No New Thing Under the Sun

By Colin Tudge

Every argument that anyone might care to raise about food and farming and all that goes with them has been raised before, sometimes many centuries ago, and often beautifully expressed. As the preacher proclaims in Ecclesiastes (i:9),

“… there is no new thing under the sun”;

and as the Spanish American philosopher George Santayana observed in The Life of Reason in 1905,

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

The modern world is dominated absolutely by “the economy” and the economy these days is crudely perceived just as an exercise in cash – but there is nothing new in this. In Antony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, published in 1875, the banker, Melmotte, tells his gullible and aristocratic would-be clients,

“These are great times and I am proud to be an Englishman in these times! What is the engine of this world? Profit. Gentlemen it is your duty to make yourself rich!”

In the novel, Melmotte is the arch-villain, truly unspeakable. Yet he encapsulates perfectly the driving economic and moral philosophy of the past few decades.

Of course, not all economists think like Melmotte and the moderns. One of the greatest of all, John Maynard Keynes, proclaimed:

“ … the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs … and the arena of heart and head will be occupied where it belongs, or reoccupied by our real problems, the problems of life and human relations, of creation, and of behaviour and religion.”

Furthermore, the neoliberal economy that has prevailed this past thirty years is ostensibly the champion of free trade, and free trade is presented to us as an essential component of freedom itself. Yet as Sir Karl Popper commented in The Open Society and Its Enemies:

“If we wish freedom to be safeguarded, then we must demand that the policy of unlimited economic freedom be replaced by the planned economic intervention of the state. We must demand that unrestrained capitalism give way to economic interventionism”.

In the neoliberalist frenzy of recent decades, agriculture has been perceived as “a business like any other”,  obliged to compete head to head with everything from banking to hairdressing. Countries that have joined or are thinking of joining the EU, such as Poland, Rumania, and Turkey, are told that their farming, which in truth is their greatest asset by far and is in all cases wonderful, is “a drain on the economy”, and they are advised to run it down with all possible haste, just as Britain has done. But here is Keynes again, writing in the 1930s, when Britain yet again was neglecting its own agriculture on grounds of cost:

“To say that a country cannot afford agriculture is to delude oneself about the meaning of the word ‘afford’. A country which cannot afford art or agriculture, invention or tradition, is a country in which one cannot afford to live.”

Nowadays, too, the agriculture that is allowed to exist at all is intended to subscribe to the economic model of David Ricardo – of “comparative advantage”: which means in practice that instead of farming to feed themselves, all countries everywhere are encouraged to grow whatever grows best, and export it for cash. People brought up in the age of neoliberalism – anyone born after 1970 – tend to feel that this way of thinking is modern and therefore represents progress and is therefore good: a sentiment I have heard expressed many times from public platforms and have read in such modern tablets of wisdom as The Economist and Prospect. But here in the early 19th century is the incomparably great Alexander von Humboldt, whose travels inspired an entire generation of biologists and explorers including Darwin, on this very matter:

“How I detest this Politics that measures and evaluates the public good simply according to the value of Exports! A Nation’s wealth is just like an individual’s – only the accessory to happiness. Before being free, we must be just, and without justice there can be no lasting prosperity”.

The main tenets of neoliberalism were first spelled out formally in the early 1960s by Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. By the time of Ronald Reagan and George W Bush anyone who deviated from its dogma — the globalized, unregulated, “free” market — was deemed to be “un-American”, not to say a border-line commie. But in truth neoliberalism is an historical aberration. The Founding Fathers conceived the United States as the world’s first, formal, republican democracy, firmly rooted in capitalism, as formally outlined in the 18th century by Adam Smith. Yet the Founding Fathers’ conception of capitalism was closer in spirit to Karl Marx, the greatest of all commies, than it was to George W Bush and Dick Cheney. Thus in the second and most famous paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and their fellow authors declared that

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Throughout the Declaration they refer constantly to justice. But at no time in this entire, wondrous document, the greatest political declaration ever, do they suggest that human beings have an inalienable right simply to make as much money as possible in the shortest possible time. Yet this, and this alone, is the driving spirit of neoliberalism. To be specific, insofar as successive British governments since Margaret Thatcher have had anything resembling a coherent policy for food and agriculture, it has been to invite Tesco and Monsanto, Cargill and Smithfield to go forth and fill their boots. But as St Paul warned in his epistle to the Galatians (vi:7),

“whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap”.

Tesco and the rest have been reaping enormous wealth, but the rest of the world is going to pot.

