Under the great expanse of striated sky, my motorbike choked its way out from the winter-womb of Burwell Village. Bottoming down from the low hill, I engaged the straight road that dissipated across the distant levels, like a runway touching down into the heart of the frozen fen. For what seemed like miles, I can remember the blur of slumbering coypus, sedge-whipped dykes and grasses hell bent in January hail. Then, emerging out of the pearl-dawn, came the first landmark of my agricultural career; thousands of bleak acres of vegetables.
Nauseated with the cold, I clambered off my bike to clock on at a desolation row of rickety, corrugated packhouses, barns and workshops. A group of workers were already gathering and huddling up behind the steel sheets in the half light. They were almost embracing each other for their last minutes of shelter before launching out into the ferocious fen for another day of vegetable slashing. All I can remember about those few days that I was able to hold down the job were the mundane, repetitive hours spent hacking my way across a deep frozen prairie of celery. “It was, after all, better than a Russian concentration camp,” I kept telling myself.
The farmwork force clearly felt estranged from what was once their indigenous, native landscape. There was an air of discontented discordance floating amongst them, and they spoke nostalgically of the days the otters were around, before the coypus came. These labourers resented the fact that a mono-arable/vegetable system of farming had been installed two decades ago after a change in the land’s ownership. This had left many of their former workmates jobless, whilst those remaining felt divorced from any aspect of management or relationship with their work. Under the dictates of their new absentee landlord the livestock, the hedges, the muckcarts, the willow thickets, the natural watercourses were all whipped out oven-light, like extracting an omnivorous dentition in readiness for false herbivorous teeth. All the hallmarks of this mixed farming haven have been transfigured into havoc, just to cater for this businessman’s haven for tax losses; losses to offset against the profits from his petro-chemical business.
But I do remember admiring the stamina and reactionary insight of one fossilized, peewit-eyed character called Reg Strawson. He had learned to cope with his present predicament by continually escaping into the rustic memorabilia of his past. Reg was the only charismatic character on the farm. All stitched up in a bizarre agri-apparel of hessian and baler twine, he’d slash out a six hour bout across the oceans of acres of celery; like a flagship adrift, flapping flamboyant strips of spent fertilizer bagging; the last stand of the Olde English fleet in foreign seas. Then he’d perch himself up high on a pulpit of vegetable crates and munch his way through half a dozen harvest pies. With the women mocking him, he’d vent forth his daily parable on the fate of this once -upon-a -time, peaty, organic, friable loam soil (deliberately raising the volume if the farm manager came in earshot). “See yon field yonder (this field now being the northern tip of one big 190 acre amalgamated field), t’was where I pastured the milch cows in former days. Now thee blessed bullocks have gone, the zoil’s gone zour there. Stick zoil in with a beet fortch and it clatts to it like clay. It’s a sod on ye boots too. In May it’s droughted up (he spits down onto the powdery, humusless soil), by June it’s blowing over dyke yonder. The manager is maized; tis cans of chemicals robbed the heart out o’ it.”
I, too, rapidly found myself unable to form any working relationship with this treeless prairie-scape of sterile inorganic moondust. After rainfall, the soil appeared to glaze over in a petro-chemical film; the workers said this phenomenon initially appeared after the first few seasons of routine chemical spraying had been implemented on to the farm. Disillusioned, I left my friends on the fens behind, to wallow in their fond memories of the swallow tails, willow thickets and water lilies; a time that I had not been fortunate enough to witness.
Upon arrival in the West Country I quickly found my niche within the mixed, small fanning landscape. Livestock pumped the economic heartbeat that enabled these smaller farms to survive. My first job was to muck out the yearlings’ house and I remember experiencing an innate sense of wholeness the first time I watched the shower of dung being flail-fountained out of the back of the muckspreader; fertile fodder to sustain a living soil.
All of the farms and their staff seemed vibrant with the ethereal relationship flowing between the soil, the crops, the livestock and the landscape. My life metamorphosed effortlessly into higher dimensions, eternally flavoured by the mantra of the mixed farm. By day, bull finches and bees droned through orchards like an avant-garde orchestra; hens scuttled in random syncopation beneath the boughs, scuffling up the dust in the nettlebeds and churning up the aromatic incense of the earth before the rain came. Evenings were fanned by the wings of horseshoe bats ‘ cockchaffers and chiffchaffs. Dusks drifted into nights screech-scouted by barn owls presiding over rickyards, linhays and looseboxes all bursting with a lava flow of manure; the mainstay of global wellbeing.
