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Farewell coca, hello cocoa November 26th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

Enrique Arévalo is the general coordinator at the Instituto de Cultivos Tropicales (ICT) or Tropical Crops Institute, based in Tarapoto, the capital of San Martín department in northern Peru. I met my old colleague last week at an international symposium on cocoa in Lima, before visiting ICT and learning more about the rise in importance of cocoa in Peru – and the challenges in supporting farmers.

Cocoa is ICT’s most important crop and increasingly popular with farmers in San Martín, one of the main production areas. But, as Enrique explained in his introduction to ICT, San Martín is also a major coca producer. Coca is the plant from which cocaine is made. Although it is illegal to make cocaine, coca is a legal crop in Peru and Bolivia, where the partially dried leaves are chewed to ward off altitude sickness, dampen hunger and produce a soothing tea known as mate de coca.

In its early days, ICT, a private institute, did research on coca yields but that has faded away. Although cocoa is one of the key crops promoted as an alternative to coca in Peru (and elsewhere), support for cocoa research and development is far from guaranteed, as Enrique explained.

Enrique outlined what ICT did. “We offer technical support to farmers, in soil testing and diagnosis of pests and diseases, for example. We organise training for extension agents who work for the many cooperatives that buy and process cocoa.” ICT also works with tropical fruits, including banana, and popular medicinal crops such as noni and sacha inchi (Plukenetia volubilis). Despite responding directly to farmers’ needs, Enrique said it was difficult to sustain existing services while, as he put it, ”doing research for the future”, such as a new cocoa grafting technique that ICT had developed.

ICT relies on project funding plus some support from farmer associations, cocoa buyers and local government. The reduction in US funding has been particularly steep. As funds have dried up so staff numbers have declined. It was sad to hear Enrique tell me that ICTused to have over 60 staff. “Now there are only six of us to provide support to farmers while maintaining laboratory equipment and germplasm collections.” The germplasm collections are particularly important, a vital resource for understanding and exploiting the full genetic potential of of cocoa and other ICT crops.

Crippling an institute takes an instant while re-establishing staff capacity can take years. The best staff find jobs elsewhere and won’t return. Experience fades quickly when one is no longer working on a particular crop. Building up the next generation of knowledgeable scientists is a lengthy task. Rehabilitating neglected germplasm collections takes years, assuming that they can be resurrected from overgrown plots.

Cocoa production is on the up in Peru, with over 100,000 tonnes produced in 2016. The work of Enrique and his fellow scientists has done much to develop cocoa as a viable crop. The cocoa germplasm collections at ICT (one next to the laboratories and another in a separate plot) contain an invaluable store of both local varieties – Peru has the largest cocoa diversity in the world – and those introduced from other major collections, particularly Trinidad and Tobago. ICT ensures that trees are regularly pruned and plots are kept clean and free from disease. It was good to see how well the collections were being maintained through the dedication of ICT staff. But, as Enrique explained, “we need to do more to safeguard cocoa genetic resources for Peruvian farmers.”

I was part of a group of scientists and representatives from leading chocolate companies, such as Mars and Mondelēz, that visited ICT. The companies already support a lot of cocoa research and development and though more funding is always welcome it is governments that are responsible for their farmers. A swelling influx of tourists has helped promote fine flavour and aroma chocolate made in Peru. The national and international profile of Peruvian cocoa is growing and needs to be matched by reliable funding that allows dedicated scientists such as Enrique and his colleagues at ICT to stay on top of existing technical challenges while innovating for the future.

Eating chocolate is a fleeting indulgence for consumers; cocoa income is an everyday lifeline for 90,000 families in Peru, paying for food, schooling, healthcare and other essentials. You can’t sustain cocoa production without sustaining cocoa science. Identifying new funding streams is the key challenge for maintaining innovation and development of the cocoa sector in Peru.

Without the necessary support, farmers may not be able to earn enough from cocoa to support their families, and return to coca.

