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    PloughCast 82: Regenerative Agriculture in the Lake District

    By James Rebanks, Helen Rebanks, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    May 22, 2024

    About This Episode

    James and Helen Rebanks talk about raising sheep and cattle in the Lake District. James describes the landscape where their families have lived for six hundred years, and how they have begun practicing regenerative agriculture as a way of restoring the land that recent conventional agriculture had damaged. He gives details about the sheep and cattle herds and the grazing systems they’ve established.

    Then Helen describes what led her to write her book on the work of the farmer’s wife, and addresses mothers, who are often the ones making choices about food that are linked to questions of sustainable agriculture.

    They discuss the concept of rewilding, and how that is not necessarily either possible or desirable – the landscape has not been wild for thousands of years – but that increasing complexity and biodiversity is both possible and necessary.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to The PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. Peter and I are speaking today with James and Helen Rebanks, authors between them of five books on their life as farmers and shepherds in England’s Lake District. James, Helen, welcome! To start us off, can you tell us where it is that you’re recording from, and what you’ve been doing there?

    James Rebanks: So we’ve been living all the time on this farm since 2014. And my family have had this particular piece of land since the 1960s but we’ve lived in this area for at least 600 years, probably longer. Generations of both families have farmed in this area. Our grandparents were friends so it’s quite a small community around – everybody knows everybody else. And, yeah, we know that’s quite unusual but I think maybe in some of the American communities, maybe not so unusual.

    So we live in the Lake District which is in the northwest of England, just south of the border of Scotland really. There’s thirteen valleys in the Lake District with different files, and it’s very very well known for tourism, and because of its writers and poets and painters. Yeah, Wordsworth and that’s for sure – the daffodils are just over the hill from us, where he wrote – the “wandering lonely as a cloud” daffodils are literally over the hill from us, a mile away maybe, in Ullswater.

    It’s a picturesque landscape. And as I say it’s really well visited by about ninety million tourists every year, and there’s only a few hundred farms in this region.

    Thirteen little valleys with 43,000 people living in them, and 90 million visitors every year, and about 200 farming families managing the vast majority of that landscape. So it’s a funny, funny mix.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Now of course you weren’t tourists in the Lake District – you’ve been running this farm for generations, have been in the area for 600 years, as you said. Can you describe your farm.

    James Rebanks: Yeah, so it’s – for the farmers listing, it’s a terrible farm. It’s on a forty-five degree slope. We get something like sixty inches of rainfall a year. It’s quite poor quality land. It’s what we would call a fell farm – “fell” is like an old Norse word for mountain. It’s a mountain farm basically.

    What’s unique about the farms here is that we still have huge areas of common land. So the mountain land is not enclosed, it isn’t fenced, and the different flocks put their sheep up there for the summer – used to be for all year round, now it’s just for the summer. And we have to work collaboratively to bring them down with sheep dogs and sort of working as a community which is a very strange hangover from the distant past. But on our own home farm, it’s private land and we found sheep and cattle so we found the native breed of sheep for here, Herdwick sheep, and we breed Belted Galloway cattle.

    And, yeah, so we’re a beef and sheep operation and we particularly specialize in high quality grass genetics. We’re basically trying to focus on breeding cattle that are super healthy cattle and sheep that are super healthy, super low maintenance and can live on our farm, that might have been very poor and hard weather can live on the grass of this farm and basically have a grazing platform that runs entirely on soil, rain and sunlight. Yeah, keeping it really simple working with natural processes.

    Yeah, so I think anybody listening to this that knows about farming or is a farmer will know that it can be quite grim economically. It’s quite grim. And one of the reasons for that is that we went along with ways of thinking about economics and ways about thinking about farming, which made us very input heavy, which made us very weak relative to other structures like supermarkets, and the long term effect of that throughout the life and before that right back to the Second World War is that we have less and less farmers, that farmers make hardly any money, hardly any of the money we spend on food ends up in the farmer’s pocket, and you have this really sad situation.

    I think it’s worse in America actually – a really sad flight from the land where family farms everywhere are declining and struggling and dying, replaced by sort of monocultural agribusiness and I think it could – long story very short, because it is in my book that I wrote called Pastoral Song, we’re not going to go like lambs to the slaughter and just do that. I’m not going to do that, we’re not going to do that. We’ve – grim metaphor but we’re not going to be that.

    So we became over about a twenty-year period conscious of what was happening to us. And we’ve done everything in our power to make us get out of that system. We don’t want to produce low value commodities, we don’t want to be screwed by supermarkets, we don’t want to spend all of our money on big John Deere machinery, we don’t want to be buying synthetic fertilizers from large oil companies, we don’t want to be going broke.

