Charlie Pye-Smith is a farming and environmental commentator with many previous titles to his name. To research this survey of modern food production, he spent a year traveling around the British countryside in a motor home, interviewing farmers and manufacturers and learning how things are likely to change when Brexit takes effect. In the face of surpluses and falling profits, he suggests that in the future farmers will need to diversify. Questioning received wisdom, he also proposes that animal welfare might be more achievable in larger-scale operations and that environmentally friendly techniques like crop rotation might actually lead to higher yields.
Many of the farms the author visits have survived due to their adaptability. For instance, the Belchers of Leicestershire found they could double their profits if they processed their cattle, pigs and lambs themselves and sold the meat at farmer’s markets. Likewise, the Blands, dairy farmers in Cumbria, branched out after they lost their whole herd to foot-and-mouth disease in 2001: Now they produce ice cream from their Jersey cows and run a successful tea room. On the other hand, specializing in a heritage product can also be an effective strategy. In Yorkshire, the author meets farmers who have been raising sheep locally for centuries. “It’s all about eating the view … linking Swaledale sheep to a beautiful upland landscape. Eat our lamb and you’re helping to protect the Dales,” is the message.
Pye-Smith also looks into pig welfare and plowing techniques for cereal crops. In a chapter on fruit, he tells the recent story of apples and strawberries through cider and jam production, respectively. A section on vegetables centers on potatoes. I learned a number of facts that surprised me:
- Over half Britain’s potatoes are turned into crisps and chips
- “Outdoor-reared” pork is not necessarily the ideal because cold, wet winters are tough on piglets and sows
- Cider coming into fashion over the last 10–15 years is largely thanks to Magners’ advertising campaigns
- Nowadays the average Briton spends just 10% of their income on food, as opposed to 33% in the 1950s.
The book strikes an appropriate balance between the cutting-edge and the traditional, and between caution and optimism. Although Brexit will lead to a total loss of farmers’ EU subsidies and a drop in the number of Eastern Europeans coming over to pick produce, there may be potential benefits too. As one large-scale vegetable farmer opines, “we should see Brexit as a great opportunity to promote home-grown food production.” I appreciated how open the author is to organic and conservation agriculture, but he also doesn’t present them as magical solutions. For the most part, I sensed no hidden agenda, though he is perhaps pro-grouse shooting and seems dismissive of city journalists like George Monbiot who claim to know better than the real countryside experts.
This is most like a condensed, British version of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Pye-Smith makes the same sort of investigations into food production methods, including tiny snippets from his own life along the way. Crucially, the book is readable throughout, never sinking into tedious statistics or jargon. The author’s black-and-white photographs, three to five per chapter, are a nice addition. In essence this is a collection of stories about a way of life that faces challenges but is not doomed. I was reassured to hear that people increasingly care about where their food comes from. Martin Thatcher of Thatchers cider says “People have become more discriminating. They are now much more interested in what they’re eating and drinking than they were in the past, and how it’s produced.” If you, too, are interested in how food gets to you in Britain, be sure to pick up this book.
Land of Plenty is published today, July 27th, by Elliott & Thompson. Thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.
I’d never heard of this 1935 Pulitzer Prize winner before I saw a large display of titles from publisher Head of Zeus’s new imprint, Apollo, at Foyles bookshop in London the night of the Diana Athill event. Apollo, which launched with eight titles in April, aims to bring lesser-known classics out of obscurity: by making “great forgotten works of fiction available to a new generation of readers,” it intends to “challenge the established canon and surprise readers.” I’ll be reviewing Howard Spring’s My Son, My Son for Shiny New Books soon, and I’m tempted by the Eudora Welty and Christina Stead titles. Rounding out the list are two novels set in Eastern Europe, a Sardinian novel in translation, and an underrated Western.
Missouri-born Johnson was just 24 years old when she published Now in November. The novel is narrated by the middle Haldmarne daughter, Marget, looking back at a grueling decade on the family farm. She recognizes how unsuited her father, Arnold, was to farming: “He hadn’t the resignation that a farmer has to have – that resignation which knows how little use to hope or hate.” The remaining members of this female-dominated household are mother Willa, older sister Kerrin and younger sister Merle. Half-feral Kerrin is a creature apart. She’s always doing something unpredictable, like demonstrating knife-throwing to disastrous effect or taking over as the local schoolteacher, a job she’s not at all right for.
The arrival of Grant Koven, a neighbor in his thirties hired to help Arnold with hard labor, seems like the only thing that might break the agricultural cycle of futile hope and disappointment. Marget quickly falls in love with him, but it takes her a while to realize that her sisters are smitten too. They all keep hoping their fortunes will change:
‘This year will have to be different,’ I thought. ‘We’ve scrabbled and prayed too long for it to end as the others have.’ The debt was still like a bottomless swamp unfilled, where we had gone year after year, throwing in hours of heat and the wrenching on stony land, only to see them swallowed up and then to creep back and begin again.
Yet as drought settles in, things only get worse. The fear of losing everything becomes a collective obsession; a sense of insecurity pervades the community. The Ramseys, black tenant farmers with nine children, are evicted. Milk producers go on strike and have to give the stuff away before it sours. Nature is indifferent and neither is there a benevolent God at work: when the Haldmarnes go to church, they are refused communion as non-members.
Marget skips around in time to pinpoint the central moments of their struggle, her often fragmentary thoughts joined by ellipses – a style that seemed to me ahead of its time:
if anything could fortify me against whatever was to come […] it would have to be the small and eternal things – the whip-poor-wills’ long liquid howling near the cave… the shape of young mules against the ridge, moving lighter than bucks across the pasture… things like the chorus of cicadas, and the ponds stained red in evenings.
Michael Schmidt, the critic who selected the first eight Apollo books, likens Now in November to the work of two very different female writers: Marilynne Robinson and Emily Brontë. What I think he is emphasizing with those comparisons is the sense of isolation and the feeling that struggle is writ large on the landscape. The Haldmarne sisters certainly wander the nearby hills like the Brontë sisters did the Yorkshire moors.
As points of reference I would also add Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (resurrected by NYRB Classics in 2014), which also give timeless weight to the female experience of Midwest farming. Like the Smiley, Now in November stars a trio of sisters and makes conscious allusions to King Lear. Kerrin reads the play and thinks of their father as Lear, while Marget quotes it as a prophecy that the worst is yet to come: “I remembered the awful words in Lear: ‘The worst is not so long as we can say “This is the worst.”’ Already this year, I’d cried, This is enough! uncounted times, and the end had never come.”
Johnson lived to age 80 and published another 11 books, but nothing ever lived up to the success of her first. This is an atmospheric and strangely haunting novel. The plot is simple enough, but the writing elevates it into something special. The plaintive tone, the folksy metaphors, and the philosophical earnestness all kept me eagerly traveling along with Marget to see where this tragic story might lead. Apollo has done the literary world a great favor in bringing this lost classic to light.
With thanks to Blake Brooks at Head of Zeus for the free copy.