Farmer’s Glory, the classic agrarian memoir by A.G. Street, was published in 1932. The traditional mixed farm where Arthur Street spent his boyhood in the first decade of the 20th century was the centre of a self-sufficient community, stout in defence of the four-course rotation and despising anything shop-bought. There was a ‘spaciousness and an aura of solid wellbeing’ in this intermission between agricultural slumps. The primary concern of a large tenant farmer like Street’s father wasn’t the bottom line: ‘One didn’t farm for cash profits, but did one’s duty by the land.’
In 1911 the Streets had a row. It’s a common pattern in the agricultural world: the cocky son offends his father by trying to teach him how to farm. Arthur decamped to the Canadian Prairies. Cleared of its Indigenous inhabitants (not that Street knew much about them), Manitoba had been divided into one-mile squares between bluffs of poplar and willow scrub. Day after day Street steered his plough through virgin soil, and as ‘the strip of black on the east side of that piece of prairie grew slowly wider and wider until it neared the west boundary,’ Street fancied he had written ‘a signature of which I shall never be ashamed … each furrow is such a definite little stride in the world’s history.’
In time the Streets were reconciled and on his father’s death Arthur took over the farm in Wiltshire. But the days of plenitude were over and in 1928 he abandoned crop rotation, became a dairy farmer and embraced mechanisation. His milking machine had suckers that drew the milk from the udders through a nickel pipe to the churn, six cows at a time. It was a ‘beastly business saying goodbye to many old and trusted employees’, but Street didn’t regret it: he could now beat his competitors on price. As for doing one’s duty by the land, the farm now ‘presented a dull, green sameness throughout the year. The glorious patchwork of different kinds of grain crops, alternating with green fields or roots, and here and there a brown fallow, was now an expanse of prairie.’ Street started contributing to the local papers and went on to write dozens of books, with a column in Farmers Weekly and an appearance on Desert Island Discs. Only three minutes of the programme survive, which may be just as well. ‘The most important thing in my life,’ he told Roy Plomley, ‘has always been sport, you see: hunting, shooting and fishing. When that permits, we do a little farming. And when that permits, we do a little writing or broadcasting.’
It’s hard to imagine anyone nowadays writing a book called Farmer’s Glory. What did for the public reputation of farmers was the national ambition of self-sufficiency, directed by bureaucrats and financed by subsidies. It was justifiable in wartime; in the peace that followed, even some farmers opposed it. Ripping up hedgerows and dousing fields in chemicals brought a dividend in the form of high yields and cheap food, but it was only achieved by running down the starting capital – the land itself. The problem with replacing mixed farming with intensive monocultures is that it relies on artificial means. James Rebanks writes in English Pastoral:
the farms with thousands of animals had more muck than their land could possibly accommodate, while the crop farms now had no animals, and thus no muck to fertilise plants, so were entirely reliant on [artificial] fertilisers. Livestock in the new systems were now creating muck so acidic that the soil it was spread on began to compact and die. Crop-growing farms were top-dressing with ammonium nitrate and killing their soil.
An East Anglian farmer told me a couple of years ago that ‘we farmers are increasingly seen as people who take public money while raping the land.’
Street enlivened Farmer’s Glory with Wiltshire dialect and rural personalities; Rebanks turns workaday activities – sharpening a scythe on a whetstone – into exotic set pieces. There’s a trailerful of irony in his title: as he points out, one definition of pastoral is ‘a work of art portraying or evoking country life, typically in a romanticised or idealised form for an urban audience’. In 1994, aged twenty, Rebanks too had a tiff with his father – a Cumbrian hill farmer – and went off to Australia. The farm where he spent nights making hay under tractor light confused him with its vastness. ‘Tens of thousands of sheep ranched in fields bigger than our entire farm. Herds of six or seven hundred cows.’ An Australian boasted: ‘We can outcompete everyone else in the world.’ Rebanks came home full of contempt for traditional methods and convinced that the death of small farms was a necessary accompaniment to Schumpeter’s ‘gale of creative destruction’. He describes his change of heart after inheriting his father’s farm, his disenchantment with specialisation, industrial methods and the unrelenting pressure to produce more food as cheaply as possible.
