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The Common Stream April 8th, 2018 by

A few months ago, Eric Boa (who writes this blog with Paul and I) sent me an extraordinary little book, The Common Stream, by Rowland Parker. It’s a singularly remarkable history of Foxton, a village in Cambridgeshire, England.

It may be the most complete history of any village anywhere, which is surprising given how ordinary the village appears today. Yet Parker, who lived there for most of his adult life, used Foxton to represent changes occurring to agricultural communities over the centuries across much of England, and to some extent elsewhere.

Parker picks up his story in ancient times, when a certain Roman living in his comfortable villa near what is now Foxton, forced the native Britons to move their huts onto straight streets. This theme of rich, powerful men knowing what was best for the peasants would continue for some time.

By the fifth century the Romans had left, and the Saxons began their slow, leisurely invasion. Over two or three generations, they rowed up the rivers, stopping where they wished, and settling on the best land, where they farmed and kept what they harvested. But it was too good to last. By the 900s land was being appropriated by lords and religious orders. By 1086, 90% of Foxton’s 200 inhabitants had almost no personal possessions. Most of the land belonged to a nun, the Abbess of Chatteris, whose word was the law. The common people had no money, but lots of work. They were old by the time they were 40. The diet was coarse bread, gruel, cheese, vegetables, pease (peas and other legumes), besides boiled mutton, and boiled bacon with the occasional chicken, egg or rabbit. And lots of ale.

By 1250 two-thirds of the peasants were still virtually enslaved, but some had been freed and self-government began to emerge. The villagers elected their own officials, such as constables and “ale tasters”, a popular position that obliged the office holder to visit the homes of people who made ale and take a sip (or more) to see that the brew met the standards for proper beer.

The Black Death killed half of the people of Foxton around 1348. By 1485, perhaps in response to the enduring loss of population, or a growing sense of social injustice, the lords of the manor and the abbeys began to set their slaves (bondsmen) free. But it was only a partial freedom. Peasant farmers had to pay a large entry fee to the manor to occupy land and a house. Still, the change meant that common people had a little money to spend and by the 1500s there was a weekly market in Foxton, selling meat and butter.

Relative prosperity improved through the 1550s, when villagers rebuilt Foxton, crafting fifty houses that were so well made that by the 1970s twenty of them were still standing, including one that Rowland Parker lived in.

But rural poverty was an enduring problem. Sometimes the poor were whipped, to stir them into productive action, but that did no good. Paupers could be paid a few coins from the “poor rate,” a local tax levied on farmers. Destitute women were also employed to collect stones (for road repair) by hand from the frozen ground in the winter, by the cartload.

In one strange episode in the 1860s “coprolites” were discovered just under the topsoil in the fields surrounding Foxton. These were nuggets of phosphorous that could be sold as fertilizer. Landowners hired gangs of men “as strong as horses” to peel the earth back like a carpet, remove the coprolites, and put the soil back. It was a short-lived boon to agricultural wage workers.

By the 1880s most villages in England had a railroad station. People left farming, if not the villages, commuting to industrial wage work. This was followed by an agricultural revolution led by machinery and fertilizer. In the 1880s twenty men would harvest a wheat field with scythes, walking together in a line. By the 1970s one worker in a combine harvester would bring in the grain. Parker notes ruefully that from 1885 to 1970 crop yields quadrupled as the workforce declined dramatically. One man replaced ten. “There is now more farming done in Foxton than there ever was before and hardly any people are doing it.” Poverty was finally eliminated after the Second World War by the introduction of universal social welfare. Parker observed that people were better fed, better dressed and that all the children were going to school. Modern farming has eased drudgery and improved harvests. Life is better now than it was in the Middle Ages

Rowland Parker was Eric Boa’s French teacher at The Grammar School for Boys in nearby Cambridge. It was only some years after leaving school that Eric learned that the austere Mr. Parker had spent many of his weekends interviewing elderly villagers and translating local manuscripts from Latin and Old English.

