Hang on a minute, I said. Was he claiming we’d still be bound by all sorts of overseas rules and regulations even if we left the EU, just from an agency still further away?
He blustered that a sovereign Britain wouldn’t have to join the WTO. But this, for a trading nation, would be unimaginable. What leaving the EU would do would be to leave Britain scrambling to find its niche in a harsher, more extreme environment of intercontinental deals. The history of privatisation, the failure to regulate Britain’s wretched banks and the remorseless attacks on the BBC and the NHS all indicate that Britain’s government has been rewired to accommodate multinational corporate lobbying at the citizen’s expense. Why should it be any different for farmers outside the Common Agricultural Policy?
It may be a product of farmers’ chronic defensiveness, but it is striking how impenetrable the language of modern British agricultural policy is to the outsider. Expressions like ‘farmer-conservationist’ and ‘green tithe’ are my own. Farmers talk about ‘agri-environmental schemes’ and ‘Pillar 2 payments’. European Commission officials are even worse. Their original name for the grand, idealistic vision of farmers working as guardians of nature, as well as growers of food? ‘Multifunctionality’. It’s a pity that the language can’t be clearer when all that European society is asking of farmers, and offering to pay them to do, is to farm more kindly. In return, with luck, for kindness back. I heard a lot from the farmers I spoke to about the selfishness of the public, on and off their farms, but the best reproach was Melchett’s. When I was with him, he had nothing bad to say about walkers or cyclists or litterers on his land. He is 68 now, and walks with the help of a stick. At one point, walking through one of his bigger fields, he swooped down with some effort, picked up an old cigarette butt, put it away and walked on, without a word of reproach.