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1st September, 2005

When people take part in the seasonal and cyclical activites of growth they are more able to put things into perspective - to make decisions that are governed by life-sustaining principles over and above financial incentive

Often, on a Saturday morning, my nine-year-old son is up before seven o’clock, eager to go and help on the family farm before breakfast. He goes whatever the weather. This is voluntary. He is neither expected nor paid to help. He loves it. Isaac believes in farming. He has little concept of the complexities of global markets, agribusiness, politics or subsidies. However, there is no question in his mind that the land and the animals need to be tended in all weathers, and that farm produce feeds the community.

During his first year at school Isaac’s teacher noted that he spent ‘too much’ time looking out of the window when he should have been ‘concentrating’. Isaac told me, with a child’s candour, that he was ‘just wishing that he was out there’. I found myself wondering whether the curriculum was not a little narrow, and a little inflexible in its concept of education.

My children often question their education in relation to the rest of their lives on our farm.

Finn: ‘Why did we have to plant potatoes in pots at school?’

Angus: ‘Why can you only learn things in classrooms?’

Isaac: ‘Why do we have to go to school when we need to help with the shearing?’

Finn: ‘Why do you have to take money to the school harvest festival?’ (The school doesn’t know what to do with marrows and cabbages.)

I cannot answer these questions adequately in defence of modern education.

Farming is important. The outdoor world is where life happens. Growing food is a very real part of life. It is a simple wisdom understood by children (at least those who are lucky enough to remain in touch with such things). Archaeologists have found evidence of agricultural activities dating back more than 10,000 years. It is most likely that farming began in a very small and rather insignificant way: nomadic hunter-gatherers began to take a few animals along with them for milk/ eggs/ meat/ furs; or perhaps they spread the seeds of edible plants over an area and returned to the same spot the following year; and this meant that there was less hardship and loss of life over the winter months.

The beginnings of agriculture represented a shift in
consciousness. The world was no longer perceived simply as an all-providing and all-taking away Eden, but rather as a garden in which humanity can take an active part, thus affecting its own destiny.

In its simplest form this change in human consciousness and activity was a creative change. It improved the overall chance of survival. It was sustainable. To use the natural fertility of the soil, the natural capacity for growth and regeneration, the sunlight and the rain in
order to promote survival is, and always has been, sustainable.

Over thousands of years the earth and humanity evolved and changed, and people developed ever more sophisticated methods of producing food and fuel and other materials from the land. I can imagine how, over the course of time, those who invested their blood, sweat and tears into agriculture developed a sense of ownership – first, with the produce from the land, and later of the land itself.

At some point the urge to work hard and to maximise personal survival and to stake a claim in personal endeavour actually becomes a destructive process. It overrides the sense of earth or cosmos or even just community, and it begins to ignore the interdependence of all life. It is perhaps ironic that our fierce drive to survive in ‘the marketplace’ is becoming our nemesis: ‘successful’ farmers in UK, like so many others, compete with their neighbours, cheat their neighbours, scrabble for government subsidies, plunder earth’s resources in order to grow more and earn more, parade their wealth in the form of ever bigger and shinier and oil-consuming vehicles. This is the survival of the fittest at its most surreal. This is not sustainable farming; this is agribusiness.

There is so much that has been cast aside which has to do with our relationship with the earth. Returning to a way of life which is balanced and which supports the earth is not going backwards; developing impressive, but ultimately destructive technology is not going forwards.

As a society we have to change in order to become environmentally, socially and financially sustainable. More than this, we need to ‘feel’ sustained. Somehow we have to pick out the good things in life and go for them – the things that make us fulfilled, happy, healthy‚Ķ the things that have soul. Sustainable farming is a part of this. When people take part in the seasonal and cyclical activities of growth, when they learn to work with the earth, to understand the source of life, then they are more able to put things into perspective – to make decisions that are governed by life-sustaining principles over and above financial incentive.

Rural communities everywhere across the world offer a window to a more natural way of life, while city and community farms offer people from urban walks of life the chance to participate in this closeness to the earth. Education should help to develop our affinity with nature and the basics of life; it should never alienate us from our source.

I sit at my computer, filling out data for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Every cow has a number. ‘Friendly’ has just had a calf. Its number is UK362695 600192. I record the date of birth, number of mother, breed, colour, place of birth. I record every movement on and off the farm. I have a couple of other forms to fill in this week, and accounts to be kept up to date, and I mustn’t forget animal health records‚Ķ

I remind myself that we have a real farm beyond this computer screen: a beautiful farm where food grows and wildlife is abundant and children play; a sustainable and sustaining farm that links us – vitally – to the earth.

Rachel Francis, together with her husband and children, runs a small family farm in west Devon

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2002


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