In 2014, Tim Martin reviewed The Common Stream for The Telegraph, in a series on the A to Z of forgotten books. Martin called Parker’s book a “miniature classic of social history.” Indeed it is, and it is well worth reading.

Further reading

Parker, Rowland 1976 The Common Stream. Frogmore, St. Albans, UK: Paladin.

Related blog

Mending fences, making friends

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Robbing land from the sea March 25th, 2018 by

The low-lying Netherlands is famous for its polders, the land behind the dikes, reclaimed from the sea. Beginning about 1000 AD, people made dikes, or earthen dams, to protect communities from flooding. At first the water was simply drained through canals, but with time the land in the polders subsided, and by the 1400s water was being pumped out with windmills. Thanks to hard work, investment and some clever engineering, people still live in and farm the polders.

Much of Bangladesh is also right at sea level and densely populated. So why doesn’t Bangladesh have polders too? I wondered out-loud during a recent visit last October.

“But we do! Bangladesh has many polders,” my colleague Salahuddin retorted. He explained that there was a string of some 123 polders over much of southern Bangladesh, an area where several large rivers cut the delta into finger-like strips of lowland.

The polders were built between the 1960s and the 1980s, first by the provincial government of East Pakistan, and later by the Government of Bangladesh, after independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Each polder is ringed by a low earthen embankment (basically a dike), sometimes just two meters high and made by hand. The roughly oval-shaped polders are dozens of kilometers in circumference.

The Bangladeshi polders are drained by an ingenious network of canals, radiating like veins from the center of the polder to the edge, where the flow of water is controlled by a sluice gate in the embankment.The sluice gate is a concrete structure with metal doors that can be raised by a hand-crank to let the water out during the rainy season, and lowered during the dry season to keep out the saltwater.

Originally the wetlands of the delta region had been sparsely populated by fisher-farmers who grew low yielding rice varieties that tolerated brackish water. The polders soon became attractive places to live and settlers trickled in. The people who were born in the polders tended to stay there and so populations increased.

Some of the polders have benefited from some sort of project, and have been reasonably well managed. By 2018 the better polders are like gardens, with comfortable farm houses surrounded by shimmering green rice fields.

The polders have had their share of troubles. Sometimes one of the rivers changes course, depositing a bank of silt next to the sluice gate, so the water inside the polder cannot drain out.  Other problems are man-made. Loggers float timber down the canals, and when the logs reach the sluice gates, the workers take the easy route to the river. Instead of hoisting the logs around the sluice gate, the loggers force the timber through the delicate metal gates, twisting and denting them so they no longer open and close. Wealthy, powerful people sometimes block the drainage canals to raise fish in them. Or they string nets over the canal to catch fish. But this slows down the flow of water, allowing silt to settle and eventually block the canal. The canals are as wide as a highway, and can be just as difficult to maintain. So once the drainage canal stops working, villagers are unable to open them up again without help from outsiders.

The polders are essentially a government mega-project, which sounds at first like a recipe for disaster. But as one drives along the top of a polder embankment, the muddy river on one side and the tidy green fields and villages on the other, it is hard to ignore the fact that the government got something right.

Ironically, country that is flooded during the rainy season may be completely dry a few months later. Various initiatives are now promoting dry-season irrigation for high value crops besides rice, and the farmers in the polders are avidly buying motorized pumps. In many places the rich, black earth inside the polders is now producing two or three crops a year of rice, mung beans, mustard, watermelon and vegetables.

Such changes in the farming system are creating more wealth for the farmers in those polders that are well run. But it will take collaboration, for local government to protect the canals and embankments, for the private sector to provide farm supplies and buy the produce and especially for innovative farmers, to continue re-inventing the agriculture of this marvelous, human-made environment.

Further reading

In characteristic modesty it was some time before my friend Salahuddin told me that he had written his masters’ thesis on the polders of Bangladesh.

Salahuddin, Ahmad 1995 Operation and Maintenance of Small Scale Flood Control Projects: Case of Bangladesh Water Development Board. Master’s Thesis: Institute ofSocial Studies, The Hague.