Other blogs on cocoa:

Out of the shade (Ecuador)

Congo cocoa  

On the road (DR Congo)

Related blogs on chocolate:

Chocolate evolution

ADIOS COCA, HOLA CACAO

Enrique Arévalo es el coordinador general del Instituto de Cultivos Tropicales (ICT), con sede en Tarapoto, capital del departamento de San Martín situado en el norte del Perú. Me encontré con mi viejo colega la semana pasada en un simposio internacional sobre el cacao en Lima, antes de visitar el ICT y aprender más sobre el aumento de la importancia del cacao en Perú, y los desafíos en el apoyo a los agricultores.

El cacao es el cultivo más importante del ICT y cada vez es más popular entre los agricultores de San Martín, una de las principales áreas de producción. Pero, como Enrique explicó en su introducción al ICT, San Martín también es un importante productor de coca. La coca es la planta a partir de la cual se produce la cocaína. Aunque es ilegal producirla, la coca es un cultivo legal en Perú y Bolivia, donde las hojas parcialmente secas se mastican para evitar el mal de altura, reducir el hambre y producir un té relajante llamado mate de coca.

En sus inicios, el ICT, un instituto privado, investigaba sobre el rendimiento de la coca pero eso se ha desvanecido. Aunque el cacao es uno de los principales cultivos promovidos como alternativa a la coca en Perú (y en otros lugares), el apoyo para la investigación y el desarrollo del cacao está lejos de estar garantizado, como Enrique explicó.

Enrique describiĂł lo que el ICT hizo: “Ofrecemos soporte tĂ©cnico a los agricultores, en pruebas de suelo y diagnĂłstico de plagas y enfermedades, por ejemplo. Organizamos cursos de formaciĂłn para los agentes de extensiĂłn que trabajan para las muchas cooperativas que compran y procesan el cacao “. El ICT tambiĂ©n trabaja con frutas tropicales, incluido el banano, y cultivos medicinales populares como el noni y el sacha inchi (Plukenetia volubilis). A pesar de responder directamente a las necesidades de los agricultores, Enrique dijo que era difĂ­cil mantener los servicios existentes mientras “se investiga para el futuro”, como por ejemplo, una nueva tĂ©cnica de injerto de cacao que el ICT habĂ­a desarrollado.

El ICT se basa en el financiamiento de proyectos además de obtener cierto apoyo de asociaciones de agricultores, compradores de cacao y del gobierno local. La reducciĂłn de la financiaciĂłn de los Estados Unidos ha sido particularmente pronunciada. Como los fondos se han “secado”, el nĂşmero de empleados ha disminuido. Fue triste escuchar a Enrique decirme que el ICT solĂ­a tener más de 60 empleados. “Ahora solo somos seis los que apoyamos a los agricultores mientras mantenemos equipo de laboratorio y las colecciones de germoplasma”. Estas colecciones de germoplasma son particularmente importantes, ya que son un recurso vital para comprender y explotar todo el potencial genĂ©tico del cacao y otros cultivos del ICT.

Se require un instante para paralizar un instituto, mientras que restablecer la capacidad del personal puede llevar años. El mejor personal encuentra trabajo en otro lugar y no regresará. La experiencia se desvanece rápidamente cuando uno ya no está trabajando en un cultivo en particular. Desarrollar la próxima generación de científicos expertos es una tarea larga. La rehabilitación de colecciones de germoplasma abandonadas lleva años, suponiendo que se puedan resucitar de parcelas descuidadas.

La producciĂłn de cacao está en alza en PerĂş, con más de 100.000 toneladas producidas en 2016. El trabajo de Enrique y sus colegas cientĂ­ficos ha contribuido mucho a desarrollar el cacao como un cultivo viable. Las colecciones de germoplasma de cacao en el ICT (una al lado de los laboratorios y otra en una parcela separada) contienen una valiosa reserva de ambas variedades locales – PerĂş tiene la mayor diversidad de cacao del mundo – y de variedades introducidas de otras colecciones importantes, particularmente de Trinidad y Tobago . El ICT asegura que los árboles se podan regularmente y las parcelas se mantienen limpias y libres de enfermedades. Estuvo bien ver lo bien se mantenĂ­an las colecciones gracias a la dedicaciĂłn del personal de ICT. Pero, como explicĂł Enrique, “tenemos que hacer más para salvaguardar los recursos genĂ©ticos del cacao para los agricultores peruanos”.

