On Saturday evening we visited a farm. Robert knew of it many years back when it was owned by two extremely ancient old boys. For numerous decades the farm sat in glorious isolation and neglect, the land and buildings softened and crumbled; definition of field and hedge, lane and track, farmhouse and barn sagged into tangled green obscurity. The old boys continued to live in their decaying farmhouse looking out over a farmyard of bent disintegrating barns and humped undulating roofs; astonishingly they were still using the original cloam oven and still gathering and burning bundles of faggots.
It was sold a few years ago and by chance we met the new owners in the pub. They are a delightful couple. Not in their first flush of youth Jim is instantly noticeable by a shock of wild bright white hair; he’s buzzing with energy, passionate and eager, a zinging wire – his edges rounded and softened by a warm brown voice and a distinct west country burr. Mary has her feet firmly on the ground and a gentle yet tough stoicism. She has an open sincere face and large, expressive eyes in which you glimpse hidden depth. Both of them shine with the ruddy glow of outdoor living and smell of fresh air and wood, plaster and earth. Working ceaselessly on the farmhouse and buildings they have made a temporary home in one of the open crumbling barns and a caravan. To Robert’s delight they didn’t hesitate in inviting him over do some mothing.
Robert returned home his eyes bright with passion for the untamed and unspoiled beauty of the place. Brimming with excitement he said ‘It’s quite extraordinary. You stand in the farm and look out over the surrounding countryside with all those neatly clipped hedges and bright green fields and just know…’
‘Hang on, hang on’ I said ‘Maybe you shouldn’t class it as a farm, should you? I mean it hasn’t actually produced food in an age, has it? Isn’t it an area, a wildlife haven. Extraordinary, yes, but a farm?’
As often happens in our own feisty, ardent relationship a discussion was soon raging about, as Robert will have it, the semantics of the definition of farm…
A farm is the basic unit in agriculture. It is a section of land devoted to the production and management of food, either produce or livestock.
So says Wikipeidia and the Oxford dictionary.
‘Uh!’ poofs Robert ‘That is such outdated thinking’ and dismisses it out of hand.
With us this is an old, well worn and often revisited spat. Robert believes, fervently, that not all farms – land – have to be managed mainly for food. Some of it, just a small proportion should be managed for nature – marginal farms like ours and Jim and Mary’s. We are pretty refined and adept at this dialogue now, but still it manages to get our blood boiling, turns us red in the face, gasping and choking at the heinous atrocities the other is mouthing. Yet we are basically of the same mind and thought about most things. We cycle tandem ninety percent of the time.
Why am I at odds with this? Why do I feel it’s slightly immoral? Why do I feel it’s a luxury to be the custodian of a farm (as that’s what we are) and manage it primarily for wildlife? Running through me is a twist of tough chewed fibre – possibly a remnant of my bog Irish ancestry or strands of my Scottish heritage. Whatever, this part of me feels vaguely uncomfortable – almost guilty. To me, as guardian of a farm, I have a sense of duty, an obligation, to try to grow the best quality produce I can without compromise to my stock, the wildlife or the landscape. Can I achieve the balance I strive for? Robert thinks not. He believes I do compromise nature…and due to the demands of my livestock I’m unable to allow wildlife the unfettered freedom it requires; nor am I able to produce enough food on these marginal soils to render the farm economically viable. I’m falling between two stools. He has a point.