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A call to farms: how a London barrister rediscovered her agricultural roots

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

Rooted: Stories of Life, Land and a Farming Revolution Sarah Langford

Viking, pp.336, 16.99

Farming threaded its way through the fields, mud, hedgerows and lifeblood of the people who made up Sarah Langford’s childhood. But her grandfather, ‘an oak of a man’ with his high-waisted trousers and ‘smelling of butter, honey and dust’, occupies no romantic sepia image in her memory. A tenant farmer, proud to have provided for the local Hampshire population during the second world war, he remains in the author’s mind a figure unfaded in achievement and identity.

Having spent her early adult years as a successful London-based barrister, Langford and her husband were bringing up their two young sons with hard pavement beneath their feet until a sudden job loss and a wipe-out fire changed their lives. The family’s arrival ‘by accident’ to manage a small Suffolk farm coincided with a national farming revolution taking place, even within the rich, pliable fields surrounding their newly rented cottage. Pledging herself to connect with a surprising and often confusing environment, almost unrecognisable from that of her grandfather, Langford immerses herself in the land, allowing the earth to settle beneath her fingernails, while applying an irrepressibly enquiring mind to inform herself about the reasons for and the possible solutions to such turmoil.

At the beginning of the second world war Britain was importing 70 per cent of its nutritional requirements. By 1945, ‘hero’ farmers such as Sarah’s grandfather were producing three-quarters of our needs. For a while, innovative machinery and chemicals provided deceptively magical assistance. But the resulting unforeseen destruction of soil, habitats and the attendant ecological peril coincided with overproduction within the European Community and a drop in prices. More recently, a gradual reduction of old, dependable subsidies has threatened the erosion of farming income still further, with the disappearance of 10,000 farms forecast in the next decade.

Shot through with tenderness and admiration for the farmers she meets, Langford’s enthralling book is an unignorable call to understand the challenges facing not only farming but the Earth itself. Part memoir, part social history, the narrative is based on the experiences of a series of regenerative, courageous farmers, demonstrating their infinitely varied means of maintaining a livelihood while coaxing a fragile planet into nourishing a world dependant on them for food and survival.

As Langford follows the ebb and flow of seasons, as swallows skim the skies, lambs are born and much-loved cows reach the end of their lives, I found myself drawn into her world, a fascinated, shocked, moved beneficiary of her own discoveries, truth-telling and unflinching observations. The rare sight of a hare, the swoop of an owl, the mysteries of a spider’s web, the prickliness of ‘straw stubble poking through a rug’ at harvest time prompt Proustian flashes of a childhood that she hopes might become that of her own children.

There is no underpinned sentimentality here, no soft-focus Lawrentian threshing by moonlight. Farming has always been vulnerable to the whims of weather, disease, foxes digging their ravenous way beneath the wire of chickens’ enclosures and, here, the heartbreak of miscarriage brought on by Langford’s inadvertent brush with electric fencing. Blood, guts, excrement and death occupy the same frame as a ‘shimmer’ of buttercups, the ghostly outline of a possibly medieval hedge, and the breathtaking discovery of gigantic elms untouched for generations.

This is a century in which farming has become increasingly vulnerable to world economics, scientific knowledge and the very earth from which it once profited. Farmers’ salaries have dropped by 60 per cent over the past six years, the plunge exacerbated by Brexit and the EU’s subsidy withdrawal, resulting in an acceleration of an already tumultuous rethink.

Langford listens to the cacophony of revisionists, experimentalists, economists, nutritionists, catastrophists and faddists, to views that are variously suggested, accepted, rejected and imposed on families for whom a tie to the land has been their pride for centuries. She treads with care and respect, acutely conscious of her own ‘outsiderness’. And as her confidence grows, she gradually earns the esteem and trust of a community in which she has become rooted.

There is no one answer to overcoming resistance to change, to reacting when change overreaches itself and demands reversal, or to how regeneration sits beside scientific advance; no single solution to how we square the needs of a billowing world population with the ecological survival of the planet. But Langford hopes that, while acknowledging the groundswell of imaginative theory and technological invention, a trust placed in farming methods rooted in the distant past might provide solutions for our future mental and physical health and to world sustainability.

Her determination to identify where we now belong within a landscape that has changed so much since our childhoods has transformed the way this reader thinks about an ancient and vital profession. Rooted is a beautiful and rousing book.

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