A marginal farm anniversary

It was exactly ten years ago today that I and my co-conspirators at Vallis Veg sold our first veg box, as good an anniversary as any to define the point that I became a farmer (perhaps I should say ‘grower’ or ‘market gardener’, but I dislike the way the word ‘farmer’ is policed – a familiar motif in the last decade has involved people of various stripes telling me that I’m not a ‘proper farmer’. To which my considered answer is – Yes I bloody am. And so are you if you grow any food.)

Anyway, I thought I’d indulge myself on my anniversary with a brief memoir of my farming life and the non-farming life that preceded it, if only to try to explain to myself how on earth I ended up doing this. (Apologies for the autobiographical tone that’s crept into these last two posts – normal service will return next time). This post is modelled loosely after another autobiographical essay, Wendell Berry’s ‘The making of a marginal farm’1 – sacrilegiously, perhaps, since I daresay Berry is a considerably better farmer than I am, and a better writer to boot. And yet there are some overlaps and dissonances between his story and mine that interest me. So here goes.

As I related in my previous post, I had a semi-rural/semi-suburban childhood in a village about thirty miles from London. But, unlike Berry, farming or even gardening had a minimal role in my youth. There was a little farming going on in the area, and a handful of farm kids, but farming never really presented itself to me as a viable career option, and wasn’t presented as such by my elders. Though farming didn’t appeal, historically there’d been a furniture industry in the area where I lived, which manifested as large remnant beech woods, full of mysterious bodger’s hollows. As a teenager, I’d go for long solitary walks in the woods and feel some kind of spiritual peace in them that felt lacking elsewhere. For me, the natural world – however trammelled by human hand – figured largely as an arena of escape.

The truth is, despite a happy-enough childhood in a pleasant-enough part of one of the world’s richer countries, I never really felt from a young age that the kind of society I was growing up in made much sense or answered to people’s fundamental needs. It’s taken me a long time to find a way of being that does make sense and does answer those needs, and I’m still not sure I’ve found it. But I do sometimes think there’s a kind of unbridgeable divide among people in the modern world. Some, like me, can’t understand the appeal of a suburban, salaried, satrapped life, while others slip gladly into its flow. The risk that’s run by my kind is romantic illusions about other kinds of society, a persistent and pervasive sense of alienation, and all manner of grass-is-greenerism that sends us off on one wild goose chase after another. But our great advantage is a perspectival depth that means we shall never, ever write a sentence like this one from Anthony Warner: “every society that has ever existed would eagerly swap their lives with someone living in the developed world today”. And for that, I am truly grateful.

My path out of adolescence took me into an anthropology degree in London where, under the influence of my mostly Marxist teachers and of Michael Taussig’s neat but problematic book The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, I conceived a somewhat overwrought interest in peasant societies as resistant to the modernist logic of capitalism – an interest I pursued to no great effect in brief attempts to be an anthropologist in Mexico and Jamaica before realising that the singular skills of the field ethnographer were permanently beyond my grasp. Perhaps my attempts to get to grips with peasantries wasn’t helped by my ignorance and general lack of interest concerning what peasantries actually do, namely farming. Still, the thinking that I’d done about peasant societies sowed a seed – to coin a horticultural metaphor – that has been important to me later in life.

I then spent ten years trying to fit myself around more-or-less unsuitable jobs in London and environs at the end of which my roles in life were husband, father, and alienated lecturer in sociology with a self-respect that was diminishing by the day. Berry hints at his own alienation as an academic in New York, and his life-changing decision to go back to his native Kentucky. Kentucky, says Berry, was his fate. But for me there wasn’t really anything or anywhere to ‘go back’ to. There was no pre-manufactured ‘fate’ beyond urbanism or suburbanism, no authentic touchstone for my life except what I invented for myself. As per recent discussions on this blog, I honour small farm societies like Berry’s that have retained such a thing, but without surrendering too many of my critical faculties to the lure of tradition. Berry, to be fair, does the same, to some extent.