“The rest of the world” of course includes farmers. I have met many a farmer of late who in his or her time has been seriously stitched up by the supermarkets. More than anyone else these days the supermarkets control the entire food supply chain, and feel perfectly entitled to renege on contracts – either to offer rock-bottom prices for crops that they have commissioned to be grown, or simple refuse to buy them at all. But then, as Sinclair Lewis recounts in Main Street (1920), things were much the same in early 20th century America:

“Then, on the corner below her husband’s office, she [Carol; the book’s heroine] heard a farmer holding forth:

‘Sure. Course I was beaten. The shipper and the grocers here wouldn’t pay us a decent price for our potatoes even though folks in the cities were howling for ‘em. So we says, well, we’ll get a truck and ship ‘em right down to Minneapolis. But the commission merchants there were in cahoots with the local shipper here; they said they wouldn’t pay us a cent more than he would, not even if they was nearer to the market. Well, we found we could get higher prices in Chicago, but when we tried to get freight cars to ship there, the railroads wouldn’t let us have ‘em — even though they had cars standing empty right there in the yards. There you got it — good market, and these towns keeping us from it. Gus, that’s the way these towns work all the time. They pay us what they want to for our wheat, but we pay what they want us to for their clothes. Stowbody and Dawson foreclose every mortgage they can, and put in tenant farmers … the lawyers sting us, the machinery-dealers hate to carry us over the bad years, and then their daughters put on swell dresses and look at us as if we were a bunch of hoboes. Man, I’d like to burn this town!’.

Kennicott [Carol’s husband] observed ‘… They ought to run that fellow out of town!’”

Behind much of the farmers’ misery and the extreme injustice lies the modern mania for cheap food. The real question is why there is such poverty in the world – and particularly in a country like Britain whose government claims that they have made us so prosperous. In reality, of course, there is no such thing as cheap food. If food is ever cheap it is because some farmer, or community, or wild creature, or landscape, is being screwed.  Working farmers the world over are underappreciated and underpaid. But as John Ruskin commented in 1858 in ‘The Work of Iron, in Nature, Art, and Policy,

“ … whenever we buy … cheap goods — goods offered at a price which we know cannot be remunerative for the labour involved in them … remember we are stealing somebody’s labour. Don’t let us mince the matter. I say, in plain Saxon, STEALING — taking from him the proper reward of his work, and putting it into our own pocket.”

The upper case in the above is Ruskin’s own.

The world’s livestock are also suffering very badly from the industrialized food chain. Tracy Worcester’s excellent but chilling Pig Business, broadcast on prime-time television on June 30 2009 by More 4, has stirred enormous interest and appropriate horror. But what’s new? The following, from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, on the Chicago meat-processing industry, was published in 1905. Jurgis, the book’s hero, a Lithuanian immigrant, is being shown around Durham’s meat-packing factory by Jokubas, an old hand. We are told:

“There were groups of cattle being driven to the chutes, which were roadways about fifteen feet wide, raised high above the pens. In these chutes the stream of animals was continuous; it was quite uncanny to watch them, pressing on to their fate, all unsuspicious, a very river of death. (p 48) … every hour they turned four of five hundred cattle into meat … there were fifteen or twenty lines, and the men moved from one to another of these. This made a scene of intensive activity, a picture of human power wonderful to watch … like a circus amphitheatre … the creatures were prisoned, each in a separate pen … and while they stood bellowing and plunging, over the top there leaned one of the ‘knockers’, armed with a sledge hammer, and watching for a chance to deal a blow … The instant the animal had fallen a second man raised a lever, and the side of the pen was raised, and the animal, still kicking and struggling, slid out to the ‘killing bed’. Here a man put shackles about one leg, and pressed another lever, and the body was jerked up into the air.”

Later we learn:

“Before the carcass was admitted … it had to pass a government inspector, who sat in the doorway and felt of  [sic] the glands in the neck for tuberculosis. This government inspector did not have the manner of a man who was worked to death … he was quite willing to enter into conversation with you, and to explain to you the deadly nature of the ptomaines which are found in tubercular pork; and while he was talkihng with you you could hardly be so ungrateful as to notice that a dozen carcasses were passing him untouched. This inspector wore an imposing silver badge, and he gave an air of authority to the scene …”

But that was when the system was working well. Later in the book we begin to learn of fiddles:

“It seemed as if every time you met a person from a new department, you heard of new swindles and crimes… It seemed that they must have agencies all over the country, to hunt out old and crippled and diseased cattle to be canned. There were cattle which had been fed on ‘whisky-malt’, the refuse of the breweries, and had become what the men called ‘steerly’ — which means covered with boils. It was a nasty job killing these, for when you plunged your knife into them they would burst and splash foul-smelling stuff into your face; and when a man’s sleeves were smeared wit blood, and his hands steeped in it, how was he ever to wipe his face, or to clear his eyes so that he could see?”

