The future of farming hangs in the balance

Do we want our countryside to be a broken wasteland like the American mid-west? I think most of us want something better and I believe in our ability to rebel against this looming disaster, writes farmer James Rebanks.

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. 

Farmers competing with cheap imports cannot afford to invest in sustainability. Image Stuart Simpson. 

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. 

James and dogs
Producing food in the UK from small family farms means it can be transparent and regulated. Image Andrew Heading. 

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.


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  1. As far as I can see the answer is twofold – as suggested ask where the meant etc comes from – if not the UK ask why, as in why can;t you buy it in the UK – if the answer isI can but this is cheaper suggest they put it back on the sehlf and walk out the door! If everybody does this shops will soon have piles of rotting foodstuff on their shelves and no way of getting compensation for it – the wise will change traders where possible the unwise will soon close down.

    The other thing is that many would wish to try farming on a small holding stage – Farmers stop growing your farms bigger and parcel off small pieces to be rented out to the people who can not afford to buy into so called community farms (yes there community farms do a good job but for most they simply cannot afford to get into these community farms). With skill a farmer can still own and run a reasonable sized farm, hire himself out to his small holders as the local expert on farming, reduce his workload and still make a living out of his large farm now reduced to the main farm and managable small holdings. a couple of acres for each small holding depending on location can provide food for a family with a small amount to sell on – a win win situation! But where would these smallholders live? Nearby or in a caravan initially – they do not need to live on site as long as it is within sensible range . . . . . something the main farm could help with maybe?

    If the farmer does not help himself in this way the are will soon turn into the Wasteland of the American Midwest . . . . . which incidentally is slowly going that way themselves – there are plenty of web pages showing the way forward for such small holders from those areas.

    Alternatively many could follow Riverfords lead and make the small holders co owners overall but in such a way that each one manages their own patch – it can be done!

    The Walrus

  2. Although we live in a city we always buy meat from our nearest farm, fish from a local fishmonger and, of course, fruit and veg from Riverford. We also grow our own where we can. Although we only have a small garden it is surprising how much you can grow. At the moment we have our own courgettes, cucumbers and tomatoes and have also had several meals from the french beans. The other problem is that people have become so used to takeaways and ready meals that a whole generation has no idea how to cook and has the idea that cooking fresh is expensive!. We need to go back to teaching cookery in schools.

    1. This idea of people not being able to cook for themselves from scratch is one that I’ve been reading about in Sitopia by Carolyn Steele, a fantastic book if you’ve got time to read it. She talks about how in pre-industrial times, home economics was the cornerstone of the family unit and community. Even the word economy stems from the greek word oikonomia meaning home = oiko, and management = nemein. This formed the basis of self sufficiency, Steele argues, running the home as a business – women would make butter, jams, bread, cheese, collecting eggs, on top of childcare and washing and cleaning. It was a vital contribution to the household.

      However through industrialisation, we shifted to a consuming nation where we sell our time and we are compensated with money which we spent on things that we would have previously made. In post war Britain as more and more women started to work, the food industry focused on making life easier for working women like convenience foods (Betty Crocker springs to mind).

      So what I’m trying to say, albeit in very long winded way, is that this reality of people not being able to cook for themselves is a whole societal process and has been happening over the course of centuries. We’ve been disconnected from our food through industrialisation and consumerism, we have been turned into a society of consumers rather than makers.

      I think it would be a great idea to put home economics back on the curriculum for boys and girls alike.

    2. The problem is the myth that it takes longer to cook a meal from scratch, not so. I worked for most of my married life and rarely bought takeaways and never bought ready meals. I could have a meal on the table within half an hour of getting home, it just takes organisation. Use a slow cooker and you can have the meat and potatoes ready to dish up when you get home, just need 10 mins for the green veg. Stir fries take minutes if everything is prepared the night before. I could go on….

    3. I think that this is an attitude that is instilled in one early on. It’s one of those things that seems easy if you’ve done it before. But I think that cooking and even gardening classes in school early on could really transform how people relate to food, and contribute to a greater valuing of food.

  3. Yes, probably the result of parents who survived the war. Food was never wasted, leftovers were used in another dish. Parental attitudes are so important, my daughters also cook from scratch the majority of the time.

  4. I’m surprised people are surprised at this government’s attitude to small farmers. The Tory Party’s ideology for the past hundreds of years has been to let the market decide. If we can fly carrots from Australia cheaper then we can grow here then so be it. Mrs Thatcher saw that Poland could supply coal to us cheaper than using our own coal. She was also determined to break Union power.
    This ideology has not changed so small farmers be prepared for a shock.


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