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If anybody had told me I would enjoy reading a book about the effect of changing consumer demands and habits, the growth of large supermarket chains and the effects of these factors on British farmers and the countryside, I would have been very sceptical. But, whilst Richard Bensons book delivers a very clear message on these themes, it is very different because it is his own personal and very moving account of the fate of his farming family, told in a very engaging manner with great humour and brilliant observation.
Bensons family worked on the land in the West Yorkshire for generations but he never took to farming being clumsy when it came to farm machinery and unable to even shoo a pig along without falling over. Fifteen years after he left for London and established himself as a journalist, he received news that his father and brother were giving up the struggle to run the pig and arable farm where he had grown up. With the farm facing mounting debts, the bank had forced upon them the decision to sell all the assets so that they could, at least, hold on to the house.
During his frequent home visits to assist his mother father and brother in the arrangements for the sale and support them through their subsequent period of readjustment, Benson started to write the notes and observations on which this book is based. He describes the history of his close, loving but undemonstrative family and his upbringing in a house where it was considered normal to find sick piglets tumbling out of their warming place in the oven and equally commonplace to return from school to find their mother butchering a pigs carcase at the kitchen table. Juxtaposed with such reminiscences is the story of the last days of the Benson farm together with thoughts on the widespread demise of such farms and the consequent changes in the rural economy and landscape.
There are some poignant moments most noticeably the description of the evening after the farm sale when his father, who has handled the whole affair with dignity and without bitterness, sits quietly in the farmhouse kitchen. His wife wraps her arms around him and he finally succumbs to his grief. Then there were only sobs, and tiny pats of his tears falling on the muddly carpet at his feet. Yet whilst the authors involvement is obvious, his narrative remains detached and never plunges the depths of self indulgence or resorts to the maudlin. Despite a period of mild depression his father maintains his strength and the family, who never seem to lose their optimism, find other ways to make a living. Even when the farm buildings are transformed and Bensons father takes a clandestine tour of the mock rustic dwellings, with chalk exposed walls, designed for migrating city slickers and not for locals, he demonstrates little sentimentality merely declaring, I know its fashionable but its mucky!
In keeping with the perceived Benson family spirit of pragmatism, optimism and humour, the narrative, although at times deeply moving, is mostly upbeat, amusing and always entertaining. The pages burst with Yorkshire flavour as the author relates little incidents and anecdotes and introduces characters and dialogues seemingly typical of the terseness and bluntness associated with the region (if such exists!). "Just because you talked about your feelings all the time didn't mean you were any more sensitive, or that you cared more."
Throughout Benson gives little insights into the changing patterns of demand which, for the most part, are not consumer led but manipulated by the supermarket giants and which are the root cause of much of the rural change many of us deplore today. He does not labour the point. Just one short history chapter and some final statistics in the epilogue draw attention to this wider perspective but he illustrates it throughout by references to family conversations about practices and incidents which seem contrary to common sense.
He tells of a local farmer forced to dump tons of potatoes because there wasnt a sufficient quantity for supermarket buyers and the smaller concerns had mostly closed. His Mum, after a trip to Scarborough, reports, (I) saw a boat in the harbour with 400 tons of potatoes all for McCains. And what is wrong with our own spuds?
His father observes, Nobody wants pigs at all. Nobodyll even come and fetch them. Mum explains, They buy pigs from Poland and process them at Winterswick bacon factory and then put on t label that its British cured. You buy York ham at tsupermarket and its never been anywhere near York!
Brother Guy observes the paradox that, Everyone goes on about fresh food and free-range pork . . . but if they can get it f***ing cheaper . . .
His father sums up the drive for uniformity of size and shape in our groceries, "I reckon folks today think if summat's natural it's perfect, but it in't. Nature's imperfect. Natural's all shapes, like taties.
However, as the book draws to a close, the author realises that, unlike himself, his family have become quite resigned to such progress. He describes to Guy a bright yellow sign on a grass verge with words in type meant to look like chummy handwriting Grown for Asda Bursting with Freshness. He is expecting an indignant response but Guy thinks such signs are good. People dont know whats in fields. Its got to be good if they realise what they eat comes out of tground and not a packet. His own regrets are eventually put into perspective as the realisation dawns that he hasnt been grieving for the changing face of Yorkshire but for the things he felt he had personally lost and writes, In the end I was just another city person imposing a set of ideas on the countryside which the countryside had never claimed for itself
I read the book when it was first published in 2005. On reading it again, I couldnt stop thinking of the ever growing demand for farmers markets, the increasing ranges of organic food we now see on sale and the new supermarket advertising war, each claiming that it sells more locally produced food than the others.