Swindling continues. The words on labels don’t always mean what they seem to say and besides, labels are often switched as meat and other goods wend their way along the Byzantine food chain. There is adulteration too of course – and some of this is perfectly legal, which means that the law itself is up for sale and is no longer to be trusted. A sorry state indeed. So it is that water is added to industrialized chicken and pork to bring it up to weight, and foreign proteins may be added too. The problem springs in large part from urbanization, and the ever-increasing distance between consumer and producer, and the corresponding proliferation of middle-men. Yet in the early days of mega-cities and industrialized food, things if anything were even worse.  John Burnett tells us in his excellent Plenty and Want that flour was routinely bulked out with chalk, and oat meal with less nutritious barley meal, and heavy metals from lead to copper and mercury were routinely used as what the modern food industry calls “colourants”. Nickel was commonly used to lend colour to green tea. Was it this that the innocent and saintly Miss Matty had in mind when in the early 1850s she warned her customers in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford to steer well clear of it?:

“Her sales of tea during the first two days had surpassed my most sanguine expectations. The whole country round seemed to be all out of tea at once. The only alteration I could have desired in Miss Matty’s way of doing business was, that she should not have so plaintively entreated some of her customers not to buy green tea – running it down as slow poison, sure to destroy the nerves, and produce all manner of evil. Their pertinacity in taking it, in spite of all her warnings, distressed her so much that I really thought she would relinquish the sale of it, and so lose half her custom”.

The first person formally to expose the horrors of early industrial food pollution was the 18th century analytical chemist Frederick Accum (1769-1801). John Burnett does not quote Accum directly but he does quote a writer in the Literary Gazette of 1920 who had been reading his work:

“Does anything pure or unpoisoned come to our tables, except butchers’ meat? We must answer, hardly anything …. Bread turns out to be a crutch to help us onwards to the grave, instead of the staff of life; in porter there is no support, in cordials no consolation, in almost everything poison, and in scarcely any medicine cure”.

My own preferred solution to most of these problems is to promote “the new agrarianism” – which requires an economy that takes agriculture seriously, and an “enlightened agriculture” that is truly designed to feed people. Enlightened agriculture must be complex – an imitation of nature – which means that the husbandry too must be complex which means that it must be labour intensive, which means that countries like Britain that have systematically stripped farming to the bone, and then stripped it some more, need many more farmers than they have at present and they need them quick. This requires a movement that has often been crudely summarized as “back to the land” – which in turn has invited ridicule, of greater or less good humour, over many centuries. Thus, in one of my favourite passages from all literature, Jane Austen in Emma (1814) listens in on the local gentry and bourgeoisie as they attempt to re-engage with their own food supply by picking strawberries:

“ — strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of. – “The best fruit in England – every body’s favourite – always wholesome. – These the finest beds and finest sorts. – Delightful to gather for one’s self – the only way of really enjoying them, — Morning decidedly the best time – never tired – every sort of good – hautboy definitely superior – no comparison – the others hardly eatable – hautboys very scarce – Chili preferred – white wood finest flavour of all – price of strawberries in London – abundance about Bristol – Maple Grove – cultivation – beds when to be renewed — gardeners thinking exactly different – no general rule – gardeners never to be put out of their way – delicious fruit – only too rich to be eaten much of – inferior to cherries – currants more refreshing – only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping – glaring sun – tired to death – could bear it no longer – must go and sit in the shade’.

Such, for half an hour, was the conversation”.

I am also struck by the connoisseurship evident in earlier times. Elsewhere, the characters in Emma discuss the merits of various breeds of lamb at different times of year – Welsh or Romney Marsh? – and the merits of boiled parsnips.  Now we are promised “choice” but the refinements and nuances of food have been coarsened and lost.

