We live and farm in Matterdale in the English Lake District on an old-fashioned family farm.
The hawthorn by our farmhouse is frothy with blossom and humming with bees and other insects. The cuckoos are calling from the oak trees down the lane. And the swallows are swooping in and out of the barn and away across the greening hay meadows and cow pastures.
On days like this, it is all very idyllic and seems a million miles away from the politics on the radio news I listened to while I had my breakfast. But the sad truth is, what happens in the fields of Britain is deeply affected by, and shaped by, politics. It always was.
I recently wrote a bestselling book about my family’s farm over the last four generations, called English Pastoral. It explains in simple terms how in the post WW2 period, we tasked farmers with producing more and more cheap food, and we paid them for doing it and demanded they ‘modernise’.
We also armed them with ‘miracle’ tools and chemicals, like DDT and ammonia nitrate fertilisers, to pull that off. They achieved amazing feats of productivity. But it has become increasingly clear that this was a rather blind and dangerous way to think about farming, and it forgot about, and destroyed, a lot of things in the countryside that matter greatly.
We screwed up our soil, eradicated weeds (wildflowers and grasses), moved animals into vast crowded sheds, removed hedgerows, and created devastating declines in farmland wildlife. We also shifted to monocultures that were highly mechanised, and away from mixed rotational farming. Less than two per cent of us now farm. Food is cheap and abundant, but at an unsustainable cost of destruction.
And now, because of Brexit, we have a moment that requires profoundly important choices to be made about how to farm our land and how to balance the complex mix of things we need from it.
Sadly, our government seems to be creating the conditions for it all to get worse – proposing free trade deals with places like the US and Australia that will drive down prices paid to British farmers and create greater pressures for intensification at the field or barn level, instead of creating and protecting a more ambitious nature-friendly (or agroecological) farming system.
We are creating a system in which our farm dies and is replaced with something worse. We simply can’t have both ever-cheaper food and better managed and balanced landscapes. We have to make grown up choices and compromises and pay for what we choose.
To their credit, our politicians are proposing to change our farm payments away from paying for bad practices, or for very little beyond owing land, to paying for ‘public goods’. Paying farmers to focus on delivering things like carbon, healthy soil, flood alleviation, or restoring habitats.
The rhetoric is great, and if it delivers then I’d hope to earn part of my living from creating an abundance of nature around my sheep and cattle. We just planted 20,000 trees, restored three miles of hedgerow, and planted 6,500 wildflower plugs. We can mend rural Britain and make it work better for society. But five years after the referendum, we haven’t seen any details of what this government wants, what they will pay for, or how they will measure these public benefits.
They are already phasing out the old payments, reducing farm incomes, without most farmers being able to join the new schemes to replace it and deliver something better. Economic pressures on farms like ours to exploit land are getting worse, not better; farms are under more debt pressure to produce more, not less.
There is a very strong suspicion emerging that this is a re-run of the 1980s but with farmers as the new miners, to be done away with for ideological reasons.
My genuine fear is that this is really about deregulation and loosening of environmental and welfare standards; outsourcing food production to the developing world (where its ecological impacts are horrific but out of sight); cheapening food (to buy off voters and compensate for gross inequality); lowering food safety standards (to keep US trade negotiators happy); consolidating land in fewer hands (pleasing political donors and the wealthy); and wrapping that whole ideological neo-liberal project in greenwash with the last of the cash from the old subsidy system, before phasing out any kind of support for British farming.
And if that is the case, make no mistake: British farming would die, because it would be unfairly asked to compete with subsidised and often ecologically destructive farming everywhere else.
Do we want our countryside to be a broken wasteland like the American mid-west? Or do we want something better, something sustainable, and a decent future? I think most of us want something better and are willing to pay to create and sustain that. I believe in our ability to rebel against this looming disaster, and choose the light. I believe in you. Start rebelling, please, before it is too late.
How to rebel to help farmers, by James Rebanks
– Try to buy direct from at least one farmer, one who you make the effort to learn about, and who farms in ways you’d approve of. A veg box is a good start, and social media is a great way to connect with farmers.
– Start being troublesome in cafés, restaurants and shops about where their food comes from. If they can’t tell you where the meat or vegetables came from, tell them you will move your custom elsewhere. Or, they can buy British and from a good farm and you will support them loyally.
– Write to your MP and insist that we don’t allow imports of food that are produced in ways beneath UK standards.
– Try and grow something to eat (even if you only have a pot or window box). It is a good reminder about the realities of food, and it is good for us to connect with elemental things.
English Pastoral: An Inheritance is available in paperback from 2 September.
This article was originally published in the Wicked Leeks summer 2021 issue. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu here.