Maybe consumers are learning and becoming more vocal in their demands for locally produced quality products? But, if they are, its too late to save the majority of small farmers. In 1939, there were 5,000,000 farms in Britain. The majority were small mixed units of less than 50 acres and one and a half million families made their living directly from agriculture. In 2005 only 191,000 farms remained and, of those, just 19,000 accounted for more than 50% of national output. It is estimated that three out of four jobs in British agriculture have been lost since 1945. Fifty years ago, farmers received 50p of every £1 spent on food in Britain; in 2005 it was just 7.5p.
I was brought in a village and many of my friends lived on farms where we played. Admittedly this was in the South-East and not in Yorkshire but much of the appeal of the book for me was in that I could identify with the scenes described and the idiosyncrasies of rural life. This made it difficult to make a personal judgement on how wide an audience this book would attract. However it has been highly acclaimed, quickly becoming a best seller, short-listed for The Guardian First Book Award 2005 and nominated for the Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year 2006. Overall I would recommend it as a must read for everybody who shares the growing concern about the decline in our rural areas and those who belong to the expanding ranks of consumers demanding to know the exact nature of the foods supplied on our supermarket shelves. Although it is a personal story of one family, its an eminently readable educational piece for all!
Richard Benson is a former editor of The Face and has written for many newspapers and magazines in the UK. The Farm is his first book
The paperback version of The Farm was published by Penguin in 2006 ( ISBN 978-0141012940) r r p £8.99 but currently available on Amazon for £ 6.29
In Memory of Betty
Where it came from I really dont know, but I do remember hearing, as a child, that one would never meet a poor farmer. So, when in the nineteen eighties I heard that the suicide rate among farmers was fast increasing I couldnt understand what farmers had to be so down about. Of course, now older and wiser, I understand better what has happened to British farmers in the last twenty years or so.
In The Farm Richard Benson tells the story of his family and how they have suffered like many farming families. Richard decided to go to university and study English rather than joining his father on the farm (he never really took to any aspect of farming) but his younger brother Guy was always destined to continue the family tradition. Much of the book centres on the relationship between Richard and Guy; Guy explains to Richard why farming is in the state it is and tells Richard the local gossip farm workers who have killed themselves, how hard it is to get a girlfriend when you have to stay back and look after sick sheep and what its like to dig a pit for 300 tonnes of potatoes that the potato merchant no longer wants. The story starts as Richard gets learns that his parents are having to sell the family farm to satisfy the bank.
The Farm is part social commentary, part family biography but the two work well together and complement each other. The biography aspect is important in explaining why the changes to agriculture and commerce have hit farmers so badly. There is a particularly telling chapter where Richard describes his fathers schooling and shows how his father was destined to farm, without anyone ever questioning this. Richard also mentions stories from his own life, removed from the countryside and thinks about how his background has shaped his views and his priorities.
Richard Benson makes the perfect narrator for this story; he is able to use his close contacts to give a real insiders view but he also asks his questions from the point of view of the reader who may not be so informed. In essence, he asks the questions readers want to know and asks them of people with the answers.
The Farm is a well-considered and structured book; Richard Benson doesnt attribute blame for the decline of agriculture in Britain, but gives a more balanced account of how it has affected farmers in terms of much more than just money. He looks at the problems young people have finding affordable housing; he considers the role the supermarkets have played in changing the buying habits of the public and he investigates some of the ideas farmers have come up with to replace lost incomes.
Far from being a tirade against the injustice of what has happened to British agriculture, The Farm is a charming view of a happy childhood and a close family. Bensons account is balanced and focused and the nostalgic episodes always relate back to the central point of the book.
The writing is easy and relaxed and the political always make way for the social aspects. As an insight into rural life this is as invaluable as any commissioned report or historic document. In fact, students of sociology or agriculture would do well to look at it when considering the impact on farmers and rural communities of modern methods and consumerism.
The only fault I can find is that the author doesn't really put forward much hope for the future; neither does he come up with any real solutions. He touches briefly on farmers running bed and breakfast accommodation or going into specialist crops but he fails to tackle the bigger picture.
Richard Benson conveys nostalgia without being over sentimental and explains without preaching. I thoroughly recommend The Farm to anyone who enjoys a good story well told. Richard Benson may not have been a born farmer but he has done the farming community a great service by informing the wide public about the things going on the in the countryside. For this he should be commended.
Available through Amazon from only 1Pence, new copies from £7.19
Published by Penguin, 240 pages.
When Richard Benson was growing up he felt like the village idiot with O'levels' glowing. School reports aren't much help when you're trying to help a sow give birth, or drive a power harrow in a straight line without getting half the hedgerow stuck in the tines. He left Yorkshire to work as a journalist in London, but returned when his dad called with the news that they were going to have to sell the family farm, and, in so doing, leave the home and livelihood that the Bensons had worked for generations. This is not only a moving personal account, but also one that reflects a profound change in rural life.