Around this time my wife went on a permaculture design course and insisted I do likewise. Two weeks at Ragman’s Lane Farm with the late lamented Patrick Whitefield proved revelatory, supplying something of that missing touchstone – farming, gardening, a human ecology wrought from a natural world neither friend nor enemy, a deep entangled history of humans and landscapes opening beneath my feet on the land I’d walked unknowingly for years. More recently I’ve largely parted ways with permaculture – I’ve found the movement around it too given to fixed ideas, complacent dualities and a strident sense of purity. I argued with Patrick, usually amicably, in the early years of this blog about such matters, but I’ve found too many others in the movement less supple in their thinking. Still, for me it was a key to another world and I’ll always be grateful for that.

We spent a couple of years transitioning into agriculture, much of them in Canada, strangely enough. Then in 2003 we bought eighteen acres of pastureland in Somerset. Berry describes his good fortune in having learned how to run a team of horses in his youth, just before the skill receded into history, which established the course of his farming career. I wasn’t quite that lucky, but my wife and I did enjoy one stroke of generational good fortune. We’d bought some property in London in the early 1990s at a time when a young couple doing average-ish jobs could more or less afford to do so – something that would be quite impossible now. That purchase, along with a certain bloody-mindedness, has enabled us to carve out a kind of semi-independent smallholder life that we probably couldn’t otherwise have achieved.

For the first five years of our tenure as rural landowners we did very little on the site except plant trees (a story I’ll relate in another post), grow a little veg and raise a few pigs. We had young children, no house on the site and non-farm work to do to keep the wolf from the door. I fancied myself as a Berry-like figure and dabbled rather ineffectually in creative non-fiction writing. One agent said they liked my manuscript, but I didn’t give enough of myself in it. Another agent said they liked my manuscript, but nobody wanted to listen to a non-entity like me banging on about myself. I decided to give up on my literary pretensions and start a market garden instead.

I’ve rarely been so happy as I was in the early stages of establishing that garden. But it proved to be a fragile happiness. I went about it wrongly, too manically. Having turned my back on a secure professional career to the bemusement of friends and family, I was desperate for the market garden to be successful, naïve about the forces ranged against it, too unskilled and – how easy to see with hindsight – still in mourning for my jettisoned career and a sense of my own importance. One of the problems of modernist culture is that it places too much emphasis on this importance of the unique individual life. One of the problems of many pre-modern cultures is that they placed too little emphasis on it. Independent smallholding cultures are better, I think, at navigating between these perils. Something that working the land has taught me is that the individual person is basically unimportant, but just important enough – and that to a considerable extent the importance is objectified in the particular transformations of the farmed landscape itself. I still have bad days, when I slip into thinking that my life has some kind of higher purpose or distinctive signature that I’m failing to embroider as I should. But mercifully fewer as the years on the land pass by.

Anyway, for five years I grew vegetables and sold them – still living in a house in town some distance from the site. In comparison to the lives that many small farmers lead, I had it easy. But living like this it was hard to make the business and other aspects of my life work, and it took its toll. I don’t think the life of the market grower suits many people, and I wouldn’t unequivocally commend commercial horticulture as a career. Perhaps I should have read my Wendell Berry more attentively:

“it is possible for a family to live on such ‘marginal’ land, to take a bountiful subsistence and some cash income from it and, in doing so, to improve both the land and themselves. (I believe, however, that at least in the present economy this should not be attempted without a source of income other than the farm….To attempt to make a living from such land is to impose a severe strain on land and people alike)”2

Amen to that. Though I’d add that an advantage of commercial husbandry is that it teaches you more quickly than you’d probably learn otherwise about the true costs of human labour and other inputs, the miraculous but Faustian power of fossil fuels, the wisdom of quitting while you’re ahead, and the dismal economics of the food system. By working as a commercial grower, I learned that I’m not an especially good one. Still, the world has more need of second rate farmers than of second rate sociologists…and I also learned through doing it that, whatever my limitations, the struggles of farmers and growers to stay afloat don’t arise out of the fact that they’re not good at what they do. This has stood me in good stead for looking unflinchingly in the face of the endless claims one encounters about new ways of farming that are supposedly better for the environment while making more money too, and also in the face of the endless claims that farmers doing bad environmental things are bad people.

