A Devon Shovel, Strawberries in June, Apples in October
by Stuart Harrison of Middle Week Farm, Ash Mill, Devon, UK
I run my small farm with draught horses. Four of them. Bella, Albert, George and Joey. They are the motive power on our land. We do not own or use any tractors. I came to this way of being from the tattered detritus of a former life. It had always been a dream with me, for as long as I could remember, to return to a horse drawn past. It was a life I felt would be more fulfilling than the barren and boring existence that so much of modernity offered.
I was right.
To my mind, much of life began to go downhill with the introduction of the tractor. Before that, most of mankind was required to work with nature, rather than against it. After the tractor, even an average man began to believe that nature could, and should, be bent to his will. Even the very thought of bending nature to one’s will had previously only been the preserve of the deluded, the rich, or the very powerful. Today, with our technology, our apps, and our reliance upon utilities and cradle to grave services, most people don’t even begin to understand the complexity of the natural world, or appreciate the benefits of its struggles.
Working with horses means accepting your own limitations and those placed upon you by the natural world. It means doing things on a human scale. Sympathetically, coaxingly, in the measured way of the seasons, making small incremental and evolutionary changes rather than insisting on intensive and crashing revolution. It means physical work, intensely hard physical work at times, of a type now seldom even practiced in your average gym by those legions of people who have a gnawing sense that a life of ease is not all it’s cracked up to be. It means partnership, with your horses, with the land, and with nature. It’s a style of life that rewards grit, and determination and a certain toughness of character. Of course, many would hate the lifestyle. I have seen former friends roll their eyes as I eulogise about life as a peasant, yet if ever they have visited me and seen things with their own eyes, they admit that there is something that draws them to it.
Life in the horse drawn era often meant running just to stand still. Giving thanks for those rare periods of completely joyful leisure enjoyed without any feelings of guilt. Furthermore it meant cooperating with your fellows in a manner almost inconceivable today. Men and women relied upon each other to provide the very stuff of life. Without cooperative action, even basic comfort was unattainable. To be an individual, alone with your difference, meant being cast adrift in a cold bleak sea of poverty and misery. There was a need for a certain strength of character, toughness, “companionability” and inner self-reliance.
Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps it was not so much the tractor, as the engine, an engine of any sort, that started to bring about the decline in the rewards of life. For I am sure the pre-mechanical sailor felt the same with the introduction of the steam packet. No longer dependent upon the wind, the liberty from much of nature imposed its own tyranny upon fewer and harder worked individuals. No becalmed forced idleness. No waiting for a change of wind direction, no intimate personal observation of tidal patterns, water eddies, and no communal application of personal skills in getting the best from a vessel underway through the power of the wind. The engine rode roughshod over nature, nuance, and nouse. It forced a passage where none had previously been possible, and it did it relatively undemandingly. The simple command “Full Steam Ahead” replaced the intricate ballet of multiple human effort setting sails aloft.
Take for example the simple act of creating a gate access into a field on a farm. In horse drawn days its placement was an art, an act of compromise between nature and need. The fall of the land, the nature of the footing beneath, the natural drainage, the absence of aged trees, the ease and limit of any digging required. Gates in the days of the working horse were placed with a mind to all of the above. They were placed in a manner which balanced practical human need with the natural given circumstances. It is clear to any with even the slightest knowledge of working horses which gates were placed in the eras when the working horse was supreme. Gates placed in the era of the machine pay almost no heed to nature. Convenience, need and the brutal unyielding necessity of profit are the drivers. They are driven through at any cost, any cost to nature or to aesthetics, paying scant attention to such inconveniences as flora and the natural fall of the land. Drainage is immaterial, for there is a machine for that. What consequence the footing? Concrete will solve it. That ancient tree, that bank, that nob of rock outcropping? An hour’s work with a digger at most. Nothing shall stand in our way. In our drive to master, in our love for efficiency, we fail to see what we may have lost or be about to lose. Our old ways of seeing things, with a sympathetic and empathetic eye, balancing need with nature, is almost entirely gone.