In one of my favourite passages from Anna Karenina, too, the aristocratic hero Levin (who represents Tolstoy himself) decides to work alongside his peasants:

“Titus, who had taught Levin to scythe, a thin little peasant, [was] walking in front and cutting a wide swathe, wielding his scythe as though it were a toy … As they finished their rows, the peasants, perspiring and good-humoured, came out into the road one after another and, laughing a little, greeted their master. They all stared at him but no-one made any remark, till a tall old man with a wrinkled, beardless face, wearing a sheepskin jacket, stepped out on to the road and addressed him. ‘Look’ ee now, master; once take hold of the rope there’s no letting go!’, he said, and Levin heard smothered laughter among the mowers. “I’ll try not to let go,’ he said, taking his place behind Titus and waiting for the signal to begin. ‘Mind’ee,’, repeated the old man.”

“He swung his scythe, using the last ounce of his strength, and was making up his mind to ask Titus to stop. But at that very moment Titus stopped of his own accord, bent down and picked up a handful of grass, wiped his scythe, and began whetting it. Levin straightened his back and looked round with a sigh of relief …. The same thing happened next time. Titus moved on with sweep after sweep of his scythe, not stopping and not tiring. Levin followed, trying to keep up, and finding it harder and harder, until the moment came when he felt he had no strength left, but at that very moment Titus stopped and whetted the scythes … The next rows were easier, but still Levin had to strain every nerve not to drop behind the peasants. He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, except not be left behind …. Levin lost all count of time and had no idea whether it was late or early. A change began to come over his work which gave him immense satisfaction. There were moments when he forgot what he was doing, he moved without effort … But as soon as he began thinking what he was doing … he would mow badly…The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he experienced those moments of oblivion when … the scythe seemed to mow of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, as though by magic …. These were the most blessed moments.”

But Levin’s more worldly brother,  Kozynshev, predictably pours scorn:

“ … tell me, how do the peasants look at it? They must laugh up their sleeves at their master’s being such a queer fish … But Levin, how can you have your dinner with them? You could hardly have a turkey and a bottle of Lafitte brought to you in the field’.”

Nowadays, too, alongside the supermarkets and the processors, is a phalanx of experts to tell us what we ought to eat. Nutritionists are useful and necessary people, of course, and so are modern equivalents of scientists like Accum who endeavour to keep us safe. But sometimes these experts do rather get on our nerves – and sometimes they go rushing in where angels would venture cautiously. The following, from John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat of 1935, based around Monterey in California, is definitely two-edged:

“At about this time in California it became the stylish thing for school nurses to visit the classes and to catechize the children on intimate details of their home life. In the first grade, Alfredo was called to the principal’s office, for it was thought that he looked thin.

The visiting nurse, trained in child psychology, said kindly: “Freddie, do you get enough to eat?”

“Sure”, said Alfredo.

“Well, now. Tell me what you have had for breakfast.”

“Tortillas and beans”, said Alfredo.

The nurse nodded her head dismally to the principal. “What do you have when you go home for lunch?”

“I don’t go home.”

“Don’t you eat at noon?”

“Sure. I bring some beans wrapped up in a tortilla.”

Actual alarm showed in the nurse’s eyes, but she controlled herself. “At night, what do you have to eat?”

“Tortillas and beans.”

Her psychology deserted her. “Do you mean to stand there and tell me you eat nothing but tortillas and beans?”

Alfredo was astonished. “Jesus Christ”, he said, “what more do you want?”

There’s a long treatise to be written about all this – on the one hand about child malnutrition which of course was rampant among poor children the world over in the 1930s; and also about the growing focus from the 1930s onwards on the importance of protein – and the failure to realize, until the 1970s, that lysine-rich beans complement lysine-deficient cereal perfectly and that, for example, beans-and-tortillas is a wonderful combination (although of course it is sadly lacking in some micronutrients).

More broadly, though, this passage emphasizes the growing influence of science in particular and experts in general in controlling our lives. In this it is vital that the science is truly objective, as science is supposed to be, and as scientists claim is the case. In the science of food and agriculture, the stuff of life, objectivity becomes doubly important. There must be no vested interest, either political or commercial. In the words of Sir Kenneth Blaxter, then director of the Rowett Research Institute at Aberdeen:

“It seems wrong that … the science related to producing food has to be used in a competitive fashion: the essence of science is its universality, and freedom from hunger should be the birthright of all mankind”.

Sir Kenneth wrote these words in 1977 in an essay called “Options for British Farming”, published by the Royal Society in Agricultural Efficiency. He was himself an FRS, and one of the great agricultural scientists of the 20th century. Nowadays – or at least until the recent collapse of the banks – such a sentiment would be laughed out of court. As a London professor said to me recently (although I do not have his permission to offer a direct quote) it is difficult these days to find any research in nutrition that is not at some level sponsored by the food industry; and the same to a very significant extent is true of agriculture as a whole.