Formé parte de un grupo de científicos y representantes de compañías líderes de chocolate, como Mars y Mondelēz, que visitaron el ICT. Las compañías ya apoyan una gran cantidad de investigación y desarrollo del cacao, y aunque más financiación siempre es bienvenida, son los gobiernos los responsables de sus agricultores. Una creciente afluencia de turistas ha ayudado a promover el sabor fino y el aroma del chocolate hecho en Perú. El perfil nacional e internacional del cacao peruano está creciendo y debe ser acompañado por un financiamiento fiable que permita a científicos dedicados como Enrique y sus colegas del ICT mantenerse al tanto de los desafíos técnicos existentes mientras innovan para el futuro.

Comer chocolate es una indulgencia pasajera para los consumidores; los ingresos del cacao son una lĂ­nea de vida cotidiana para 90,000 familias en el PerĂş, que permite pagar sus alimentos, la educaciĂłn, sus gastos para la salud y otros artĂ­culos esenciales. No se puede mantener la producciĂłn de cacao sin sustentar la ciencia del cacao. Identificar nuevas fuentes de financiamiento es el desafĂ­o clave para mantener la innovaciĂłn y el desarrollo del sector del cacao en PerĂş. Sin el apoyo necesario, los agricultores tal vez no puedan ganar lo suficiente del cacao para mantener a sus familias y para no volver a la coca.

ArtĂ­culos relacionados del blog:

Out of the shade (Ecuador)

Congo cocoa  

On the road (DR Congo)

Blog relacionado sobre chocolate:

Chocolate evolution

How are we doing? A double century of blogs since 2013 September 24th, 2017 by

The first Agro-Insight blog appeared in October 2013. Jeff and Paul continued publishing weekly stories until May 2015, when I joined them. Now, after nearly four years, we have reached blog number 200, and I thought it was a good time to pause and reflect on what stimulates us to write, the subjects we’ve covered and what we’re trying to achieve.

We write mostly about personal experiences, prompted by meeting people, events we’ve witnessed or taken part in and other things we’ve come across while working on projects and consultancies. Stories about Africa have featured in nearly half our blogs. Latin America blogs account for 30% of the total, mainly because Jeff is the most prolific contributor and lives in Bolivia. The Asia-Pacific region is the next common source of inspiration (13%), plus a smattering of blogs from North America, Europe and Central Asia.

We are hugely privileged in being able to visit so many countries, to work with different organisations and learn more about the unsung efforts of their staff. Every visit we make confirms how much there is to learn, and share, about the ingenuity of farmers and the dedication of the many people (particularly in extension) who contribute in unseen ways to agriculture.  People and their actions are the main inspiration for our blogs.

Sometimes we also write about things that we’ve read, such as the last blog by Jeff on photographs of Bolivian miners or a more recent one by Paul on allotments in the UK and Belgium (where he lives: we don’t always have to go far to find sources of inspiration). I wrote about Wilson Popenoe after reading a biography. He was an intrepid plant explorer and the founding director of El Zamorano, the leading agricultural university in Central America. Popenoe’s endeavours resonated strongly because I’m intrigued by the discovery of new crops. And I remembered a visit, many years ago, to the marvellous La Casa Popenoe, a small museum, in Antigua, Guatemala.

Jeff is a keen linguist and trained archaeologist, hence a series of blogs on etymology (Reaper Madness) and links to historic and ancient agriculture (such as the Origin of the sunflower). Many of Paul’s blogs have come from his and Marcella’s (Paul’s wife) experiences of making videos with and for farmers (such as Aflatoxin videos for farmers). My own varied career has given rise to blogs on wild mushrooms, photography, the rise of cocoa in the Congo, and of course plant health. Sometimes we like to call attention to examples of natural resource management gone seriously awry, as in the near extinction of North American bison. We also like to see the lighter side of agriculture and development, as in Paul’s story about bullets and birds.

