if you don’t like the system, don’t depend on it


I’d chanced upon a remark from an American journalist that made me think “if you don’t like the system, don’t depend on it”. When I read that, I was living in one of the most rural parts of France, an area where you can’t go far without seeing a veg patch and some chickens. Emboldened by the successes of my neighbours, I started reading about how to do it myself. Until I was 35 years old, I’d never planted a bedding plant never mind sown a seed. The first time I walked down to the greenhouse and saw seeds sprouting, it was a revelation. When, a few weeks later, this became food on the table, it changed my life. Why isn’t this the basis of our education? From the simple wonder of watching seeds turn into tomato plants grew a fascination with the processes at work in the soil that allow this miracle to unfold. Shortly followed by shock at the disaster that is our agricultural industry.

Stories of the soil are linked irrevocably with stories of civilisation. From the moment nomadic tribes settled in an area and began to resew the seeds of their preferred crops, the maintenance of the fertility of the soil became of prime importance. In the end, all civilisations have failed because their agriculture has failed. Today, aware of our failing industrialised agriculture, China is trying to secure its food supply by buying huge tracts of land in Africa. But the Romans did the same thing. As their rural population disappeared into the legions, family farms passed down through generations were bought up by distant landlords cultivating large acreages with the use of slave labour. The result was a rapid pillaging of the fertility of the land. As yields fell, they looked abroad for their food, and for many years cultivated their wheat in what is now part of the Sahara desert. A manmade desert created by the Romans’ exploitative agricultural practices. It’s all about soil.

The more I discovered about our food, the more I recognized that soil is at the heart of everything. The history of the plough, responsible for huge amounts of soil erosion, is a classic example of how moments of chance turn untruths into received wisdom that can go unchallenged for generations. Never far from centre stage are the agricultural corporate interests inflicting unimaginable damage on future generations for a few years of shareholders’ dividends. Our relationship with the soil shrinks time and our total dependance on it engenders humility.

Out in the western USA, a farmer described a moment in the early 50s when he was persuaded to buy his first car. Up until that time, he ran a little mixed farm on which he lived comfortably, exchanging with neighbours and without much need for cash. It was a farm on which the mixture of crops and livestock kept the fields fertile and the harvests steady. Then he went to fill up his car with petrol for the first time and as he handed over the money, he realised that from then on, the need to generate cash meant that his soils’ fertility was going to be ‘handed over to the money men in the east.’ He described it as the end of real farming. It’s a key point in time for many writers, the beginning of what was once called the ‘green revolution’ but is in fact the point after which we no longer lived off the interest of the earth’s immense fertility but chose to cash in its capital.

The decision to take on our farm was a decision based in part on a desire to join the small but growing ranks of farmers showing there’s a better way and writing the evidence on the land. But it was also because once you’ve seen dead soil brought back and teeming with life again, seeds become food, animals and plants interacting in their spectacular equilibrium, you can’t walk away. It’s like going deep into old woodland; something profound happens. Preoccupations fade; technological noise becomes comically superficial; a deep and timeless attraction unfolds. On the farm, this feeling is never far away, despite broken machinery, paperwork and the despair of a field of wheat that comes up as irregularly as an adolescent’s beard.

Despite the rather desperate straits of our ecosystems and food supply, seeing firsthand the near universal appeal of a reconnection with our natural world makes the story a hopeful one. A society reengaged in with its own local food supplies would deal with a host of problems; from health and happiness to decentralisation, sustainability and wealth distribution. There’s hope too because like many others before me, I’ve seen that given a chance, nature’s powers of recovery are boundless.

Andy Cato