    And I think it’s important to say we want to be part of the climate solution as farmers and think of ways to farm in and really work with natural processes – sunlight, rainfall– and track that carbon in our soils and think about healthy soils and not be the doom and gloom story across the world of farming. Yeah, be progressive in that. And we’re both.

    We, myself, people can agree or disagree but I personally have never been more excited about farming. We’ve turned our farm around so it isn’t a loss making endeavor anymore, with a healthy profit. It’s more fun than it used to be. We’re looking after that land better than we used to. And we’re not getting destroyed by these forces beyond our control anymore.

    And for anybody who’s really interested in regenerative agriculture, we’re doing the kind of things that several great Americans are doing actually, people like Greg Judy, or I know we’re going to do the event with Joel Salatin at Fox Hill that’s coming up soon.

    Yeah, so very much influenced by people like that, people that are thinking really, really thoughtfully about soil and managed grazing. And we’re great friends with Greg and Jan Judy in Missouri. And they’ve been very, very useful to us as people who have been doing this stuff along with the nose who we were able to copy and learn from.

    And now our farm is doing some of that as well. So we run grazing schools, people come to learn from us and other experts about soil, about regenerative grazing, and yeah we’ve had people on that course over the last two years that manage about half a million acres. And I love that. I love that too, really, that our journey can help a bunch of other people to learn more quickly and turn their farms around. I’m talking too much, but we’re passionate about family farms. I think we need more farmers, not less in our societies.

    And we need good nutrient dense food, don’t we? Real food, not the processed junk that we’ve been encouraged to eat that isn’t good for us. And I also think, if I’m honest, I think Helen does as well – It’s about power, isn’t it? Do we want to hand over all of the power about our food system, about our land, to tiny numbers of very powerful people or companies? I don’t.

    So yeah, one of my great heroes is Wendell Berry, the other sort of American writer on these issues, which many of your listeners will know about. Wendell’s a friend of ours as well, and Tanya, his wife. So we’re very much in that tradition, both in terms of the books that we’re writing and the way that we farm. Yeah. Sorry, that was a mouthful.

    Helen Rebanks: I do agree, wholeheartedly.

    Peter Mommsen: I was struck by a line early on in your book, Pastoral Song, I think the American edition is called English Pastoral, for listeners who want to check that out, a wonderful book about this realization that farming has kind of acquired a bad name, being a farmer has gone from being someone viewed as being sort of in touch with nature, responsible for bringing food to civilization, to being a contributor to environmental destruction. Could you talk just sort of about what you kind of feel the perception of farming is and how farmers can address it?

    James Rebanks: OK, sorry. I’m jumping back. I think a lot of farmers still think that they’re really good people, that everything that they do is unproblematic. They pay their taxes, they work hard, they absolutely do work hard. They’re trying to do something noble, which is produce food. They’re trying to do it in really difficult circumstances. And they’re doing a valuable role.

    So in the last twenty or thirty years, it’s a real kick in the teeth for farmers to discover that they’re now blamed for some other stuff. And now what is the other stuff? The other stuff is we now know, and it’s true, it’s absolutely true in the science, that there’s been a disastrous decline in the abundance of wild nature and in the biodiversity of wild nature. That’s because we’re taking up vast amounts of the world. And as we made food cheaper, we not only took over the land, but we grossly simplified ecosystems. We drained bogs, we straightened rivers, we drained and ploughed fields. And after the Second World War, we got really serious about it. We started using industrial pesticides and herbicides. We started using ammonia nitrate and fertilizers. And we made fields very, very productive things, which was our first job, producing food. We became awesome at it, but we made fields sterile. And way too much of the world is a field.

    Arguably, we can’t help that. But if most of the world is fields and then we make the field sterile, it has an absolutely devastating effect on nature. And a lot of farmers are struggling to get their heads around that because they’re thinking, hang on, you asked us to produce food and to do it cheaply. And how can it be wrong to have done it so well? But it turns out the world’s complicated, that you can do things too well, you can make fields too sterile. So what do we do about that?

    And I think some, not all farmers would agree with me and Helen and others. Some farmers would want to bury their heads in the sand and just keep going with the system that they’re in. Some perhaps can’t get out of it because they’re now in such huge financial debt, etc. And some others like us would say, well, hang on a minute, we have to do something different. Like maybe, so on our farm on a small scale, right? How do we rewiggle the rivers so it’s a more natural river system? How might we get ponds and wetlands back into the low places where my father and grandfather drained them? What do we do about the fact that all the trees are old? Can we put some young woodland in? Can we take some of the least productive fields out of production or their hedges and edges and make that do that job? Can we get more carbon into the soil with cover crops or regenerative grazing? Can we get the diversity of plants back into the field? So in our grazing fields, on the farm that we live, we’re lucky. My dad and granddad were such old fashioned farmers. We have over 200 species of plants, flowers and grasses. If my grandfather and dad had been able to modernize this farm, we’d have about five. So there’s been this vast stripping away. And I think the challenge that we face now is how do we do both? How do we feed seven billion people and do it in such an inspired way that it’s full of trees, it’s full of wild flowers, it’s full of insects?