Each week we submit our ideas to the other two for comments. Writing is a collaborative effort and one of the big pleasures for me is being able to hone each other’s blogs, delivering a better and cleaner message. We try to avoid preaching and to lead our readers to gentle conclusions which encourage fresh thinking.

Not all ideas that we have are published as blogs. In one failed effort, I wrote unconvincingly about the new sustainable development goals. Paul and Jeff suggested it needed more work. They were right. The first blogs were quite short, just a few hundred words. They’ve become longer, though we rarely exceed 1000 words. We know that our readers are busy people, and there’s always a danger with a longer story that you stray from the main topic.

When we write about people we always try to show them the blog before we publish. We want to get our facts right and also check we haven’t written anything that an individual or organisation is unhappy about. Sometimes they don’t want too much publicity or maybe we’ve written prematurely about a work in progress. We had to kill one story about the problems with community centres to feed children, when our horrified partners realized that we were saying too much, too soon. Cannabis growing is legal but still controversial in Alaska, yet the owners were more than happy to share their experiences more widely, provided I didn’t reveal the precise location in the blog.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of having published 200 blogs is how little we know about our audience. Although we get regular comments from colleagues and others who we alert directly about blogs we welcome wider feedback via email (just add Paul or Jeff or Eric to @agroinsight.com.

We don’t know what we will write for blog 300 and beyond, but there is no shortage of things to discover or unheard voices of farmers to report. Thanks for staying with us. Feel free to pass these stories on to friends, family and colleagues. We look forward to hearing from you!

High in the Arctic September 10th, 2017 by

A large supermarket in Anchorage displays an impressive selection of fruit and vegetables, including organic produce. Unsurprisingly, most of the goods on sale are grown outside Alaska. Farming this far north is challenging, with only a short growing season, unpredictable weather and moderate temperatures. Local initiatives such as the “Alaska Grown” campaign, are encouraging people to develop new agri-businesses. You have to be enterprising to succeed, as I recently discovered.

A popular option is to grow salad crops and soft fruits in high tunnels. Tough polyethylene sheeting is draped over sturdy metal frames, protecting the plants within. Peonies, popular at weddings because of their showy, robust flowers, are also grown. They flourish in Alaska during the summer, which is off-season in the lower 48 states, when it is too hot to grow peonies yet high season for weddings in the US.

Rhodiola, a native medicinal plant and member of the botanical family Crassulacaea, is another commercial success. But the most unexpected crop I came across was cannabis, legal in Alaska since 2014. Some is grown outside in high tunnels, but it is so profitable that many growers have invested in custom-built indoor facilities. Plants are regularly fed and watered using a hydroponic system. Artificial lighting ensures year-round production, whatever the weather outside.

A family friend introduced me to Bruce and Judy Martin on the Kenai Peninsula, who are part of the first wave of cannabis growers. Bruce worked in construction for many years and wanted a change. He originally designed a building to service boats during the winter. Fishing is big business in Alaska, both commercially and for visiting tourists, and the boats need regular maintenance. Bruce’s plan started well, but when a major contract collapsed he and Judy decided to move into cannabis growing.

A kilo of cannabis buds will earn Bruce and Judy between $2500 and $6000 a pound, or around ÂŁ4500 – ÂŁ10,000 per kilo, depending on quality. Bruce explained the set up: “We have a total growing area of 2,000 square feet (185 square metres), covering two rooms. In the first room, we take cuttings from the mother plants and suspend them in large tanks, where water and nutrients are regularly sprayed to encourage root development. After about three weeks they are moved to larger pots before being transferred a further three weeks later to the main production facility.”