Modern farms seem soulless cold and barren places. Their huge sheds, and bare yards visibly encircle us across the hills surrounding our 20 odd acres. On some of the dairy units near us the cattle are housed in sheds where they are fed silage, imported feed, and plastic wrapped grass whilst the animals are kept in a vague state of questionable health by a cocktail of medications, all designed to maximise their milk production. Breeds are selected, bred and fed merely for their yield, without any consideration as to their locality, their resilience to the prevailing conditions or their local market. Once their maximum yielding years are behind them they will be culled to appear in a supermarket lasagna, beef burger, or other meat based overly processed product.
Huge green chicken sheds abound in our local area, where once every house or home kept a few birds for eggs and occasionally for the pot. Economies of scale mean that thousands upon thousands of chickens are housed together, even “free range chickens” are hemmed in on all sides in densely packed fields of bare and sanitised earth with tenement like roosting sheds. Much of our modern pig rearing follows a similar pattern. In contrast, pre-engine era farms were carefully created, evolving over time, buildings placed over the years with a eye for natural advantage. Look for instance at any old disused cart shed. Where level ground was not available they were almost always placed at the bottom of an incline. Why? Because the horses were hitched to remove them from the sheds and could easily pull them up the slope for work, but they were easier to run back into the shed downhill by human power alone.
It has become fashionable to blame the farmers, the supermarkets, the manufacturers, anyone grouped together as part of the “industry,” for the ills of modern food production, yet we are all complicit. Indeed, were it not for individual purchase decisions none of these methods of food production would be viable. I do not blame the farmers, who are merely attempting to keep their heads above water and provide for their customers and their own families. It is with all of us as consumers that the guilt lies. Yet given our society, our culture, the fundamentals of our way of life, what alternative is there? I hardly think we will abandon our longing for the pocket change burger, cheap chicken, posh ready meals for two with a bottle of wine thrown in for less than an expensive cocktail? Given our consumption orientated lifestyles, our mania for choice, our love of a bargain, not to mention a belief in a right to over indulge if we so wish, there is currently little alternative. It seems inevitable that in the future we will have more of the same and an even greater intervention of technology and bio-medical science in our food production.
We need to face it, you’re not going to satisfy the food needs and tastes of the masses on the produce of farms like mine. Nobody will willingly go hungry in order to watch the steady tread of the ploughman behind his team. For all the talk of “buy local” and “artisan produce,” you need only take the merest glimpse into the average kitchen larder or fridge to see that buying local is a rare minority and niche activity. We may bang on about “sustainability,” but how many of our meals contain anything made within ten miles of home?
Recently I decided against the purchase of any food stuff produced outside of the U.K. It is harder to do than you think. As an experiment I decided that nothing shall pass my lips not made within U.K. borders. Once I master that, I hope to manage to reduce that to England and eventually down to the southwest of England. However without the widespread adoption of such fetishised food purchase practices, the dream of food sustainability will remain a fantasy. With the reduction in the girth of my food catchment area, I hope to see a corresponding reduction in my own waistband measurement. To eat locally seems to mean eating better and eating less, something that perhaps might encourage the wider adoption of such practices for some, but the lack of choice and monotony will leave others cold. No more Belgian chocolates, French cheese, or Spanish strawberries for me… for a year at least.
In the hamlet where we live, the Victorian and Edwardian residents enjoyed, within walking distance, almost everything required in daily life. Milk, bread, cheese, meat and vegetables were there on their doorstep or close to it. There was a shop, a post office, a forge, a flour mill, a sawmill, and for those things required from further afield, a “carrier” who spent his days trotting his horse and carriage between interceding villages and our small market town some five and a half miles away. Residents of the hamlet could either travel with the carrier, or commission him to pick articles up on their behalf, paying a small consideration for the privilege. Not exactly the modern internet commerce model or click and collect of the modern day, but not too far from it.
