Tag Archives: agriculture.

“The Shepard’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape” by James Rebanks

This autobiographical book is magical! Rebanks was born into a sheep farming family in England’s Lake District. Farmers and their livestock (mostly sheep) are tied to their land by intense historical and cultural bonds. The sheep are raised on land too steep and rough for other agriculture (and possibly for other human use). Most of the sheep fend for themselves several months of the year, taking advantage of summer pastures held as “common” land, now generally owned by the British National Trust. Sheep are raised for meat, though much of their economics is determined by their breeding value. I was surprised to learn that wool no longer has much market value. The sheep must be shorn for their own health, but sometimes the wool is discarded, not being worth transport to market. I wonder if wool may regain its value in the future.

Rebanks builds his narrative around the seasons. Winter in the Lake District sounds brutal. It would be hard even if one wasn’t keeping livestock out of doors.

The Shepard’s Life was not written as a critique of the English educational system, but it can and should be read as such. Local teachers, no doubt with good intentions, told farm kids they should “think big”, consider careers off the farm and out in the “wider” world. The cumulative impact of these statements was to devalue the lives and business enterprises of the farm families.

Of his school’s headmistress, he says “The idea that we, our fathers, and mothers might be proud, hardworking, and intelligent people doing something worthwhile or even admirable was beyond her”.

Children became alienated from school by the time they reached their early teens, and they “acted out” with rudeness and delinquency. Rebanks stopped attending school before the age of 16. He was completely determined to follow in the footsteps of his beloved grandfather, who taught him “sheparding”, a way of life on the land handed down through generations and generations of farmers.

Rebanks’ father was “semiliterate” and scornful of education, but his mother wanted him to finish school. She valued reading. Once out of school, Rebanks became an avid reader. Eventually he attended night classes to prepare for university. His interview with Oxford included a heated argument with a tutor. Most of the time that he was enrolled, he returned home regularly to work on the farm.

Sheep farming in the Lake District provides only a subsistence income. Like many farmers, Rebanks has worked at other jobs in order to keep farming. He serves as a consultant to UNESCO on ecotourism. He jumped into the social media scene with a Twitter account in 2012. It was a surprise runaway hit, leading to an article in The Atlantic magazine and then to the book. Does this mean I should join Twitter?? (No… too little time!)

The lifestyle occupied by the Lake District sheep farmers occupies an interesting “niche”. It’s not “indigenous”, like that of the Inuit and other far northern people. It’s a little less secluded than the Amish. It carries all kinds of cultural implications, but doesn’t involve bilingualism.

In using a freely available biological resource, there is some resemblance between Rebanks’ sheparding and the cattle raising described in Bryce Andrews Badluck Way. (See my blog entry dated April 17, 2014.) But the cattle ranching in the American West lacked any cultural context. It was a desperate attempt to wring a profit from a dry, harsh landscape. No wonder Andrews only worked on the ranch for a single year. Nonetheless, each of these farmers has a complex relationship to a landscape and its ecosystems. I would love to hear a conversation between the two of them!

Read this book, brush up on William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, and if you get to England, put the Lake District onto your itinerary.

“The Good Food Revolution – Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities” by Will Allen with Charles Wilson

Will Allen is 65 years old, just like me. He was born into very different circumstances. When I read this book, I had to keep reminding myself that his childhood and youth did not take place “far away and long ago”. We were separated by maybe 500 miles in distance, and no time at all. But I didn’t “meet” him until I read this book.

Will Allen was born in Maryland, into a poor African American family from South Carolina. His parents were hard working and incredibly self-reliant. Allen credits his highly athletic physique to a childhood of hard work and healthy food. He discovered basketball early in his teens and used it as his path away from poverty. I’m familiar with the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the South to northern cities, and even with some of the reverse migration that followed. (There’s a demographer in the family. Hi, JBC!) But it never occurred to me to analyze it from the viewpoint of food and nutrition! Will Allen writes about this with great clarity.

Allen’s depiction of pre-Migration families eating healthy homegrown food is somewhat at odds with tales told by my father-in-law, a North Carolina university physician whose father practiced rural medicine before him. His descriptions of country life among the poor included appallingly bad health and severe malnutrition. Maybe life in the coastal plain of North Carolina was harder than in South Carolina or Virginia.

But there’s no arguing with Allen’s assertion that, once at their urban destinations, African Americans and other poor people faced (and continue to face) many barriers to healthy eating. For three decades, I’ve watched Atlantic City struggle to retain a single supermarket. If you don’t have a car, buying a week’s worth of food at a time isn’t going to happen, and if you are working two jobs, how much can you cook? Cheap, starchy food isn’t very satisfying, so obesity sometimes catches up with you.

Will Allen is one very creative farmer! I’ve farmed a little, with an oddball list of shaky successes – blackberries to die for, okra, basil, yard-long Chinese beans. But I’ve also been frequently defeated (by deer, weather, etc.), and have decided to leave agriculture to my more talented and hardworking neighbors. Allen preaches patience and plainly has learned, over time, how to make barren, desolate areas productive. Allen branched out beyond vegetables to raising chickens and even fish.

Along the way, he has involved schools and neighborhood centers and cooperatives. He has figured out how to go vertical, crowding multiple crops into small areas. Presently, he works both on crops/projects that are economically viable and ones that require subsidies. He identifies ENERGY as a major barrier to urban agriculture in his city of Milwaukee.

I love Allen’s vision of bringing food closer to people and people closer to food. I know people who are working along the same lines in Atlantic City and even Camden, the saddest city I know. I wish them all the greatest possible success.

Lillian Beckwith – an English woman writes about Scotland

I was browsing my shelves, desperate to find something that could be discarded. We have too many books! We part with them very reluctantly… 

This week I am taking care of cats and house for vacationing neighbors, who have even more books than we do. I looked at their shelves and wondered – what if I moved some of my books into their house? would they notice? Probably not… A silly idea!

So maybe I will buy another bookshelf.

I found three books to consider for disposal, paperbacks from Lillian Beckwith’s seven book “Skye” series. These are almost fictional memoirs from the author’s time in the West of Scotland, where she went for rest after an illness. She was so taken by the quiet life of a croft village  that she moved in and did some farming. Her accounts of the people, agriculture and landscape are vivid and often amusing. These books have been in and out of print and I don’t think Kindle editions are available.

If in a quibblesome frame of mind, one might feel that Beckwith took advantage of her (generous and eccentric) neighbors by writing about them. However, these memoirs were written two generations ago, and I think we can assume they were innocently written and published.

These memoirs are notable because they describe “croft” farming, a land use system found only in Scotland. Crofters raise some “private” crops but pasture cattle on commonly owned land. A primary landowner (laird) carries some responsibility for the community. This is a way to use land that is too steep, too rocky and too poor for conventional farming. In the past, crofting provided a meager living. The system has evolved and is still practiced in Scotland.

Beckwith also wrote an equal number of novels, some children’s books and a cookbook. I hope to read the novels at some point. I encountered a review describing her work as a “comfort read”. Yes! Now, does anyone want these three books?