Towards the end of this lyrical and passionate book, the farmer James Rebanks describes how he is moving towards producing food using the minimum amount of artificial inputs, such as chemical fertilisers. ‘Sadly it means earning money away from the farm when we have to,’ he writes. This is a course of action that increasing numbers of farmers will have to pursue as we leave the EU’s subsidy system. But why ‘sadly’? Rebanks’s first book, The Shepherd’s Life, was a bestseller. English Pastoral will be too. Rebanks may not have made much money out of farming, but happily, both for him and for us, the pen has proved mightier than the sward.
We are blessed at the moment with an abundance of farmers who have powerful stories to tell. I am thinking in particular of John Lewis-Stempel, one of the finest nature writers of his generation, Patrick Laurie, whose recently published Native reads at times like a prose poem by Seamus Heaney, and Rebanks, whose first tale of farming life in the Lake District has been translated into over a dozen languages. All three are hill farmers. All write elegiacally about the loss of old-fashioned farming systems that worked with nature, rather than against it. All deplore modern industrial farming.
In the opening section of English Pastoral Rebanks recalls what it was like to be a young boy living through the last days of an ancient farming world. I was gripped from the very first paragraph, where he describes joining his grandfather on tractor and plough: ‘Black-headed gulls follow in our wake as if we are a little fishing boat out at sea. The sky is full of winged silhouettes and screaming beaks, and streaks of white seagull shit splatter like milk down on to the soil.’
Rebanks didn’t get on with his father and chose to spend his spare time helping out on his grandfather’s farm rather than his father’s. I can imagine future historians mining English Pastoral for information about ploughing and harvesting, making hay and scything thistles, pulling out ragwort and ferreting in the days before the tentacles of modern agriculture reached into the hills. The story he tells is one of hard work, little money and narrow horizons, reminiscent of Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie but without the adolescent sex and occasional violence.
Three years after his grandfather’s death, Rebanks went to Australia to escape father and farm. Crippled by homesickness, he soon returned to the Lake District. He watched his father struggle to survive and was initially ashamed of how backward the family farm seemed. Gradually, they began adopting the modern practices that were already transforming the lowlands. Their farm became neater and cleaner, its wildlife diminished. In the meantime, farmers elsewhere were chopping down woodlands, draining marshes, destroying the microbiology of the soil and banishing nature.
There is a fascinating account in the final section, ‘Utopia’, of a ‘very Cumbrian party’. Rebanks, by now a celebrated author, expected to be out of tune with his neighbours, but was gratified to find that many of the older generation also felt farming had gone badly wrong. One of them even sounded like ‘the environmentalists we once all hated’. In terms of what he has to say, if not the style of saying it, much of Rebanks’s critique of modern farming could have been written by a well-informed green activist, although Rebanks doesn’t evince much enthusiasm for the current fashion for rewilding. Instead of abandoning large areas of farmland to nature, Rebanks argues, we need to make productive farms better places for wildlife. ‘We need to put farming and nature back together,’ he writes.
‘Most people are now largely illiterate when it comes to agriculture and ecology,’ says Rebanks, who has shone a brilliant light onto a world about which the vast majority of people know little. However, such is the sweeping nature of his polemic that there is a danger some readers will come away from the book assuming all modern farming is environmentally destructive. In recent years, I have come across many farmers who are working hard to address the problems Rebanks identifies, whether in restoring soil fertility, improving animal welfare or encouraging wildlife to flourish.
In 1974, when Rebanks was born and I first made my way up the River Nile, after spending a month hay-timing on a farm in the Yorkshire Dales, over half of the population in sub-Saharan Africa was malnourished. Now around one in five people there is hungry – still far too many, but an improvement on the not-so-distant past. Changes in farming practices have meant that globally the production of a given quantity of crop, such as wheat or maize, now requires two-thirds less land than it did in the early 1960s. If it hadn’t been for high-tech agriculture, there would have been less food, more hunger and possibly an even greater loss of pristine ecosystems, as food production sought to keep pace with population growth. We should bear this in mind when Rebanks describes the last forty years of farming as ‘a radical and ill-thought-through experiment’.
We urgently need to find ways to increase productivity without adversely affecting the environment. And, as Rebanks says, we need mechanisms, including financial incentives, that encourage productive farms to be more friendly to nature. English Pastoral concludes with a description of the changes made on Rebanks’s farm in recent years. He and his wife, Helen, a quiet pillar of strength, have planted over twelve thousand saplings and created new hedgerows. The river running through the farm has been returned to a more natural state. Native cattle have helped improve the health of his pastures. Wild flowers are flourishing and the farm is alive with birdsong.
Rebanks is at his best when focusing on his home patch rather than railing against economists, supermarkets and cheap food. If you want a detailed analysis of how we could bring about the sorts of changes that he and many of us would like to see, you will be better served by Dieter Helm’s Green and Prosperous Land. But for pure pleasure, read English Pastoral. It is a cri de coeur for a healthier countryside, rather than a manifesto. Seen in these terms, it is a magnificent book.