In The Green Man by Kingsley Amis, the narrator writes,
‘Rural life is a mystery until one realises that nearly all of it, everywhere in the world, is spent on preparing for and recovering from short but punishing bouts of the tedium inseparable from the tasks of the land, or rather, their failure to give the least sense of achievement, as it might be a lifetime spent washing up out of doors. I have never understood why anybody agreed to go on being a rustic after about 1400.’
Reading of the trials farmers suffer through bad weather, fluctuating international markets, the loss of subsidies after 2020 and the demand from supermarkets to keep prices down, you have to wonder what keeps otherwise sane people tied to the land. It’s rather like a book version of Countryfile, discussing many of the same issues: is indoor or outdoor rearing better for animal welfare and the end product; does badger culling reduce the incidence of bovine TB; is there a future for mixed farming?
Charlie Pye-Smith travels the country visiting farms large and small and trying to find out what makes some more successful than others. Unfortunately, he feels obliged to describe everyone he meets as tall or short, fat or thin, good looking or not and also to tell us what they gave him to eat. I found this extremely tedious and not at all to the point, which is of course, what does the future hold for British farming? Why don’t we produce more of our own food? There are plenty of interesting facts here, such as that most potatoes grown in this country are used to make chips and crisps. Successful farmers are those prepared to change with the times. Negotiate a good deal with Waitrose for top of the range products. Diversify into products like cheese and ice cream made from local milk. Run tea rooms, offer bed and breakfast, sell at local markets and build up a customer base. Be prepared to use part of your land as a nature reserve. Not all gloom (unless Eastern Europeans stop coming here to work) and a brighter future for those willing to adapt. Mr Pye-Smith tries not to be nostalgic for the kind of farming he remembers from the fifties and sixties but to embrace changes which can improve both the food we eat and the natural environment. The big questions are firstly, are we prepared to pay more for our food and secondly, are we happy to pay farmers to maintain the landscape we love?
Land of Plenty is published by Thompson and Elliott, who kindly sent me the new paperback edition to read.
The way we were. The Farm as depicted by C F Tunnicliffe for Ladybird Books, 1958.