Since 2013, I’ve no longer been the main commercial grower at Vallis Veg. But we do now live on our land – a struggle documented on this website – which has eased many former burdens. My roles today encompass tractor driver, mechanic, stockman, woodsman, fencer, plumber, carpenter, electrician, subsistence gardener, purveyor of stale urine and general éminence grise in the market garden – though the current growing team are doing a much better job than I did running the show, so I fear it’s more a case of grise than éminence. I wouldn’t say I’m especially competent at most of the roles I listed, but I’m more competent at them than when I first started, and I daresay more competent than I would have been if I’d stayed a sociologist – and I get some satisfaction from that. The truth is that I burned myself out a little trying to run a market garden as I did. But looking back on it now, most of the relationships I have that matter to me feel like they’ve been strengthened through some tempering in that fire, and I feel happy that I’ve helped to create a thriving homestead flowing with people, livestock and wildlife, out of modest beginnings. I’ve encountered a little carping of one sort or another about what we do and how and how we do it. Ah well, there’s plenty that we’ve done or failed to do worth carping over for those who wish to carp. But there’ve been a lot of positive interactions too, and for all our errors I feel a sense of achievement that we’ve somehow kept a small farm business on the road for a decade.

Ah yes, errors. We’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, and there are many things I’d do differently if I had the chance again. But we haven’t made many head-in-hands mistakes that cause me to lose much sleep. The commonest mistakes fall into four main categories, 1. Not knowing what I’m doing, 2. Following someone else’s advice without devoting enough thought to whether it’s right for me and my land, 3. Taking on too many different things, 4. Over-dominating a job with too much fossil fuel.  Perhaps all but the last of these categories are reducible to the first, but the worst mistakes have involved all four. Like Berry, probably my worst one was digging a pond that didn’t really work. But I can’t quite summon the Homeric levels of tragic self-critique that Berry does over his failed project. I used less fossil fuel in making it than I’d have done on a frivolous trip to London to see a friend or see a show, and I’ll get it to work somehow next year. Or the one after. Probably. I also console myself with the thought that people who use fossil fuel and don’t know what they’re doing probably cause less damage in the world than people who use fossil fuel and do.

Talking of fossil fuels, the basic reality of global farming today is that those with access to them can produce food more cheaply. This drives a global division of labour: capital-intensive mechanised farming in the rich countries, labour-intensive less mechanised farming in the poor countries. Which explains why there isn’t much market gardening in Britain, and the country’s biggest food trade deficit – around £9 billion – falls in the fresh fruit and vegetables sector. Berry concludes his essay with these words,

“To spend one’s life farming a piece of the earth…is, as many would say, a hard lot. But it is, in an ancient sense, the human lot. What saves it is to love the farming”3

Wise words, no doubt – but to love the farming in a global economic context that writes its economic bottom line in diesel is not only a hard thing, but a conflicted thing. I can’t claim to have extracted myself from those dismal economics but my good fortune is that, on the ground and on the page, at least I’ve found some opportunities to try.

Finally, a dedication:

To Cordelia, for sharing the journey

To Moon, for picking up the baton

And to multitudes, for lending a helping hand

Notes

  1. Wendell Berry. 2017. ‘The making of a marginal farm’ in Paul Kingsnorth (ed) The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry. Penguin.
  2. Ibid. pp.44-5
  3. Ibid. p.47

20 thoughts on “A marginal farm anniversary

  1. Yes, congratulations!

    I must offer this as well… even from a perch a solid 3,800 miles away and having never met either of you in person, I would suggest that you have married well. Other twists and turns, mistakes and misjudgments are part and parcel of a life well contested. Family, like farming (and future, and Frome for that matter), may be just another word that starts with ‘F’. But few other words mean as much.

  2. ‘One of the problems of modernist culture is that it places too much emphasis on this importance of the unique individual life.’

