Friday, July 30, 2021

English Pastoral: An Inheritance - James Rebanks

I bought The Shepherds Life for my father a couple of years ago, meaning to read it when he was done with it, and still meaning to. English Pastoral came from a friend and initially sounded more my cup of tea, so it's been my first experience of reading Rebanks in something longer than a tweet. 

I'm a little bit torn here because I'm definitely a fan, but as somebody with a farming background, a decade working for Waitrose behind me, and who's read a good chunk of Adrian Bell, Dorothy Hartley, and Clare Leighton I was hoping for something a bit more in-depth. On the other hand, I'm also the converted and this is an excellent place to start for people less familiar with the issues, and there was plenty for me to think about as well.

The first section of the book, Nostalgia is Rebanks remembering the farming world of his youth, and the way his grandfather did things - the mood is similar to the way that Adrian Bell was writing in the 1930s, Dorothy Hartley's books are more food-focused, and Clare Leighton's woodcuts are a glimpse of the country and calendar that she knew - all of them are worth looking up, Bell and Leighton are both in print with Little Toller who are excellent for classic nature and agricultural writing. 

It says a lot about the march of progress in farming that the world of the old-fashioned Fell Farms Rebanks remembers in the 70s and early 80s are not so different from the Southern pre-war farms that those earlier writers describe. I'm much of an age with Rebanks and can trace the same sort of change in Shetland, although that has as much to do with the advent of oil money as changes in technology as crofting will always be a marginal activity. 

The middle section of the book, Progress, was more interesting to me. The point is that the majority of farmers, like the majority of people, are decent folk trying to make a living keeping the rest of us fed. It's not an easy job and we all need to better understand that. In this book, supermarkets are the villains - and to an extent that's fair, but having seen how they work from the inside I'd also say they're as much victims of a broken system as farmers are. 

Food has been in a deflationary cycle for years now, we think because the discount supermarkets are so cheap that other retailers are ripping us off, they're not, and nothing about the system we have is sustainable. For meaningful change, we need action from the government, producers, retailers, and consumers. Wages have to go up at the bottom of the scale so that people can afford to pay a fair amount for food, we all need to agree on what we want this country to look like, stop wasting as much, buy and consume more responsibly where we can afford to, and be better educated about all of this. 

The final section, Utopia discusses the farm as it is now, and anybody who follows Rebanks on social media (and you should) will be aware of the work that's gone into changing things, improving the soil and biodiversity, making something fit to pass on to the next generation. He's honest about the cost of this as well - or the lack of profit in it. Rebanks is lucky - lucky that his books have been a hit, and for the profile that gives him. It means he can probably afford to farm the way he wants, and he knows that's not a luxury that's open to everybody. It's a sad reality of farming that hard work and good management, whilst it'll go a long way, isn't enough - you need a certain amount of good luck to make it work. Bad luck, bad weather, bad prices, can break you all too easily. 

Meanwhile, it's not all bad news - this is above all a hopeful book. One which shows that there's still a lot to learn, and ways to marry progress and tradition that are both efficient and sustainable. My own hope is that our experience of Brexit and Covid will change our expectations of what we'll find on our supermarket shelves and that we'll collectively be more receptive to some of the conversations that need to be engaged in. We need food, but we also need a landscape better suited to dealing with the consequences of a changing climate, and to understand the complexity of the system we live in and the need for diversity within it.

In short, an excellent starting point if you want to understand more about farming, and a rewarding one to read even when you do. 

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