See also Paul’s blog from last week on coastal Bangladesh: Floating vegetable gardens.

Acknowledgement

I am indebted to Md. Harun-ar-Rashid, Guy Jones and many others for enlightening me about polders on a recent trip to Bangladesh, supported by the Blue Gold Program, with funding from the Embassy of the Netherlands. Thanks to Harun-ar-Rashid, Ahmad Salauddin, Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for reading and remarking on previous versions.

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The tyrant of the Andes August 20th, 2017 by

Near my home in Cochabamba, Bolivia, there is a park named after the most famous Viceroy of the Andes, Francisco de Toledo. A statue of the stern Viceroy frowns at passers-by, suggesting that Toledo was a tough administrator, but a recent history by Jeremy Mumford confirmed just how bad Toledo was for Andean farmers.

Francisco de Toledo was born in 1515 and was raised in the royal households of Spain. In 1565 King Phillip II appointed Toledo to be the Viceroy of Lima, to rule in the king’s name over a vast area that is now roughly the modern states of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Toledo’s instructions were to reform taxes, improve government and introduce the Spanish Inquisition to South America.

Before leaving Spain for his new post, Toledo read through reams of letters and reports from officials and travelers archived by the Spanish crown in Seville. He concluded that the main problems of the Andes were “drunkenness and idolatry.” Drunkenness was simply drinking low-alcohol, homemade maize beer (chicha); idolatry was observing rituals, including the prayers and offerings that farmers made at planting and harvest time.

Other Spanish writers had complained about indigenous drinking and the survival of pre-Hispanic spirituality. Toledo’s innovation was to decide that the best way to exterminate these humble pleasures was not with an inquisition (individual court cases), but with a “reducción general,” a general resettlement.

Prior to Toledo’s arrival, the Spanish had resettled indigenous peoples in the Caribbean, Mexico and Guatemala, but not in the Andes. Resettlement was a harsh and elegant idea. All native peoples were forced to settle into planned towns of about 2000 people, laid out with straight streets around a plaza with a church where the residents could receive Christian instruction. It was easier for colonial authorities to keep an eye on people if they were gathered into a town.

Toledo arrived in Lima in November, 1569, and left just 11 months later with a large entourage of officials for a five-year tour that would pass through Cusco, PotosĂ­, Chuquisaca, and Arequipa, in what is now the southern Andes of Peru, and highland Bolivia.

Although the crown was losing enthusiasm for native resettlement, Toledo pressed ahead, forcing Andean farmers to move from scattered villages to live in towns which were often a day’s walk or more from their fields. This made it hard to do the agricultural work that was the basis of the tribute that native people paid the Spanish.

Demanding a tribute was an old idea. Before the Spanish conquest, the Incas had also taxed the local people, in goods and in forced labor, but the Incas had enough local knowledge to leave farm communities with enough food to survive. The Spanish lacked this intuition and tried to maintain tribute at high, fixed levels, even as the native population declined. The results were disastrous.

About 1.4 million Andean people were assigned houses in town and ordered to destroy their old homes. Toledo’s laws for resettlement show how he created new layers of bureaucracy to oversee resettlement. But few reports have survived on what actually happened on the ground.

It seems that many Andeans continued to live near their farms, with or without permission. Farmers might report to the town center just once a year for major festivals. Other native people resisted resettlement through the courts, appealing and often being granted the right to form satellite settlements nearer their fields.

In spite of resistance, resettlement meant that many small villages were indeed consolidated into fewer large towns. Famines and epidemics ensued, in part because the crowded towns spread disease and because after paying tribute, people starved on the meagre amounts of food left. As the population declined, many Andeans escaped their tribute obligations by leaving to find work in the cities or on Spanish haciendas (large farms). The people who were left behind had to work just that much harder.