Work was also available locally. In the past agriculture was a labour intensive enterprise demanding large numbers and hard, if intermittent, effort from both men and women. While it is true to say that agriculture in bygone times had many similarities with the modern gig economy, and worrying uncertainty about where an income might be found abounded amongst the labouring classes, there were many skills an individual could turn their hand to. If the harvest failed to supply work, hedging, ditching, poaching, cleaning, washing and gleaning might at least keep the wolf from the door, and allow the individual to maintain their self respect in sustaining themselves by dint of their own efforts.
Labour saving devices at that time were in short supply, but this probably brought benefits that outweighed the disadvantages. If you did not wish to skivvy yourself, and were sufficiently wealthy, you employed local “staff” to do it for you, thus creating work and building strong community ties. The majority of employers got along well with their staff, only limited exploitation took place, so limited in truth that in the sad event of someone behaving cruelly or improperly the whole community would hear of it and shun the soon to be notorious perpetrator. While it may not make for a modern thrilling historical drama, the overwhelming majority of staff were fairly treated and enjoyed their connection to a prosperous family.
The really striking differences from today were in the limits of the choices available. Limitations on choice were decidedly seasonal, regional and technological. A Devon shovel, strawberries in June, apples in October, telegrams and letters as the only tools of communication until the invention of the telephone. Much of the equipment used on farms was often designed, produced and used locally, which while limiting choice, enhanced community links, provided jobs and moulded both the green and built environments in unique and interesting ways. Dry stone walls, earth banks, ditches, roads and hedgerows were particular to locations, as were houses, wagons and working dress. The locally occurring natural resources were put to good use with minimal need for transportation.
I imagine that today almost nothing in the modern farmhouse or farm yard is made locally. We have so much choice, but only of homogeneous articles created globally for everyone everywhere, and I believe we are the poorer for it. The same utensil, tool or machine is just as likely to be found in Nebraska as Nuneaton.
Our government’s obsession with free trade seems to be the antithesis of a truly green policy that all political parties love to cloak themselves in. It’s certainly no good for farmers and it is increasingly damaging the environment and limiting consumer choice. At the height of the British Empire, Britain abandoned protectionist economic policies in favour of free trade, but only after it had cornered the worldwide market for most industrially produced goods. Even then such policies had serious consequences and implications for the average citizen. Today it seems to have become an accepted mantra of governments everywhere that free trade is beneficial, but to whom I ask? If we consider who benefits most from global manufacturing and free trade it is certainly not local businesses or the local consumer. How much better might it be to protect and rebuild sustainable local economies that offer a greater degree of security for the majority than to continue with the social impoverishment and environmental destruction offered by international corporations, competition, and export-led growth? Prioritising domestic production would allow locally based jobs to flourish and ensure longterm employment for those considered to be the “left behind.” The large corporations might hate it, but who are governments truly there to serve?
Partnerships are often talked about in policy decision making. We hear of corporations talking of those they seek to exploit, legitimately or otherwise, as their “partners.” Pictures of rugged red faced farmers taken with their livestock, hand shakes and back slapping, while the corporations surreptitiously help themselves to the contents of the farmers’ wallets. Yet once again, what are the alternatives? Housewives (if I can risk being ostracised by calling them such) are unlikely to traipse around their local area seeking out artisan products from diverse independent stores while they juggle children, household chores, work and social media. It might be a Mumsnet fantasy, but the reality is that life intrudes upon good intentions.
Governments talk of their love of small farmers, of growing produce sustainably, of micro-agriculture, and of their support for the benefits of hedgerow management, but their policy decisions and the agencies charged with implementing them, make it almost impossible for small farmers to continue without sustained legal and secretarial support. Governments know the public love the idea of small sustainable farms, so they adapt their rhetoric, whilst behind the scenes they make a small farmer’s life well nigh impossible. Meagre profits, tiny impacts, and the bureaucratic difficulties of dealing with a huge lack of uniformity in the structures of small farms means the small farmer is something governments would really like to see wither and die.
Given my experience to date, they are well on track to achieving that goal. But then so much of modernity is destructive, over hyped and in the end fails to deliver on the promises it makes. Other than the chain saw, you can keep most of modern life!