Indeed we are at the point that the British people reached in the mid 17th century when people at large felt impelled to ask what government is actually for: the question posed formally by Thomas Hobbes in particular in Leviathan. Whatever the answer, the authors of the American Declaration of Independence just over a hundred years later felt that the British government, dominated by George III, was no longer on their side and concluded, in line with Hobbes, that they had a perfect right to do something about it.  They say in their very first paragraph:

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

It is clear to me, and to a great many other people, that our own government and indeed most governments in the world, have lost any sense that it is their prime duty to preserve our safety and happiness and indeed have in many respects become “destructive of those ends”. Exactly why they should have done so is up for debate but the following from Aldous Huxley is surely pertinent, taken from a letter he wrote to his brother Julian at the end of World War I:

“It really makes one gasp; one wonders which is the greatest, the stupidity or the wickedness of our rulers. I think their stupidity”.

Actually I am not sure it matters which of these is true. The result is the same either way. Agriculture is right in the firing line of government folly and, of all material pursuits, it is the one that has the greatest immediate effect on our lives and on the world at large. Either way, if we feel we are badly governed, then surely we have a right to resist. Henry David Thoreau in 1849 coined the expression “civil disobedience”. Mahatma Gandhi acted very effectively upon the theme in the 20th century although in his later years at least preferred the expression “civil resistance”. To be specific, if we feel that the world’s governments and the corporates with whom they work so closely are compromising our future, as is undeniably the case, then we have a right and indeed a duty to take matters into our own hands.

But the way to go about this is neither to have a fight  — which is revolution — nor to persuade the powers-that-be to change their ways step by step — which is reform. Revolutions are too messy and dangerous. Reform cannot succeed because it is too slow and because there is no plausible route whereby Tesco, say, could metamorphose incrementally into the kind of institution that the world actually needs. The philosophy and raison d’etre of such corporates are absolutely at odds with the requirements of farming that is truly designed to feed people. Besides, the powers-that-be are not listening. We may plead with them with the passion that Oliver Cromwell displayed when he wrote to the Church of Scotland in 1650:

“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”

– but all my experience so far suggests that such effort would be in vain.

Instead we need Renaissance – the principle of which was beautifully encapsulated by the American architect and visionary polymath Buckminster Fuller:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

To bring this Renaissance about is the self-appointed mission of this Campaign.


2 thoughts on “No New Thing Under the Sun

  1. FARMING, MONEY, and THOMAS HARDY

    For me, the key theme of Colin’s piece above is the dominance of money and profit, the role of power relations, inequity and injustice – and how these play out in food and farming. It’s worth remembering (with a wry smile) that farming itself, as it displaced hunting/gathering after the ice age, created the very conditions in which complex hierarchical social relations and inequities could develop: settled ways of life, population growth, and the production of surpluses that could be stored and controlled by elites. Another irony worth noting is that writing, that cornerstone of the humanities, first developed in order to keep a record of precisely those commodities – food chief among them – delivered to the storehouses.

    These socio-economic themes are well covered in other sections of the site: clearly, the College’s mission is about new economic models as much as new agricultural practices. And these themes are also in the foreground in the arts of the past when they cover farming and rural life. But as the intro to this section says, we can also retrieve something of a ‘feel’ for farming through the humanities, and it’s fun too, so it’s in a spirit of enjoyment and celebration as well that these notes are offered.

    There can be few writers who fit this bill better than Thomas Hardy, in whose stories farming is often the principal context for the action. His descriptions of a huge variety of ‘Wessex’ countryside, landscape and farming practices are breathtakingly beautiful, but doubly melancholy: first, because they’re gone forever, second because the stories usually put their characters through grievous trials and great sadnesses that rarely end happily. Almost invariably, class and money are the root causes of the tragedy. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles for example, Tess, child of a poor family, after being raped by the rich Alec D’Urberville, then left to fend for herself by her hypocritical middle class husband, finds hard employment at Flintcomb-Ash. No trace of bucolic ease here:

    Before her, in a slight depression, were the remains of a village. She had, in fact, reached Flintcomb-Ash… There seemed to be no help for it; hither she was doomed to come. The stubborn soil around her showed plainly enough that the kind of labour in demand here was of the roughest kind… There was not a tree within sight; there was not, at this season, a green pasture – nothing but fallow and turnips everywhere, in large fields divided by hedges plashed to unrelieved levels…
    The swede-field in which she and her companion were set hacking was a stretch of a hundred odd acres in one patch, on the highest ground of the farm, rising above stony lanchets or lynchet – the outcrop of siliceous veins in the chalk formation, composed of myriads of loose white flints in bulbous, cusped, and phallic shapes. The upper half of each turnip had been eaten off by the live-stock, and it was the business of the two women to grub up the lower or earthy half of the root with a hooked fork called a hacker, that it might be eaten also. Every leaf of the vegetable having already been consumed, the whole field was in colour a desolate drab; it was a complexion without features, as if a face, from chin to brow, should be only an expanse of skin. The sky wore, in another colour, the same likeness; a white vacuity of countenance with the lineaments gone. So these two upper and nether visages confronted each other all day long, the white face looking down on the brown face, and the brown face looking up at the white face, without anything standing between them but the two girls crawling over the surface of the former like flies.
    Nobody came near them, and their movements showed a mechanical regularity; their forms standing enshrouded in Hessian “wroppers” – sleeved brown pinafores, tied behind to the bottom, to keep their gowns from blowing about – scant skirts revealing boots that reached high up the ankles, and yellow sheepskin gloves with gauntlets…
    They worked on hour after hour… In the afternoon the rain came on again, and Marian said that they need not work any more. But if they did not work they would not be paid; so they worked on. It was so high a situation, this field, that the rain had no occasion to fall, but raced along horizontally upon the yelling wind, sticking into them like glass splinters till they were wet through. Tess had not known till now what was really meant by that. There are degrees of dampness, and a very little is called being wet through in common talk. But to stand working slowly in a field, and feel the creep of rain-water, first in legs and shoulders, then on hips and head, then at back, front, and sides, and yet to work on till the leaden light diminishes and marks that the sun is down, demands a distinct modicum of stoicism, even of valour.

    It gets worse: later in the winter it starts to snow so they have to work indoors, but it’s harder work still, as her companion, Marian the overweight alcoholic, warns her:

    “Well, as for the weather, it won’t hurt us in the wheat-barn; but reed-drawing is fearful hard work – worse than swede-hacking. I can stand it because I’m stout; but you be slimmer than I…”
    They reached the wheat-barn and entered it. One end of the long structure was full of corn; the middle was where the reed-drawing was carried on, and there had already been placed in the reed-press the evening before as many sheaves of wheat as would be sufficient for the women to draw from during the day…
    Putting on their gloves, all set to work in a row in front of the press, an erection formed of two posts connected by a cross-beam, under which the sheaves to be drawn from were laid ears outward, the beam being pegged down by pins in the uprights, and lowered as the sheaves diminished.
    The day hardened in colour, the light coming in at the barn-doors upwards from the snow instead of downwards from the sky. The girls pulled handful after handful from the press… they went on seizing the ears of corn, drawing out the straw, gathering it under their arms, and cutting off the ears with their bill-hooks, nothing sounding in the barn but the swish of the straw and the crunch of the hook. Then Tess suddenly flagged, and sank down upon the heap of wheat-ears at her feet.
    “I knew you wouldn’t be able to stand it!” cried Marian. “It wants harder flesh than yours for this work.”
    Just then the farmer entered. “Oh, that’s how you get on when I am away,” he said to her.
    “But it is my own loss,” she pleaded. “Not yours.”
    “I want it finished,” he said doggedly, as he crossed the barn and went out at the other door.

    There were happier times when Tess worked as a milkmaid at Talbothays dairy (where she fell in love with her husband-to-be, who was working there in order to learn the business of dairy farming, prior to setting up as a farmer himself). As always, Hardy gives a rich and detailed picture of the dairy business, including a fascinating episode instigated by a customer’s complaint:

    They came downstairs yawning next morning; but skimming and milking were proceeded with as usual, and they went indoors to breakfast. Dairyman Crick was discovered stamping about the house. He had received a letter, in which a customer had complained that the butter had a twang.
    “And begad, so ‘t have!” said the dairyman, who held in his left hand a wooden slice on which a lump of butter was stuck. “Yes – taste for yourself!”
    …The dairyman, who had thrown himself into abstraction to better realize the taste, and so divine the particular species of noxious weed to which it appertained, suddenly exclaimed –
    “‘Tis garlic! and I thought there wasn’t a blade left in that mead!”
    Then all the old hands remembered that a certain dry mead, into which a few of the cows had been admitted of late, had, in years gone by, spoilt the butter in the same way. The dairyman had not recognized the taste at that time, and thought the butter bewitched.
    “We must overhaul that mead,” he resumed; “this mustn’t continny!”
    All having armed themselves with old pointed knives, they went out together. As the inimical plant could only be present in very microscopic dimensions to have escaped ordinary observation, to find it seemed rather a hopeless attempt in the stretch of rich grass before them. However, they formed themselves into line, all assisting, owing to the importance of the search…
    With eyes fixed upon the ground they crept slowly across a strip of the field, returning a little further down in such a manner that, when they should have finished, not a single inch of the pasture but would have fallen under the eye of some one of them. It was a most tedious business, not more than half a dozen shoots of garlic being discoverable in the whole field; yet such was the herb’s pungency that probably one bite of it by one cow had been sufficient to season the whole dairy’s produce for the day.

    Hardy describes many other aspects of farming and rural industry in other novels. In Far From The Madding Crowd, shepherd Gabriel Oak wishes to marry Bathsheba, who inherits and manages her own farm (see the wonderful description of Oak in his shepherd’s hut in chapter 2). The Woodlanders records a range of woodland crafts: Giles Winterborne is a woodsman, apple farmer and cider-maker, his beloved’s father Melbury is a timber merchant, while Marty South is daughter to a thatching spar-maker who is ill, forcing Marty to take over his work. Bees and bee-keeping feature in Under The Greenwood Tree. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Henchard is a successful grain merchant who hires then fires Donald Farfrae, whose greater command of agricultural science eventually leads him to eclipse Henchard in the grain business.

    However, to repeat: Hardy’s account of farming is not rose-tinted nostalgia (though there are certainly nostalgic elements, and he often described in detail customs and practices which were even then dying out, and his work thereby represents an important historical archive as well as a key part of the literary canon). The precarious nature of many of his characters’ livelihoods, and the subtle and complex gradations of class are always centre stage. To close with a final example, then, this time from The Woodlanders: in the opening scene, a master barber from the town arrives one winter’s evening in the tiny woodland village of Little Hintock to try to persuade young Marty South to sell him her beautiful chestnut hair – her best feature – so he can make a wig for the lady of the manor, who covets it for herself. Barber Percombe peers through each cottage window until he finds Marty, who is making thatching spars to fulfil an imminent contract for her sick father:

    In the room from which this cheerful blaze proceeded, he beheld a girl seated on a willow chair, and busily occupied by the light of the fire, which was ample and of wood. With a bill-hook in one hand and a leather glove, much too large for her, on the other, she was making spars, such as are used by thatchers, with great rapidity. She wore a leather apron for this purpose, which was also much too large for her figure. On her left hand lay a bundle of the straight, smooth sticks called spar-gads – the raw material of her manufacture; on her right, a heap of chips and ends – the refuse – with which the fire was maintained; in front, a pile of the finished articles. To produce them she took up each gad, looked critically at it from end to end, cut it to length, split it into four, and sharpened each of the quarters with dexterous blows, which brought it to a triangular point precisely resembling that of a bayonet…
    The young woman laid down the bill-hook for a moment and examined the palm of her right hand, which, unlike the other, was ungloved, and showed little hardness or roughness about it. The palm was red and blistering, as if this present occupation were not frequent enough with her to subdue it to what it worked in. As with so many right hands born to manual labor, there was nothing in its fundamental shape to bear out the physiological conventionalism that gradations of birth, gentle or mean, show themselves primarily in the form of this member. Nothing but a cast of the die of destiny had decided that the girl should handle the tool; and the fingers which clasped the heavy ash haft might have skilfully guided the pencil or swept the string, had they only been set to do it in good time…
    The young woman turned at the crunch of [the wig-maker’s] boots on the sanded floor, and exclaiming, “Oh, Mr. Percombe, how you frightened me!” quite lost her colour for a moment.
    He replied, “You should shut your door – then you’d hear folk open it.”
    “I can’t,” she said; “the chimney smokes so. Mr. Percombe, you look as unnatural out of your shop as a canary in a thorn-hedge. Surely you have not come out here on my account – for – ”
    “Yes – to have your answer about this.” He touched her head with his cane, and she winced. “Do you agree?” he continued. “It is necessary that I should know at once, as the lady is soon going away, and it takes time to make up.”
    “Don’t press me – it worries me. I was in hopes you had thought no more of it. I can NOT part with it – so there!”
    “Now, look here, Marty,” said the barber, sitting down on the coffin-stool table. “How much do you get for making these spars?”
    “Hush – father’s up-stairs awake, and he don’t know that I am doing his work.”
    “Well, now tell me,” said the man, more softly. “How much do you get?”
    “Eighteenpence a thousand,” she said, reluctantly.
    “Who are you making them for?”
    “Mr. Melbury, the timber-dealer, just below here.”
    “And how many can you make in a day?”
    “In a day and half the night, three bundles – that’s a thousand and a half.”
    “Two and threepence.” The barber paused. “Well, look here,” he continued, with the remains of a calculation in his tone, which calculation had been the reduction to figures of the probable monetary magnetism necessary to overpower the resistant force of her present purse and the woman’s love of comeliness, “here’s a sovereign – a gold sovereign, almost new.” He held it out between his finger and thumb. “That’s as much as you’d earn in a week and a half at that rough man’s work, and it’s yours for just letting me snip off what you’ve got too much of.”
    The girl’s bosom moved a very little. “Why can’t the lady send to some other girl who don’t value her hair – not to me?” she exclaimed.
    “Why, simpleton, because yours is the exact shade of her own, and ’tis a shade you can’t match by dyeing. But you are not going to refuse me now I’ve come all the way from Sherton o’ purpose?”
    “I say I won’t sell it – to you or anybody.”
    “Now listen,” and he drew up a little closer beside her. “The lady is very rich, and won’t be particular to a few shillings; so I will advance to this on my own responsibility – I’ll make the one sovereign two, rather than go back empty-handed.”
    “No, no, no!” she cried, beginning to be much agitated. “You are a-tempting me, Mr. Percombe. You go on like the Devil to Dr. Faustus in the penny book. But I don’t want your money, and won’t agree. Why did you come? I said when you got me into your shop and urged me so much, that I didn’t mean to sell my hair!” The speaker was hot and stern.
    “Marty, now hearken. The lady that wants it wants it badly. And, between you and me, you’d better let her have it. ‘Twill be bad for you if you don’t… You see, Marty, as you are in the same parish, and in one of her cottages, and your father is ill, and wouldn’t like to turn out, it would be as well to oblige her. I say that as a friend…”
    “I’ve nothing more to say,” she answered.
    Her companion saw from her manner that it was useless to urge her further by speech. “As you are a trusty young woman,” he said, “I’ll put these sovereigns up here for ornament, that you may see how handsome they are. Bring the hair to-morrow, or return the sovereigns.” He stuck them edgewise into the frame of a small mantle looking-glass…

    [Percombe leaves, the lights go out in the village, except Marty’s, but at ten o’clock she hangs a cloth at the window to hide the light.]

    The door it was necessary to keep ajar… because of the smoke; but she obviated the effect of the ribbon of light through the chink by hanging a cloth over that also. She was one of those people who, if they have to work harder than their neighbours, prefer to keep the necessity a secret as far as possible; and but for the slight sounds of wood-splintering which came from within, no wayfarer would have perceived that here the cottager did not sleep as elsewhere.
    Eleven, twelve, one o’clock struck; the heap of spars grew higher, and the pile of chips and ends more bulky… but still she worked on. When the temperature of the night without had fallen so low as to make her chilly, she opened a large blue umbrella to ward off the draught from the door. The two sovereigns confronted her from the looking-glass in such a manner as to suggest a pair of jaundiced eyes on the watch for an opportunity. Whenever she sighed for weariness she lifted her gaze towards them, but withdrew it quickly, stroking her tresses with her fingers for a moment, as if to assure herself that they were still secure. When the clock struck three she arose and tied up the spars she had last made in a bundle resembling those that lay against the wall.

    Hardy’s work, then, offers a deeply felt and richly drawn account of farming in the ‘Wessex’ of the nineteenth century. It’s hard to think of any other writer or artist who might help give a ‘feel’ for farming as strongly as these stories do: they are suffused with emotional responses to the countryside and to husbandry, while setting out very clearly the economic relations behind them. So, in my view, a definite ‘must’ for the College’s ‘Farming and the Humanities’ reading list…

  2. There needs to be links with the arts and architecture, as well as the humanities. Increasingly, artists and architects are working with communities on issues that are directly relevant to your concerns. For example, there’s Deirdre O’Mahony ‘s SPUD project, work with migrant communities and allotments, Simon Read’s work with farmers and other local people around coastal erosion, etc. Enlightened agriculture needs to be part of a ‘new’ joined-up thinking and doing that is not hampered by an archaic, ‘discipline-based’ academic culture.

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