    Related to this are the expectations of seeing the benefits of our endeavors in our lifetime. Some changes take decades, or generations, to accomplish, and it may be shortsighted to conclude ‘it’s not really working’. Someone can pick up the baton where we leave it, or stand on our shoulders to climb higher.

    It’s impossible to know the full extent of our influence on others and the ‘ripple effect’ from our actions (which include talking and writing, of course). Your writings have influenced me, no doubt.

    Cheers!

    • To be clear: I’m still at the “working in academia” stage of the story, with a small but intensively cultivated garden. So far, most of my choices (informed by permaculture thinking and a good helping of luck) have panned out ok, which means the big mistakes are yet to come…

      I truly believe that reading of your experience on this blog, and many others’ elsewhere has helped me a great deal, both to make sense of my own experience and to avoid moves I would regret.

  3. Chris, thanks for sharing your journey. I think you’ve made a good success of you “road less taken” and I found many relation points. Like you, I spent much solitary periods in the woods and have always felt a kind of spiritual peace in them. I spent a lot of time watching and studying people around me, and like you I couldn’t make sense of why they behaved the way they did. Life seem full of pursuits that didn’t meet our fundamental needs. I would even say, pursuits that made most people desperately unhappy, and unhealthy.

    I especially understand “mourning for my jettisoned career and a sense of my own importance.” It took a great deal of work and dedication to finish university studies, especially graduate work. To walk away, or perhaps drift away would be a better description for me, and eventually began a career where most often I work with my hands seems difficult to reconcile with the direction I thought I was headed. One needn’t have a PhD to operate a front end loader! But really what is the purpose of learning anything if it doesn’t change our perspective of life?
    I used to believe that humanity had time to change the direction we were headed. But I no longer believe this. About ten years ago I began to understand more clearly the direction we were headed and the urgent need to change. It is easy to feel depressed by the lack of change in the right direction. I don’t know where the future will take us but I’m glad I’ve done what I can to make a difference where I can, and to know that there are people out there with whom I share common values.

    • I’ve spent my life thinking those same thoughts without demanding anyone’s approval.
      Still, it’s very nice to hear them uttered by all of you; makes this peculiar kind of solitude eminently bearable 🙂

  4. it is nice to hear the personal story behind your text. I think I agree with most or all of the conclusions about the situation of market gardening, about permaculture, about the individual and so forth. I have quite similar experiences. In the introduction to my book Garden Earth I wrote the following:

    “In 1977, at the age of 19, I moved to the countryside with my life com-pan¬ion and a few good friends. Our objective was to live simple, in harmony with nature, and to use as environmentally sound and safe technology as possible. We bought Torfolk Farm in a sparsely popu-lated, forested part of Sweden. We started to restore the derelict buildings and to learn the many skills needed to run a self-sufficient organic farm, includ¬ing welding, churning butter and tanning of skins. We lived very simple; produced milk, butter, cheese, meat, potatoes, vegetables and a lot more for our own consumption. For a few years, we also grew grain, but the quality of flour was never up to the mark so we stopped growing grain. Among many useful items, the forest gave us wood for heating and for construction. You learn a lot from such a life—there is a big difference between mastering skills needed for survival and having an ordinary, atomized job and living in an apartment.
    For one reason or another—perhaps because we had children and didn’t want to force them to live as we had chosen, or because we had to pay taxes (also on our own consumption), or simply because we wanted a more comfortable life—we thought we needed more money to be able to buy things. Thus arose a need to develop one or a few of our many trades into a commercial venture—to specialize and commercialize. You can’t make money from a diversified production such as ours, unless you want to run an open-air museum. To specialize you need machinery, and to pay for the machines they need to run as much as possible. We decided to grow organic vegetables. The more commercial we became, the more we had to drop unprofitable activities, including the production of things for self-consumption. Then, we needed more money to buy those things. We mechanized more and expanded, and suddenly our own labour wasn’t enough, so we had to employ people. That changed our view on work; earlier there was really no difference between work and leisure. This classification of work and leisure is meaningless in a self-sufficient economy, as also the distinction between private and belonging to the company. Our way of management also had to change; previously, we had no hierar¬chy, but the employees found it hard to cope with our collective leadership style.
    You could say that we simulated more than 100 years of societal change in just 10 years. We got insights into the pros and cons of the two ways of organizing production, and the drivers that rule us, in ways one is often not conscious of. I became aware of the forceful nature of the capitalist thought pattern or paradigm and how it changed the way we worked and related to each other, with conse-quences going much further than we first realized. This is perhaps the real invisible hand. A gnawing thought is that even if every single choice was rational and reasonable, the end result needn’t necessarily be desirable.

