Farmers can learn a thing or two from the ways of the past
Alongside fellow archeologist Peter Ginn and historian Ruth Goodman, Alex Langlands has lived and worked the land for a calendar year in four different period farms including a Welsh farm in the 1620s, a Shropshire estate in Victorian times, an Edwardian quay-side plot in Devon and, most recently, the ration-challenged Manor Farm during the second World War .
Whether carefully guiding a horse-drawn cart full of quicklime, constructing a wattle-and-daub cowshed with freezing hands or observing the wartime rule of “make do and mend” with silage pits cobbled together from farmyard scraps, it seems as though the take home message from Langlands and his co-presenters is that modern farming could learn a thing or two from the skills – and resilience – shown by our pastoral forebears.
But this isn’t merely misty-eyed romanticism for the old ways; modern, industrialised farming methods can be inspired by the past to adapt to new energy efficient techniques in the face of issues such as fuel shortages and global warming explains Langlands.
“Modern farming technology is designed for mass production with – in some cases – very little consideration for the health of the land. I’m a great believer in the saying that if you look after the land, it will look after you. I’ve always been keen to explore some of those early farming methods; old- style methods have a purpose and function.”
The second World War saw a significant drop in the importation of food to the UK, meaning that British farmers had to step up production and feed a hungry nation. Langlands reflects on the fact that modern large-scale farming techniques and machines, which are now taken for granted, first appeared at this time.
Farming for money
“These technologies were intro- duced out of necessity because we were being confronted with starvation. We had to introduce methods of farming which were really quite brutal in terms of preserving biodiversity and sustainable production.”
It is a real issue that we’ve carried on with those wartime methods and do so, essentially, in pursuit of cheaper food, he adds. “That’s what’s driving our farming methods now; in some ways it’s farming for money rather than farming for food.”
Although he loves the idea of the old tin bath in front of a roaring fire and splitting his own logs from nearby woodlands, Langlands says he’s not advocating a completely technology-free life. “I don’t want to come across as someone who wants to return to the hardships of Victorian times.
“I enjoyed working on the Victorian Farm series because it was very interesting to see the horses work and what they could do in a day; to see how much food they could produce, how much would have gone towards actually feeding them and looking at that balance and closed farming system.”
This idea of balance between making a living from the land while respecting the land is something that Langlands sees as a virtue of pre-industrial farming but also a key aspect of the future of farming.
“In some ways I’m a bit of an old school environmentalist and in others ways I’m a bit of a romantic . . . I see a balance between what we produce, how we produce it and how we consume it,” he explains, adding that much of our modern love of technology is consumption for consumption’s sake.
The battery-powered salt mill many of us have in our kitchens? “This is where technology has gone wrong,” he exclaims. “Look at the embedded carbon costs in something that really only requires hand cranking!”
While modern life encourages conspicuous consumption and planned obsolesce seems to be a normal part of the product lifecycle, this way of life will not last forever because we’re mostly running on fossil fuels.
“I’m not just a romantic environmentalist. There is a reality to the fact that we are going to suffer from an energy crisis – no one’s in doubt about that – it’s how we fill the gap that’s left by cheap fuels.
This is a reality we’ve all got to deal with; environmentalist or not, whether you believe in global warming or not, we’re all going to be confronted with fuel shortages.
“If we do run out of oil, how on earth are we going to fuel a 350-horsepower tractor?”
Langlands likes to think that the farms of the future will understand the delicate balance between consumption and production and that this will be a farm perhaps where Dobbin is as likely to make an appearance as a field of biofuel crops.
Wartime Farm Christmas airs on BBC2 on December 18th.