Home and Shop Companion 0075

letter from a small corner of far away

Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,

Recently we visited some friends in the south of the county. They live in an old farmhouse, beautifully positioned in a green valley, the steep valley side behind the house rising to the tree and scrub-covered hilltop, with grazed fields to the front which gently drop away towards the river. Their land is mostly the steep-sided fields where the ponies graze, and in one corner, on the only flat land behind the house, is a polytunnel and the garden, with wide wood-chip covered pathways between the raised beds, most of which contain medicinal herbs. Since they moved there, they have made important changes – the new garden and the fruit trees planted alongside the track to the house, the air source heat pump and the increased insulation to the old house, and the all-important extra drainage to stop the yard from flooding. But perhaps the most significant change has been the management of the hillside fields, which had been grazed almost continually and very hard by a neighbour’s flock of sheep. The sheep still do visit from time to time, but instead of being constantly hammered by the nibbling of sheep, now the grass is left to grow high and is cut for hay, allowing the variety of grass and wild flower species in the meadow to increase to what it once was; the field, because of its steepness, probably never having been ploughed.

Then a few weeks ago our friends got the opportunity to buy the gently sloping fields in front of the house. The aged farmer who owned the land was putting his affairs in order, so those fields have now come home to the little farm where they once belonged. By plunging some inherited money into this land, their domain has doubled in size, and after the anticipation of the purchase, our friends are wondering what they are going to do with it. By their own admission, they are not farmers; although between them they do have professional knowledge of animals, a deep interest in the land and its use, excellent organisational skills and experience of gardening. Those skills may be a good foundation for farming, but that is not the same thing as being a farmer.

Home and Shop Companion 0075
photo from www.regenerativeagriculturebook.com

While I was there, I spotted a new farming book on the table, picked it up and was immediately offered the opportunity to borrow it. I might have bought it myself last year, but it is an expensive book, and the last year has not been one for unnecessary spending. Entitled ‘Regenerative Farming,’ it was written by Richard Perkins, an Englishman living in Sweden, and although the title suggests a lot of writing on grass growth, cattle grazing, carbon sequestration, etc, the book is somewhat different. Although the chapters are arranged by subject matter, the content draws heavily on the author’s experience of what he and his colleagues have achieved on his 25-acre farm, with grass ranging chickens, turkeys, woodland pigs and a no dig market garden. There is a vast amount of detail in this book, just the sort of information you need if, for instance, you want to pasture chickens; how to build the fold units, how to move them, how much and when to feed the birds, how to slaughter and process them cleanly, and what temperature they need when they are day old chicks. Depending on what you don’t know, it is the sort of information which could save you the $200 price tag of the book, in every chapter, maybe on every page. So an expensive book could be the best investment you ever make!

But one thing stuck in my mind; near the beginning was the story of how they came to buy their little farm. They looked long and hard, and were lucky to buy at a good price, but for their 25 acres in Sweden, with house and outbuildings, they paid 50,000 Euros, which is about 60,000 US dollars. Here, that money would only buy 5 acres, with no infrastructure. It is a sobering reality for any would-be farmer, and a fundamental failing in our economic system, because if you were, let’s say, to grow wheat on your expensive acres, it would take twenty years to repay the cost of the land, even if you had no costs at all, of labour, fertiliser, seed etc. So Mr. Perkin’s focus on intensive, high value products which have a quick financial return is well justified.

But I want to come back to our friend’s new acres. In practise, they don’t have to make any quick decisions because they have agreed that the sheep can stay for another year. But then what do they do? Do they just let a struggling sheep grazier continue to over-graze their land, do they get some beef cattle, and the handling facilities and fences to mob graze them and build up the soil, or do they go into some arrangement with someone who wants to start farming and shares their approach to the land?

For what it is worth, I think they should take the last option, because I know what it is like to be thwarted by a lack of land or money, and I know how valuable that opportunity could be for a young, enthusiastic would-be farmer. As a group, farmers have not really come to terms with the reality that some farms will not continue in the family, and what that means for agriculture as a whole. Because many farm children do not become farmers, many farms do not stay in the family, so there is always going to be a need (and nowadays it is a desperate need) for new, young, conscientious and competent people to become farmers. Inevitably some will not come from a farming background, and without an inherited farm, getting a start is tough.

I am sure we have all had a feeling of sadness when attending a farm sale, to see a retiring farmer’s equipment, livestock and a lifetime’s work put up for sale. But a bigger shame is when the time and effort of lifelong farming is squandered as that experience is not passed on, and the hard-won monetary value, although it might stay in the family, is lost to farming. I wish I had a magic solution, but there should be a way, for established, slowing-down or retired farmers to recycle farmland to those who need it, rather than just cashing it in, when too often the land goes to the big boys and the corporate enterprises.

Good farming, traditionally, was doing right by the land, to pass it on in a better state than you found it. But does that responsibility end with the last load of manure you spread, or with finding the person who will continue within the best of that tradition?

Take care,


William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.

Home and Shop Companion 0075

Home and Shop Companion 0075