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