One of the biggest threats currently confronting the survival of the mixed farming systems of the world stems from the hypothetical fanaticism of the various vegetarian pressure groups. For vegetarians are unknowingly tearing apart and terrorising the environmental and sociological stability of the whole globe. If their ‘veganic’ agricultural systems were to gain a foothold on the soil, then agrochemical use, soil erosion, cash cropping, prairiescapes and ill health would escalate if we were to carry on producing the quantities of foodstuff sufficient to feed our industrialised population.
But how is it that a practice as seemingly ‘green’ and ecologically innocuous as vegetarianism is actually committing environmental terrorism? Looking at the fashionable fads of affluent, Western perspective. Likewise before we can unleash the great potentials of applying human sewage sludge on to the soil, we have to learn of the technological processes by which we can decouple all the myraid organic-toxins and heavy metals that have fallen out from our industrial lifestyles into the sewerage networks.
If the vegetarian vision is to gain precedence over our global agricultural systems, then chemical and biotech agriculture would boom to make good the shortfall of fertility lost once our livestock were annihilated. Whilst vegetarians would be the last people to wish for such an outcome, the living soils would degrade into inorganic dustbowls like the fen farms and where cash cropping mono-systems are raping third world fertility into sterility. It would be an agriculture that was not the best suited to ecological, economic or sociological wellbeing.
One of the most nutty, stereotype fallacies emanating from the vegetarians is their claim that crop husbandry is less energy and chemically intensive than livestock farming. Whilst this is true in consideration of the intensive, grain fed livestock units, the traditional mixed farming unit raises livestock for meat and milk off extensively managed, low input grassland systems; and each acre of well-managed grassland can produce four harvests a season of high protein forage utilising its all-inclusive clover plants as a green manure for fixing free atmospheric nitrogen into the soil. Whereas, an arable cropping system will only yield one or two crops per season, and will largely remain reliant on the inputs of artificial fertiliser for its nitrogen source; one ton of which requires ten tons of crude oil in the manufacturing process.
When such noted, practical agriculturalists as Sir Robert Elliot and Sir George Stapledon have actually highlighted legume based, herbal, deep rooting pasture as the prime fertility restorer, it is somewhat hard to swallow the hypothetical generalisations of the vegetarian groups who are out to trigger a virtual meltdown of our traditional meadowlands on grounds of their mythical ecological devastation.
Well managed grassland is rarely sprayed with pesticide/fungicide/herbicide, not even on the most chemically orientated of farms. Yet virtually all vegetable and arable systems receive an average of ten chemical sprayings annually; through from the initial seed stage to the final storage of the produce. Vegetables are so heavily sprayed that the more perceptive elements of the medical establishment have actually linked the victims of a mystery, novel neurological syndrome (duplicating the symptoms of M.E.) to the fact that they are all vegetarians in common. One team led by Dr. David Ratner from the Central Emek Hospital, Afula, in Israel, bloodtested several isolated cases of those suffering from this syndrome, and found that various organo-phosphate pesticide residues intensively present in their vegetation diet were responsible. Once the victims were convinced that they should return to a diet including meat and milk products, their symptoms and abnormal blood enzyme levels normalised rapidly. Considering that many on the third world’s cash crops exported to the west contain pesticides banned over here, perhaps insidious contamination explains why the proprietors of whole food stores characteristically exhibit a pallid-faced complexion.
Ironically, this new era of chemically dependent veganic farming would indirectly exacerbate the current use of millions of live animals in the horrendous trials legally imposed upon the licensing procedures for Aggrochemicals.
It should also be born in mind that significant levels of pesticide residues and other liver toxins such as alcohol, heavy metals, coffee, solvents and pharmaceuticals will disrupt enzyme systems which preside over the human body’s ability to regulate levels of cholesterol and saturated fat. Thus whatever a person’s dietary intake of fatty animal foodstuffs, levels of cholesterol and risks of heart disease will correspondingly rise if the liver’s regulatory abilities are disrupted. For heart disease is distinctively absent amongst many isolated, primitive groups such as the Masai tribes and the teetotal, chemical free Mennonite/Amish communities who all thrive off a high dietary intake of saturated fat. So why have livestock products become the misappropriated scapegoats for heart disease, whilst consumers continue to uphold the massive, taxable turnover of a whole array of liver toxins marketed right into the heart of western foodchains?