Although Alaska legalised cannabis growing for medicinal and recreational use and sale in 2015, it wasn’t until 2016 that the legal framework was fully in place for producers to start supplying licensed outlets. Bruce and Judy harvested their first crop in December 2016 and have been regularly producing around ten kilograms per month of buds and leaves. The leaves are less valuable than the buds (around $1500 per kilogram) because they have lower amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound for which cannabis is renowned. Bruce explained that there was still a steady demand for leaves to produce “edibles”, which the Alaska Division of Public Health describes as “foods and drinks … made with marijuana or marijuana oils”, such as “cookies and other treats”.

Growing cannabis even on a modest scale requires major investment. “It cost us around half a million dollars to set up the production facility” said Bruce. Judy mentioned the many certificates they’d had to get before being allowed to start selling and the need to test cannabis batches for potency. “Testing is mandatory and costs us $2000 each month,” said Judy. Plus, Bruce and Judy lose two kilograms of product required for the tests. Costs are high, regulation is intense and official monitoring of operations is relentless. A monitor shows feeds from multiple security cameras, keeping a watchful eye on what happens outside the building and all nooks and crannies within.

I have mixed feelings about commercial cannabis growing for recreational use, but the more I look at the overall trade the more it makes sense. Regulating cannabis reduces criminality, safeguards consumers against adulterated products and also creates jobs. And there are significant numbers of people using cannabis for medicinal reasons, where there are proven benefits. The US’s experience with Prohibition (of alcohol) shows that an outright ban doesn’t work: better to regulate, educate and normalise consumption while advising people of potential and harmful side-effects. It is surely much better to treat adults in a mature way when it comes to cannabis, as clearly shown by the Alaska Division of Public Health.

Alaska has already earned around $2 million in taxes from growers and shops. In a neat political move, Bruce told me that “cannabis taxes on the Kenai Peninsula go straight to supporting schools.” Despite the long and successful campaign to legalise cannabis in Alaska there is already a ballot measure to repeal the 2014 decision, due to be voted on by all registered voters in October 2017. There are still diehards who see cannabis use, even for medicinal purposes, as sinful and leading inevitably to harder drugs, but the evidence for this happening is weak. Maybe the loss of funding for schools – which were facing major budget cuts – will help swing the vote and maintain the hard-won status quo.

The intense regulation of cannabis in Alaska suggests that the state is itself equivocal about legalisation, though the main reason for the tight scrutiny is because the US federal government still prohibits the “use, sale and possession of all forms of cannabis”. Banks are nervous about handling money associated with the trade and all transactions are in cash. Cannabis growers cannot ask for advice from cooperative extension staff, since they are partly funded by the Federal government.

This doesn’t seem to matter, since Bruce and Judy get advice from fellow growers nearby and there is an active online community buzzing with information about all aspects of cannabis production. I admire their hard work and commitment. Bruce and Judy have taken a calculated risk in becoming cannabis growers, but so far, their hard work and diligence has paid off. They’re also bringing a little cheer to fellow Alaskans.

Thanks to
Richard and Linn especially, for making the visit possible. And to Bruce and Judy for their warm  welcome and open discussions.

Read other blogs
Ethical agriculture

The ruffled reefer

The power of the pregnant man August 27th, 2017 by

A memorable poster catches the eye, conveys a simple message and makes you think. Achieving all this demands careful planning and good design, balancing content with visual impact. Too much information and the passer-by moves on, having failed to get the full message. Too little information and the viewer leaves unsatisfied, wondering what the point of poster was. When you know who you are writing for, it is easier to know what to include and what to leave out.

Armyworm is a generic term describing the tendency of some caterpillars to congregate in large numbers, chomping like hungry troops through crops. The African armyworm, Spodoptera exempta, has been around for a long time, causing lots of damage on cereals. Now a new species has made the journey from the Americas to Africa, where it is causing high alarm. S. frugiperda, known as the fall armyworm, has recently been recorded from most of sub-Saharan Africa and will doubtless spread to more countries that grow maize, the fall armyworm’s favourite crop.