Rebanks rejects the two extremes that have dominated public debate for the past decade or so, modern commercial methods and rewilding. (There is, he writes, ‘a very thin line between idealism and bullshit’.) He practises something in between, which could be called regenerative farming: shunning fertiliser, reducing field sizes and fencing off river banks. But the price his stock fetches doesn’t make up for the hit he takes by farming less intensively than his neighbours. The book’s repeated allusions to money worries suggest that, were it not for his success as a writer, Rebanks would find it a lot harder to farm as he does.
The reforms the government has embarked on after leaving the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy will shift the target of subsidies from farming to caring for the environment. But subsidies as a whole will drop, perhaps by as much as half, even for farmers who join the government’s Environmental Land Management Schemes – and these will involve spending so much time filling out forms and letting in inspectors that many small farmers won’t consider them worthwhile. Farms will get fewer and bigger. Andersons, a farming consultancy, predicts that the number of full-time farm businesses in the UK will fall by 20 per cent in the next decade, from 54,000 in 2020 to 42,300 by 2030. It is likely that the most productive parts of the country, such as the Fens, will be farmed ever more intensively, while uneconomical hill and dairy farms close or amalgamate.
The government and the National Farmers Union are in public agreement that not less than 60 per cent of the food that is consumed in Britain should be produced here, but the recent trade deal with Australia, which will remove tariffs on Australian sugar, beef and lamb over fifteen years, points the other way. Rebanks’s area of the northern Lake District is already being depopulated of the old farming families, with tenancies given up, barns being converted to holiday lets and the number of sheep on pastures like the Lowther Valley falling to the lowest level in living memory.
In her new book, Bella Bathurst is determined to concentrate on farmers, not farming policy, but even she finds it impossible to divorce the motivations of the first from the insanity of the second. A senior civil servant at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs tells her there is ‘no one single coherent vision or mission’. ‘Whatever farmers think of government,’ Bathurst writes, ‘the reality is worse, that no one at Defra has ever actually been to the country, and that attitudes to it are split along party lines: Tories want to shoot the wildlife while Labour would rather shoot the inhabitants.’
Farmers can try environmental methods and/or branch out (Glastonbury is the most famous example of diversification). They can double down on intensive production. Or they can sell up. James Dyson might come knocking: his farming, renewable energy and estate company already owns 35,000 English acres. The effect of all this on the ordinary farmer is what interests Bathurst. She tends to write about people on the periphery: lighthouse builders, wreckers, herself when creeping deafness estranged her from society. On the face of it, Field Work is a string of reporting trips – she follows a knackerman, watches an apple farmer prune his trees, hangs out with some agriculture students – that might seem a little dull. But she is skilled at reading the ordinary, and these excursions give her an oblique and original view. While helping a vet called Dan test cows for TB, she learns that the trend for double-muscling – breeding cattle to have twice the natural amount of lean muscle – means the calves of certain breeds can only be born by C-section. This makes Dan’s life more dangerous – he was recently double-barrelled (both hooves) and sent flying across a shed, narrowly escaping a broken neck. From Bathurst’s day at the Hereford Livestock Market we discover that British Muslims are propping up sheep farming, now that much of the rest of the country prefers cotton-wool chicken manipulated into nuggets. She describes farmers’ continual struggle against disease. ‘For Britain’s urban population, Covid came out of the sky, a once in a century event, random as a meteorite,’ but for those in the countryside, inured to successive waves of TB, BSE and foot-and-mouth, it was a ‘thing to add to the land’s long list of adaptations’. And, Bathurst might have added, a further contribution to the gulf in comprehension between city-dwellers and the minuscule number who continue to live on the land.