If livestock were to be removed from the extensively farmed pastures of the uplands, then any subsequent policy involving re-forestation of these zones could undoubtedly have some greater ecological benefits to offer than pastureland itself. But, once again, a more intensive use of chemical would emerge in establishing and maintaining the forests, and with yet a further reduction in home grown foodstuffs available for our overpopulated, industrialised country, the shortfall would have to be replaced through importation of foodstuffs and cash crops from other western and third world countries. Not exactly the eco-ideal of permaculture and decentralisation. Dr. Schumacher would have had a seizure!
But if those stalwart salts of the earth like Sir Albert Howard or Reg Strawson were still with us, they would have outcast the veggie brigade as a nutty cluster of crankcases propelling society into head-on collision with ecological equilibrium. But most extremist, fringe crusades like the vegetarian fanatics, have a great deal to offer to any society that doesn’t wish to stagnate itself into evolutionary complacency. For instance, our agricultural establishments could do very well to outlaw the business-besotted farmers running intensive livestock units, battery systems and beefburger bureaucracies; with all their wastages, deplorable cruelty, anti-ozone exhaling slurry systems; drug/chemical induced immunotoxicity resulting in B.S.E. and salmonella, rain forest eradication etc. Our future direction must strike the happy, healthy medium of mixed farms, resurrecting the old traditional extensive system as a basic framework, then bolstering up productivity to present day demands by incorporating a more updated application of biological science into farming systems.
Eurocrats Exacerbating Soil Degradation
But sadly, the “in vogue” policies of the Eurocrats are exacerbating the veganically fuelled degradation of soil fertility still further; their inept EEC masterplan is carving up the last pockets of healthy mixed farming into specially segregated “Brave New” zones. Once the native farmers have been successfully titillated by the various packages of subsidisation on offer, they invariably end up betraying their traditional intuitive wisdom and radically shifting their agriculture into an ecologically malignant system of monocropping. In order to achieve these Eurocratic directives, Italian farmers, for example, are being offered 5OO pound golden handshake per cow to replace the livestock sector- of their farms with a system of monocropping indigenous crops such as pasta wheat or tomatoes, etc. Likewise, any Euro farmer who wants to reintroduce livestock onto an all arable farm for the purpose of regenerating much needed soil. Fertility invariably finds out that the initial outlay of purchasing a livestock quota thwarts the financial feasibility of any such development right from the start. Thus any farm which was not carrying livestock on the day the Eurocratic axe of quota imposition fell, had its fertility status frozen into regression for eternity.
Vegetarian health lobbies, Eurocrats etc, all appear to lack the lateral perception required of the true ecologist. They lack understanding of the direct relationship linking soil fertility status to the overall health of all ecosystems on earth. These misconceptions are cornering those that have to work the soil into a cul de sac of internal conflict. For we read of the farming family in Much Hadham who were taken to court for running free range pigs on poor sandy soils (as ecologically and holistically harmonious as one can get) because the neighbouring community of complainers had single-mindedly passed judgement on superficial grounds of odours. Similarly, we read about fanatical vegetarians who are commiting “holistic hari-kiri” by refusing to consume organically produced vegetables because they are grown off the inputs of animal manures. All of this leaves the genuine sector of farmers torn by the question of whether to continue abiding by or to betray their innate Golden Rule – “The preservation of fertility is the first duty of all that live by the land. Leave the land in a better state than when you took it over.” George Henderson.
But today, from where I farm on the back of the Brendon Hills, I watch the redundant cattle droves; the megalithic motorways of yesterday, meandering and switchbacking the hills, reclining downwards to distant lowlands. Each hollow is haunted by the relics of those halcyon days; I can still hear the caravans of cattle, horned and steaming. The yelping of herdsfolk and the thundering of hooves rutting it down to the shillet bed. In summertime, these droves are choked and jungled up in dogrose and honeysuckle; the bygone arteries of the livestock industry are infarcted. They’re impenetrable wildernesses of malignant insignificance to the twentieth century. In wintertime, the beechbanks take the full brunt of the blustering gales. They chatter to the derelict skeletons of frost-parched willowherb below.
But come tomorrow, no one will ever touch the charm that flavours these hills again. That ethereal relationship flowing between the soil, the crops, the livestock and the landscape is under threat. The fat of the land is in meltdown; rendered by the misconceived notions of a new wave of veganic fanatics who persist against all the odds in scapegoating livestock as harmful to human and ecological wellbeing.