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Modern ideas for an ancient land July 10th, 2016 by

In his beautifully crafted book, A Shepherd’s Life, British farmer James Rebanks describes what it is like to grow up on a smallholding in the north of England, in the mountainous country called the Lake District. He describes how it feels to be sitting in a concrete school building, enduring a lesson on Esperanto (the artificial language), when one could have been helping one’s grandfather catch a badger. Or the frustration of watching a hay wagon turn over late on a summer day, and all the bales will have to be dragged up the slope and restacked in the gathering twilight.

Hill scene LD 1smallThe book catches the dynamic tension of blending an ancient herding way of life with newer technology. The sub-title calls it: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. Rebanks muses that if a Viking shepherd were suddenly resurrected on the mountainside on a fine day in late summer, he would feel at home, watching the men and women use their dogs to gather the sheep from the upland pastures. The Old Norse visitor would understand that the farmers were guiding their flocks to winter shelter.

Windermere smallFarming in the Lake District involves aesthetics as well as economics. For example, farmers take pride in rebuilding a handsome stone wall so that the flat, mossy slabs are back on top of the wall. At livestock shows, one particular old breed of sheep (Herdwick) is died red for the audience, as though the animal had rusted from the neck down.

Yet it is hard to make enough money in the sheep business. The price of wool is abysmal, thanks to competition with synthetic fibers. So farmers adapt in an effort to stay profitable. As Rebanks says of his grandfather’s career.

“(He) was an opportunist, like so many of his peers. If pigs paid, breed or fatten pigs. If Christmas turkeys paid, fatten turkeys. If selling eggs paid, get hens. If wool was wanted, grow wool. If milk paid, milk cows. If fattening bullocks paid, buy bullocks. Adjust. Adapt. Change.”

James Rebanks continues to adjust and adapt, unselfconsciously describing the various modern vaccines, antibiotics and topical ointments that he applies to keep his sheep alive and healthy. He mentions his new metal barn, which was no doubt fast to build, spacious and easy to connect to electricity. It is a practical place for tending the sheep in the dark winter evenings.

Paradoxically, Rebanks says “resisting change is key for us.” I think I know what he means. Farmers have to always accept new ideas with some rational skepticism. On the Rebanks’ farm, new improved breeds of sheep were more profitable than the ancient breeds, but only as long as feed and fuel were cheap. When costs rose, the hardier native breeds became more profitable again, and more farmers switched back to them. The local sheep could withstand the northern winters and grow fat on the upland pasture.

The point Redbanks makes is not that the old ways are always better, but that smallholders must constantly use their creativity to adapt and be inventive. Never forget or abandon the old technologies completely because some day they will be useful again. Old breeds of animals cannot be recovered once they have become extinct. As Rebanks puts it “some of the smartest people I know are semi-literate.” I couldn’t agree more.

Further reading

Rebanks, James 2015 The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. New York: Flatiron Books. 293 pp.

The website www.accessagriculture.org hosts videos for creative smallholder farmers (literate and illiterate), who are looking for new ideas to experiment with.

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