At a time when UK agriculture faces a very uncertain future due to Brexit, Graham Harvey’s latest play, No Finer Life, currently on tour in the UK, offers both hope and inspiration to those wanting to get into agriculture as well as to smaller farmers wondering if they will be able to survive after Britain leaves the EU. Farmer and author Rosamund Young went to see a recent performance and offers her reflections.

No Finer Life is based on The Farming Ladder, a book by George Henderson, which tells the story of how he and his brother Frank, two young men from London, took on an 85 acre rundown farm with almost no money and turned it into a huge success, despite an agricultural recession which was forcing other farmers to sell up. First published in 1944, the book was immensely popular because it portrayed farming as a ladder where almost anyone with enough ambition could get their foot on the first rung and progressively climb up one step at a time. The detailed advice in the book was invaluable to a generation of farm workers and ex-servicemen who aspired to become farmers. By 1946, the year my own copy of the book was printed, it had already been reprinted eleven times and it is still in print today.

In the play, the story is vividly and imaginatively told through the eyes of Elizabeth, a young Land Girl (a member of the Women’s Land Army, which was crucial to Britain’s ability to feed itself during both world wars) who was inspired by the book. She came to work on the farm and eventually went on to become Henderson’s wife and mother of their children.

My father got his first, small (39 acre) tenanted farm in 1953 and used The Farming Ladder as his modeluntil the changing criteria for agricultural support forced him to abandon mixed farming and specialize in just one enterprise. The Hendersons initially took on the tenancy of Oathill Farm on the Cotswolds in 1924, at a time when a lot of land was being left unfarmed due to the withdrawal of government support and falling commodity prices from the unrestricted importation of cheap food. By the mid-1930s large tracts of Cotswold land, today worth up to £10,000 an acre were being sold for as little as £5 an acre. Yet, despite this, and with minimal capital that came mostly from their own savings, the brothers went on to buy the farm outright, as well as other farms nearby, which they then let to the most promising pupils that had come to work on their farm to learn the rudiments of mixed farming.

Graham Harvey, agricultural storyline editor of ‘The Archers’ and the scriptwriter of more than 600 episodes, is reaching out to a new audience with this dramatisation of The Farming Ladder. Henderson’s book describes a way of farming which has few followers today outside of the organic sector. It contained one vital lesson for the next generation of farmers, the importance of looking after the soil, and of sheep and cattle in restoring degraded land and keeping it in good heart. Although the Hendersons were not organic farmers and saw no harm in the use of ‘artificial manures’, they were clearly practicing a more sustainable method of farming and had a very different approach from most farmers today, as this passage from the book illustrates: “The use of artificials is only justified by the intention of making a bigger and bigger manure heap. To sell off corn and straw grown by chemical manures should be made an indictable offence.” It’s not difficult to see why Graham Harvey, author of The Carbon Fields and Grass-fed Nation has long been a fan of the Hendersons. The importance they placed on rebuilding soil carbon, and through that increasing soil health and productivity, is consistent with Harvey’s thinking. This comes over clearly in this episode of the BBC’s On Your Farm, in which Harvey, Elizabeth Henderson, her children and granddaughter are all interviewed.

The play, directed by A. J. Kroon, is highly effective in conveying the issues and very enjoyable. In 75 minutes, the actress, Roberta Bellekom, accompanied by composer and musician Alastair Collingwood, assumes diverse roles, and with minimal props, improvised puppeteering, songs and archive film, gives a lively and amusing evocation of life on the farm and how a young, naive girl who sought work with the Hendersons never wavered in her belief that there is no finer life than working on a mixed farm, despite the hard labour and deprivation, including war, that she had to endure.

Bellekom conveys both Elizabeth’s own unworldliness and Henderson’s gauche approach to romance, assuming his demeanor as well as Elizabeth’s. With subtle use of body language and vocal inflections, Bellekom shows how Henderson completely surprised her with a nervous and unromantic proposal, saying “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask if you would marry me.” Later in the play, when she tells him she is pregnant, he is completely lost for words, finally managing only, “Oh, well done.”

Graham Harvey shows how the Hendersons owed their success in part to the realisation that to make a living for both brothers off one small farm, it must be intensified. This meant multiple enterprises on the same land: cattle and poultry grazing in the same field, for example, and the many benefits of fully integrated crop and livestock production – a very different approach from the most destructive forms of intensive agriculture which only take carbon from the soil and rarely, if ever, give back to it though grazing animals and farmyard manure.

Whether many young farmers could make a similar success in such circumstances today is unclear. Even in the 1950s far more farmers got stuck on the first rung of the ladder than ever even made it to the second rung. In real terms, food has become much cheaper and labour more expensive, and despite the fact that government advisers brought coach loads of students and farmers to learn from the Hendersons, agricultural policy from that time onwards has ignored the importance of soil carbon and turned against the Henderson’s way of farming, favouring instead the specialisation, mechanisation and exploitation advocated by advisers such as Viscount Astor and Seebohm Rowntree in works like Mixed Farming and Muddled Thinking, as described by the historian Philip Conford in his brilliant work, The Origins of the Organic Movement.

Graham Harvey is doing his best to make us all see sense and I really hope he is successful. Some mainstream policy advisers believe the UK Government is again poised to abandon farming to world markets and that farms will have to get bigger still at the expense of small farms, where ‘small’ today can be ten times larger than it was in the Hendersons’ time. But that would be disastrous for the British countryside and for us all, so let’s all make sure that doesn’t happen.

The play is touring through England during April, with performances in Bristol (5 April), Crediton (7 April), St Austell (8 April). Tavistock (9 April) and London (28 April). See No Finer Life for further details.

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