It won’t be news to any regular reader of this blog to hear that many farmers struggle to make a living from the land. Farming is famously volatile and those running farming businesses are at the mercy of world markets, changing government policy and of course the weather! The decision to withdraw from the European Union (and, by default, the Common Agricultural Policy) has led to immense uncertainty for farmers and they stand at a crossroads, unable to decipher what the future might bring.
Before the advent of social media farmers struggled to get their individual voices heard, reliant on lobby groups, such as the NFU, to stick up for them. With the notable exception of ‘foodies’ and those with a connection to the food and farming industries, most of the British public think very little about where their food comes from, or indeed the people who produce it. Recent studies have shown quite how little understanding there is of the life (and the income) of British Farmers. There is a clear need for reconnection, and several writers, commentators and indeed farmers themselves, especially via twitter and on the blogosphere, are working to re-establish such a link.
Land of Plenty by Charlie Pye-Smith is a much needed exploration of farming in the UK today. Its subtitle: ‘A Journey through the Fields and Foods of Modern Britain’ says exactly what this book is about. Pye-Smith will take you to the Scottish borders to visit a beef farm, to Somerset and Gloucestershire to explore the dairy industry, to Essex to discuss the issues faced by the modern soft fruit industry and to North Yorkshire to learn about the trials, tribulations and opportunities of working with sheep.
Pye-Smith’s writing is approachable, and he achieves the balancing act of being sufficiently knowledgeable about his subject but also not being so much an expert that he ends up alienating the reader. The book is structured around various elements of the food and farming sector: sheep, fruit and veg, beef, dairy, arable etc and there is barely a part of the country that Pye-Smith does not refer to. This is a literary portrait of early twenty first century British Farming that does not romantically amplify some sort of pastoral idyll, nor does it condemn those working in the sector. Balance and nuance is vital when discussing the countryside and I think that Pye-Smith falls more on this side than not. Importantly, he doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the immense challenges faced by farmers and the countryside more broadly (the decline in wildlife abundance for example, or the potential impact of Brexit). He provides a successful introductory framework to farming, and I am sure that it will be enjoyed just as much by someone who has been farming all their life as somebody who knows little about agriculture but is looking for an enjoyable non-fiction read.
The book is successful in presenting a wide diversity of people and enterprises from across the industry: from tenants who have just joined the industry to landowners whose families have been farming the same place for centuries; from large lowland estates using robotics and big machinery to small remote hill farms worked with dogs. As somebody who travels around the country listening to and speaking to farmers (granted not as often as I would like to!) I fully appreciate how much time has gone in to researching the book.
I would have liked to have seen more direct engagement with an explicit farming vision for the future and perhaps an even greater diversity of characters within the pages. However, this is not, and I doubt Pye-Smith or the publishers ever intended for it to be, a polemic. It is a literary introduction to and observation of farming in Britain today. In the ‘epilogue’ Pye-Smith acknowledges that he would have liked to have included more ‘characters’. However, I think he does as much as he possibly can within the pages available. His final message is poignant and I hope it will stick with other readers of his book as much as it has remained with me:
Living in a land of plenty should be a reality, not just an aspiration, and we consumers have as much of a part to play as our farmers.
In writing this he returns ‘ownership’ of food to us all and suggests that domestically grown food is too valuable to take for granted. It is up to everyone, urban or rural, young or old, Brexiteer or Remainer, to support our food producers (and by default landscape managers) by buying British, helping to ensure out rural communities remain resilient long into the future. We already support farmers through subsidy payments, but if these disappear in the future our support will have to be much more tangible, in the form of our consumer decision making.
Many thanks to Elliott & Thompson for sending me a copy of Land of Plenty to review and I think they should be congratulated for producing such a fine looking book. Dan Mogford has done a superb job at designing the cover and it is very striking; bright, vibrant and modern; indeed, all things that could be said of the farming industry in Britain today.