You might assume the decision over what to do with a farm when the farmer dies is straightforward, but as Bathurst explains, ‘farmers as a rule do not talk.’ ‘If you know that any mention of the words “inheritance” or “future” is followed by an explosion, then why would you talk? The stakes are far too high. In the past decade borrowing has doubled, but fewer than half of farmers are making a living.’ At a meeting organised by the NFU to promote discussion of the undiscussable, Bathurst realises that for many people in the room the farm is
a character in its own right, a personality larger and more dominant than any single individual … and there’s something monstrous in the way they describe the place: the autocracy of its demands, the spite of the bad weather or broken machinery, the energy they give it and the debts they owe, the hole in the money getting bigger and bigger until the fear of money’s absence is all they can see.
As for leaving the farm to a girl, that’s going slowly: ‘There is probably no other sector in Britain, from the oil rigs of the North Sea to the codebreakers of GCHQ, which remains as bullishly patriarchal.’ That said, of the 2500 full-time students studying agriculture at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, two-thirds are female, and the number of women farmers is growing.
While researching her book Bathurst rented a cottage on a 180-acre Welsh hill farm. Bert Howells, a round-shouldered man in wellingtons and an old Barbour, looked up as her car passed for the first time, ‘a clear assessing squint: good or bad, friend or foe’. The collies by his side were called Bryn and Come Here You Useless Bugger. Howells’s £4000 deficit after subsidies (this was 2013) was just about offset by the rent from the cottage and selling hay. But for Bert, the fourth Howells to farm here, Rise Farm meant something else:
He knew the burr in the ash by the hedge that the tups liked to scratch and the hidden places without reeds where the water still sprang. He knew where the earth was at its best and the patch where only docks would grow. He knew which week the blackthorn whitened at the base of the hill and the knuckle of concrete where the trailer always tripped. He knew the high-tide mark for the brook in flood and the years when it had overtopped it. He knew the middens, tips and dumps where the old shed asbestos was buried and exactly what happened to the missing batch of Cymag and dynamite … he thought nothing of his knowledge.
Howells got into the habit of visiting Bathurst every week or so. He told her about his father, Gerwyn, who, no matter how hard the young Bert worked, always worked him harder. About his son, David: ‘No idea about farming (“heart’s not in it”), no idea about land (“stupid notions”), no idea about looking after animals (“up too late”)’. ‘Bert knew his own father had been a bastard to him,’ Bathurst writes with an openness and perplexity that are the more powerful for their rarity in this softly spoken book, ‘but he seemed unable to stop himself from hurting both himself and his son in his turn.’
Bathurst stayed at Rise Farm long enough to see Bryn retire, Come Here abscond and replacements arrive. ‘The new dogs were young and slippery, tucking themselves like hares into the long grass or rising from pools of shadow to ambush the running ewes. They were collies (one Welsh, one undecided) and still at an early stage in their professional development, keen to make a good impression.’ When the price of lamb fell, David suggested planting apple trees on the south-facing hill at the back of the house. ‘I never heard anything so stupid,’ said Bert, a mess of shingles, diabetes and bitterness. After he died the photos displayed for the mourners showed him on the land he loved and fought against. Not that his house had windows onto the view. Not that he ever took a walk for pleasure in his life. A competent poultry and sheep farmer who reserved his best stockmanship for pigs. A dab hand at bottle-feeding grandchildren (all those lambs).
Agricultural land is exempt from inheritance tax. By the book’s end, David and his mother are making a go of Rise Farm. The workshop is occupied by a company making film props. The barns have been emptied of rusting machinery and are let as garages for motorhomes and caravans. The Howells have applied for permission to turn farm buildings into accommodation. The last of the old flock were taken to market when Bert fell ill. But now David has bought a few lambs and five Hereford beef cows, easy calvers who need little help. He is thinking about getting a bull. ‘Tentatively at first, he was beginning to digress from Bert’s purist views on what a farm should be.’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.