Scientists have been quick to respond to the arrival of the fall armyworm, first recorded in Sao Tomé in 2016, and soon after in southern Africa. FAO have held meetings in recent months in Harare, Nairobi and Accra to bring interested parties together, marshal resources and make plans for combatting this new pest. Unlike other new diseases which have appeared in Africa, such as banana bacterial wilt, a lot is already known about the fall armyworm and control strategies are well established.

CABI has produced an attractive poster showing the life cycle and damage caused by fall armyworm on maize. The poster appears to be part of a general campaign to raise awareness of key features of the new pest, though details of the campaign are sketchy. The poster has attractive drawings and clear information, yet the more I looked, the more questions I had.

I noticed some curious omissions. There is no date on the graphic and no contact details, such as an email address or a website. The scientific name of the fall armyworm is not given. But my main question concerned the target audience: extensionists or farmers? Both? Scientists?

Some hints are given by the layout. The circular cutaways and links to the far left hand column of text, running from bottom to top, would confuse a low-literate audience. An understanding of the insect’s life cycle is essential for designing a control programme, yet do extension officers, for whom this poster appears intended, need all this information?

These questions reminded me of my first effort at designing a poster for Sumatra disease of cloves in Indonesia (see earlier blog). I assembled photographs of the symptoms and the insect vector, a planthopper called Hindola, my own drawing showing the spread of the disease in a plantation, and a cartoon of the insect feeding on the branches. The photos and drawings were accompanied by short bits of text explaining key features of the disease.

I was rather proud of my efforts until a visiting project evaluator, Caroline O’Reilly, asked me who the poster was for and what it aimed to do. My stumbling answers revealed that I hadn’t thought through these key questions. Before writing anything, the author must first decide who the story (or the poster) is for. Since then I’ve also learned the importance of validating all extension material with the people it is intended for, whether it is a poster or a fact sheet. The gulf between scientists who have never farmed or who have long since left their rural childhood behind, and the extension workers and farmers who live and breathe agriculture, is easy to ignore.

Posters can have great power, as shown in a brilliant example from a 1970s British health education campaign to promote better contraception. One’s attention is immediately caught by the swollen belly, looking remarkably like an advanced pregnancy, except that it’s a man in the picture. The statement in bold makes its point concisely before adding a clever punchline – contraception is one of the facts of life.

When I teach people how to produce extension material I emphasise the need to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. What does someone need to know? Depending on the audience it’s either: “Think like a farmer, act like an extension agent”; or “Think like an extension agent, act like a scientist”. The reason why the contraception poster works so well is because those designing it clearly understood the irresponsible ways of men. The poster designers also understood the power of simplicity.

The Health Education Council had a clear mandate to improve health outcomes in the UK. The pregnant man poster sought to change attitudes and behaviours, and was part of a wider campaign aimed at reducing unwanted pregnancies, particularl y amongst teenage women. It is less clear how the fall armyworm poster will reduce the impact of this new pest. Raising awareness about the biology and damage caused is a useful first step, but further posters are needed as part of a coordinated campaign that directly targets farmers and tells them how to manage this new threat to maize production.

Click here for a full copy of the fall armyworm poster.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. & Eric Boa 2013 “The Snowman Outline: Fact Sheets by Extensionists for Farmers.” Development in Practice 23(3):440-448.

Related blogs

Ethical agriculture (discusses clove disease)

The rules and the players (validating fact sheets)

Chemical attitude adjustment (validating fact sheets)

Mending fences, making friends August 13th, 2017 by

Clipston is a small village at the geographical centre of England, set in fields where arable and livestock farming has existed for millennia. All Saints Church was built in the early 13th century and still holds regular services. The local primary school has just celebrated its 350th anniversary. Bar some new houses and better roads, the village is recognizably the same from photographs taken over a hundred years ago.

I have visited Clipston regularly over the last forty years, ever since my parents moved there. The village and its surrounding agriculture looks much the same today as they did four decades ago: grazing cattle and sheep and fields of wheat and rapeseed (canola). But it was only a few weeks ago that I spoke to a farmer for the first time and began to appreciate how little I knew about the landscape that defines the village.

