A Farmer’s Journey
By James Rebanks
Far too little of the ink spilled on the ethics of food production has come from those who are closest to the subject: farmers themselves. Thank the gods of agriculture for James Rebanks, whose new book, “Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey,” tackles the confounding problem of how to make money from land without wrecking it.
Rebanks’s 2015 memoir, “The Shepherd’s Life,” told the story of how he, a dropout kid from a hardscrabble farm in England’s Lake District, fell into Oxford, got a posh education, became wildly homesick for his land and sheep, and returned home to figure out how to make a life there for himself and his family. It became a best seller, and since then, Rebanks has used his platform to address the complex issues of sustainable agriculture.
His ideas are couched in a lyrical narrative of experience, tracing 40 years and three generations of farming on his family’s land as it is buffeted by the incredible shifts in scale, market, methods and trade rules that have changed farming all over the world. His grandfather, who taught him the craft of farming, worked the land as the era of small-scale mixed farming that had been the traditional standard for centuries was coming to an end. We experience that esoteric life through Rebanks’s evocative storytelling, learning with him to appreciate not only the sheep and crops he’s learning to tend, but the wild plants and animals that live among and around them. As global changes reach their village, his father takes over the farm and becomes pinched between tradition and the weight of debt; he tries to scale up and intensify his methods, in order to meet the downward pressure of market prices, and loses much of the joy and beauty of his work in the process. As Rebanks himself becomes aware of the consequences of the new, ruthless efficiency, he notes how these changes threaten the habitats and ecosystems that the farm had nurtured for centuries, and fray the bonds of his rural community. Rebanks’s difficult job in the third generation is to reinvent the farm in a way that balances the ecological, social and economic accounts.
Rebanks is generous with his descriptions, and patient in explaining the choices farmers make every day that will decide the fate of rural communities and the planet itself, choices “rarely spoken of, shared or understood outside of the closed world of farming.” He addresses what sustainability really means, challenging the myth that simple solutions, like raising all plants and no livestock, or using yet more intensive farming methods, will solve our environmental problems.