    • That’s fascinating, Gunnar. And highlights that interdependence between technology and economic/social etc organisation.

      Even up until 50 or so years ago much of the technology used on farm was cheap and farm serviceable. The trend has been to big fields and big kits. However, there’s still a lot of small equipment used in parts of Asia and areas of Eastern Europe. My 4WD slasher, I understand, has roots in that part of the world.

      What I think is fascinating is the potential to use distributed manufacturing techniques to build small-farm scale kit incorporating requirements for onfarm servicing, not being too clever with software and sensors just because you can etc Even using patter lathes to make axe handles can be an option for a small manufacturer if the lathe is good enough quality and cheap enough.

  5. Thanks for this portrait Chris, and congratulations on your achievements on a challenging journey. Your thoughts on breaking with traditional academia really touched something in me, almost certainly because I’m not ready to make that same break, and yet, and yet… All credit to you for taking the plunge and making something worthwhile out of it. Here’s to the next ten years!

  6. Yes, more congratulations and thanks from me here too!
    I am happy that you can speak as if all your efforts are adding up to something, and that you are so articulate at sharing it with us.

    The personal really is political, or vice versa, whichever, isn’t it?

    And I believe what you are doing with this blog is really important. The depth and breadth of our predicament is so great that any creative approach to muddling through it can only help.

    I avoided academia because I prefer my regimentation to be material rather than intellectual. Consequently I had to leave the metropolis of my birth before I could make a comfortable living.

    I find that my college town surrounded by agricultural hinterland here suits me fine. I can’t say for certain that my efforts have added up to anything that I can name, but my wife seems happy, more or less.

    Thanks!

  7. Doesn’t ten years fly by fast? Especially when you finally see the goal you hope to reach and hope much there is between you and that goal. We are all on journeys that sometimes seem like uncertain, slow plods in the dark, and other times breakneck rushes down a hill with no brakes.

    First two things that came to mind when I finished your post- I was reminded of the book by Paul Hawken; Blessed Unrest, which tried to shine a light on the millions of emergent efforts to heal and change direction, of which you are one, and Greers admonition to accept, even strive for dissensus. Your path is one of thousands trying to figure out the sustainable way forward. Who knows which will be the best, most successful? We don’t know enough at this time to be deliberate, and time is short, so he urges us all to do something, even if others don’t agree with us. And so you are.

    That in addition to farming, you find the time to create this forum and share your journey is a bonus, and I thank you. Ripple effects happen. Many you will never know about.

  8. Thanks for all those comments and stories – it’s interesting to hear of other people’s experiences. Sorry not to have replied sooner. A busy couple of days…I think I still need to learn the lesson of Simon’s colleagues of how to work fast and easy, but not hard. The folks that can learn that are probably the ones best able to stay in farming, but learning how to work easy isn’t easy… And thanks to everyone for keeping the comments flowing on this blog. It’s a real pleasure to (virtually) meet and learn from people treading similar paths through the woods.

  9. Nicely put, Chris. Thanks for sharing the backstory. I can relate on the pond story, as well. We had a large pond built that never held water. Way too much money later we had it filled in with, count them, 95 dump truck loads of dirt. It serves as a costly reminder of what we don’t know.

    In fact, forget Berry, let’s cite that other august agrarian scribe, Donald Rumsfeld: “We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.”

  10. Congratulations, Chris!
    You’ve got grit, my friend, because starting any business takes tenacity, courage and smarts – and starting a farming business a hundred times so.

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