Clipston continues to thrive; the village website reveals a vibrant community, even though there’s no shop and public transport is limited. Clipston thrives in spite of rather than because of agriculture. Job opportunities in farming are few and prospects for new farmers are uncertain, as I learnt from talking to a local shepherd, Martin Fellowes. Most of the employed people who live in Clipston today work somewhere else, some travelling long distances each day. Fast trains from nearby Market Harborough reach the heart of London in just over an hour, a journey of about 100 miles.

People who choose to live in villages for their rural charm and tranquillity can sometimes find it difficult to cope with the everyday messiness of farming. The pervasive smell from spreading slurry on fields, drifting smoke from burning stubble or mud spread by tractors on roads are all sources of potential dispute between farmers, who rely on the land for their living, and other residents.

My chance encounter with Martin arose from a domestic issue. The sheep in the neighbouring field would occasionally get into my parents’ garden and munch merrily on flowers and foliage, much to the dismay of my mother and father. A single strand of barbed wire between field and garden was clearly inadequate. The only solution was to erect a sturdier fence, which is what I was doing when I noticed someone in blue overalls in the field. Martin came across when I waved my hand.

Martin explained to me that he’d just taken over the lease of the field and an adjacent one. I felt a little guilty about mentioning the sheep invasions since these were related to a previous tenant. He explained that “the fence is the responsibility of the land owner”. His replies were courteous but wary. I sensed that he had other things of greater concern to consider. I wondered later about Martin’s response to a letter in the Clipston Newsletter some years ago which said: “It is a terrifying prospect that land surrounding this lovely village could easily fall into the wrong hands.” The writer was fearful about a drop in the value of her house.

Martin’s demeanour changed when I told him that I also worked in agriculture. I pointed to my T shirt, which by chance featured a plant health workshop held in Rwanda. I asked him more about his job. “It’s difficult trying to get established as a farmer today”, he said. He was pleased to have a signed lease for the fields behind my parent’s house for his sheep for the coming year, even though the owner was selling up. He was renting other fields in another nearby village and I began to imagine the challenges of moving animals back and forward between different sites.

The sale of the land prompted some gentle mutterings on the price of land. In nearby Market Harborough housing estates are springing up all around the town. Farm land has become increasingly valuable, not only for housing but as an investment. The result is that it’s nigh on impossible for a new farmer such as Martin to own his own land. Leasing creates uncertainty, yet clearly Martin loved what he was doing and was willing to work hard.

I was surprised and delighted that Martin knew about a recent unexpected best seller on sheep farming, The Shepherd’s Life, written by James Rebanks, a shepherd in the north of England. Martin had been given this as a present and confirmed that the descriptions of sheep farming were spot on. “I’m not a big reader”, Martin confessed, but clearly the book had caught his attention. “Sheep farming is tougher up north”, he added, “but down here it’s also difficult to get established”.

People take the gently rolling hills and the seasonal changes in farming for granted. Not far from Clipston is an outstanding farm shop, one of several that have flourished in and around Market Harborough as the population has expanded. Stuffed full of fine food from impeccable sources, much locally produced, it is easy to imagine that this renaissance in food retailing indicates a stronger, more vibrant agriculture.

My short meeting with Martin was proof that new farmers are willing to have a go but that it will be an uphill struggle. Commuters who move to villages bring new life to a fragile rural economy, but living in the countryside also carries a responsibility to take a wider interest in agriculture.

Talking to farmers reveals how hard they work. If commuters move to the countryside for the scenery, it’s worth remembering that farmers have nurtured that land for generations. Sometimes a bit of fence mending goes a long way.

Read previous blogs

Modern ideas for an ancient land

Further information and reading

Clipston village website. What farming delivers for Northamptonshire (NFU infographic).

Rowland Parker (1975). The Common Stream. (An excellent book on the enduring life of an English village.)

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