A viceroy, literally “vice-king”, reigned like a monarch over distant American provinces, with the power to make laws, wage war, and sentence people to death. Communication with the Spanish crown was slow. Over the years, many wrote letters of complaint to the king. Some were justified, as when native peoples protested corrupt priests or the resettlement. Other complaints now seem laughable, as when the encomenderos (the heirs of the conquistadores) whined that Toledo had stripped them of their authority (but not their rents). Toledo himself eventually grew tired of ruling the Andes and begged Philip to replace him. Twelve years after Toledo arrived he sailed back to Spain in 1581, a figure so unpopular that the king refused to grant him a high office, the usual reward for a returning viceroy. Toledo retired to one of his estates, where he died alone.

Toledo was an unbending idealist determined to stamp out what comfort a conquered people could find in a drink and in ancestral rituals. According to Jeremy Mumford’s analysis, Toledo’s resettlement ranks as one of the earliest and grandest feats of modern rural social engineering, mirrored 400 years later by other miserable failures such as Julius Nyerere’s model villages in Tanzania, or the Soviet collective farms.

The resettlement also failed to achieve Toledo’s two main aims in the Andes: chicha is still popular and so are Andean rituals, at least in Bolivia, where burnt offerings to the Pacha Mama (Earth Mother) are widely and openly practiced, even by the Hispanic middle class.

Agricultural policies must be drafted by pragmatists, not by idealists. And parks shouldn’t be named after tyrants.

Further reading

Mumford, Jeremy Ravi 2012 Vertical Empire: The General Resettlement of Indians in the Colonial Andes. Durham: Duke University Press. 293 pp.

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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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Your own piece of land July 30th, 2017 by

In earlier blog stories Jeff, Eric and myself have written about the value of growing and processing one’s own food. For people who don’t own their own land, one alternative is the allotment.

Allotments or community gardens are small plots cultivated by individuals who abide by rules set by the land owner, often a local council but sometimes the Christian Church, a private company or individual willing to provide a social service. Non-commercial gardeners pay a modest annual rent against the security over a longer-term land tenancy.

While a new trend of urban gardening is sparked by a young generation in favour of eating healthy food that is produced with minimal food miles, few people realize that allotment schemes originated out of a need of food security.

Across most of Europe, industrialisation in the 19th and early 20th century drove people from the countryside to the cities in search of jobs. Their working and living conditions were often appalling and, coupled with poor nutrition, meant that early deaths in a family were common. Church authorities and local councils started “gardens of the poor”. Railroad companies also allotted plots of land to their workers. The stretches of land along the sides of the railway were unsuitable for general agriculture, but offered a good opportunity for the large workforce to grow their own food. Through this social service, companies kept their workforce happy.

Your own piece of landDuring the first and second World Wars it became a real challenge to bring enough food from the countryside to the cities. Most of the male workforce was called up by the armed forces. Fuel was also rationed and prioritised for moving soldiers, weapons and supplies. As ships were no longer able to import as much food, the British government launched a “digging for victory” campaign that used waste ground, railway edges, gardens, sports fields and golf courses for farming or vegetable growing. Victory gardens were also planted in backyards and on apartment-building rooftops. By 1943, the number of allotments had peaked at an estimated 1.75 million.

To support newcomer growers, many of whom did not have prior farming expertise, numerous radio and TV programmes were developed to strengthen people’s skills while at the same time instilling a communal pride in the nation.

When looking at today’s allotment plots a few things strike the eye: each plot shows a unique mix of innovations as tenants experiment to get the best out of their garden. And secondly, the soil is often quite black indicating the many years the soil has been nourished with organic matter. Long-term leases encourage gardeners to cherish the land and invest in its future.

Throughout history and across countries, allotment gardens have taken many shapes and forms. Many that were started under the pressure of war continued long into peacetime, in part because of demands from gardeners who loved being outdoors and growing their own produce. While allotments often started as poverty relief, they now help salaried professionals unwind from the stress of the office. Like agriculture, gardening evolves, and does more than just produce food.

Credit

The British “Dig on for Victory” poster was produced by Peter Fraser.

References

David Matless 2016. Landscape and Englishness. London: Reaction Books. 491 pp.

Related blog stories

A farm in the city (urban agriculture)

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