‘Leaving the farm’, 2019. Oil on paper, 48x62cm
In a recent conversation with my Dad, we talked about an article written by Christopher de Bellaigue titled ‘The End of Farming’. In the article de Bellaigue lays out the recent history of agriculture in the UK and its possible end. Experiments in ‘rewilding’ the landscape are still in early stages in the UK, with a notable example being at Knepp in Sussex. My Dad hopes to make a visit to Knepp, which was farmed by Charles Burrell for over a decade and, after many years without making a profit, has been given over to nature and careful intervention to restore biodiversity.
Wildlife tourism offers jobs and income to replace those lost when the farm stopped being a farm. EU environmental subsidies reward the creation of flood plains and wildflower meadows. Burrell invites curiosity from other farmers, more of whom may follow his example in the future. The UK farming subsidy is about to change, and farmers will no longer receive public money just for holding land. They will have to provide ‘public goods’ as Burrell has in order to receive government assistance, or survive off their produce alone, which is not an easy feat for the small farms which traditionally operate in the UK.
As my Dad put it to me, “if you asked a gambler, here, why don’t you take out a bank loan and buy some land, buy some seed, buy some chemicals, some labour, some machinery, spend a year ploughing all of that into the earth, and there’s a three week window at the end of the summer where you’ll make all your money back - if the weather is right. They’d run a mile.” But that huge annual gamble is the reality of agriculture.
In his piece, de Bellaigue evokes the traditional image of farming in the UK, the pastoral land which is “green, giving and blossomy, an Eden to which city-dwellers joyfully flee in moments of leisure”1, as an explanation of our long reluctance to imagine a future departure from the intensive farming traditions which feel like the eternal state of our countryside. He’s guilty of something I’ve done myself, however: ascribing farmers themselves with a sentimentality that just isn’t there.
I remember one bored afternoon when I was younger, picking a book off my Dad’s shelf which was something like an introduction to farming for novices. It explained that there were three types of farmers. There were those who conducted farming as a business, there was the ‘way of life’ farmer (who had usually made their money elsewhere and bought some land for the lifestyle), and the born-into-it farmer, who might or might not be making any money, depending on how much they resemble the businessman farmer. The businessman farmer made up the majority. I remember being a little surprised, even as part of a family of farm workers, to associate farming with business and economics and the ruthlessness they invoke, but it’s obvious.
In all my conversations with my Dad it’s clear to me that farmers must be mathematicians. They take huge risks with large amounts of money, completely at the mercy of the seasons, to make little or no profit each year. The calculations are constant. Not long after picking up that book I remember visiting the farm chemist with my Dad to deliver seed samples for testing and evaluation, and wondering if my own interest in chemistry might stem from my farming genes after all. Brought up surrounded by the cultural myth of wholesome rural life perpetuated in children’s books and on television, all nature’s bounty and not a hint of modernity in sight, I’d absorbed this historicising idealistic stereotype even while I lived on an actual commercial farm.
My father, as a farming contractor and despite co-owning a small company, for most of his life has earned less than the minimum hourly wage due to the extraordinary working hours he commits (usually about 7am to 6pm, but just before harvest time it can be 3.30am until 11pm, for two or three weeks straight). In those circumstances, the notion that you are feeding the nation, not just making a living, does become important. Nevertheless, when asked how he feels about the possibility of traditional farming going the way of the dinosaurs, and farmers becoming conservationists funded by tourism and public money, he is receptive. If anything, considering the extraordinary commitment their line of work entails, it’s surprising how pragmatic and adaptable farmers are, in place of proud stubbornness. If there is an idea of a stubborn agricultural culture, it’s almost entirely in the collective imagination of the urban population.
The end of farming also brings up, however, the not insignificant question of food security. De Bellaigue glosses over a future where food is grown in factories under LED lamps and not a handful of soil is needed. Indeed, hydroponics and vertical farming have been around for years. But these technologies will not solve all of our problems. Not everything we need will be able to be grown this way and I find it hard to believe we will see a future with no traditional agriculture at all - reformed, sustainable, in harmony with biodiversity, hopefully - but extant. As I have spent time thinking and reading about the state of agriculture I have come to the slightly sad realisation that my own fondness for the bucolic idea of farming, even as I’ve always known it to be rose tinted, is founded on a myth that does harm. The way we have managed the land for a hundred years or more has, despite providing ever-increasing harvests, degraded it progressively: even with less chemicals, with organic practices, with field borders and hedgerows, it is unsustainable. Like any business farming will follow the money. We have to make sure that the money lies with restoration of the land this industry is custodian of.
1. Christopher de Bellaigue, “The End of Farming?”, Guardian Online, Environment section, 25 February 2020, <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/25/the-end-of-farming-rewilding-intensive-agriculture-food-safety> [Accessed 9 March 2020]