    And you might despair and think it’s impossible, but I actually think the more I learn about it, it’s not impossible. It’s actually very possible. And that’s a big subject, but we believe on our farm. So therefore we do it on our farm that you can be both quite productive and good stewards of the land. Sorry, Helen.

    Helen Rebanks: No, I completely agree. My grandparents’ time farming was seen as a really respected job and vocation in life and people admired farmers and you know, understood what they produced, valued what they produced and didn’t waste food and understood where it came from much more than they do now. We’ve moved much more, we’ve moved away from the land, haven’t we, into big cities and urban areas. Kids don’t understand that vegetables come from healthy soil anymore, and milk doesn’t come from cows, it comes from a grocery store in a plastic bottle, and there’s very little connection in the land that feeds us and the people that grow this food and to hand it into big industrial farms, it’s wrong.

    James Rebanks: And we actually now know that those, what we thought were the most brilliant farms on Earth, are now really struggling in terms of their soils. They don’t have a different organic matter or life in their soils anymore because monocultures are hopeless for that. We know that they’re poisoning the groundwater with all of the chemicals that they’re using. We know that that results in a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

    We know that the Mississippi is flowing that dirty brown muddy color and probably shouldn’t be a lot of the time. That’s the soil of the Midwest flowing off down it. I’m picking on America here, I could just as easily be picking on parts of England. The same technology, the same way of thinking has traveled all around the world.

    And yes, it feeds us. So it’s complex. This is not about attacking farmers, nor is it about saying we can live from birds and bees and butterflies. We can’t, we don’t eat those things. It’s a super complicated thing where I think we as farmers have to be big enough to be honest about what we did and what we’ve done, and then try and be big enough to mend it to the greatest possible extent.

    And I think that requires a dialogue with everybody else where we say, OK, this might cost more. You may have to spend more on food. So we used to spend 33 percent of our income on household income on food. I think in America now that’s down to about 7 percent for affluent people. It may be that there’s some tough news in this that people have to hear, which is maybe if you can afford to, you have to spend more on food. And that’s tough because there’s so many people living in poverty, you sound like some affluent farmers telling everybody to suck it up and just spend more money that they haven’t got on food.

    So it touches on everything. It probably leads you to think about wealth distribution in our societies, how and why people are poor, how they would eat as well. You start off in my field asking questions and it spreads all around the world to how you think about politics, how you think about religion and what you think a good society would look like. Yeah, and it connects to health completely as well, you know, and healthcare systems and the pressure on those from eating ultra-processed foods now.

    A full system restructuring is needed, isn’t it? Like you say, it starts off in the fields when you ask questions about all of these things. And we’ve been basically since the Second World War, certainly since the ’60s and ’70s, programmed to not ask questions about food. Literally, as long as it had the right number of calories and it tasted good and it was cheap, stick it in yourself, right? Like, eat more of it. And we now know that calories aren’t the only judge of food. It needs to have all the micronutrients and all the other things that we need and it has less in than it used to.

    We now know that if it’s too cheap, you basically outsource to some poor schmuck in a field somewhere to do it in a nasty way that trashed the earth. You know, all our personal decisions about what we’re eating and our political decisions, big political decisions about the kind of state we want or the kind of communities we want – it’s all connected.

    Yeah, the chickens are coming home to roost. That’s a terrible metaphor. But this stuff, this stuff, no, it’s coming home. Like, we don’t live in the 1950s or ’60s anymore where it’s all fine. Yeah. Where you can believe in their stuff with blissful ignorance. We were actually coming up against the limits. We’re well into an age where you come up against the limits and yeah, and that’s leading to real tensions, which is why farmers all over Europe are protesting at the moment. And this is becoming a real hot, hot sort of political issue.

    Oh, it’s a nice way to think about it, yeah. I mean, it’s certainly, we definitely want to go smaller rather than bigger and think about what we can do here that is beneficial for the land and the health and everything else, for the livestock that we have in our hands. I mean, I just think that’s the way to go and I think we need many, many more small farmers doing these practices. Yeah, because the irony is the reason that farms, particularly North American farms, but also everywhere else around the world that copies that, the reason that they’re huge, the reason that they’re thousands of hectares now is because that monoculture model was about using the minimal amount of human labor, but the biggest possible amount of mechanical power, which is why the tractors are way bigger than they were twenty years ago, the combine keeps getting bigger, everything’s massive and costs a fortune.

    The trouble with it is that they’re producing corn, they’re producing soy, they’re producing things which don’t make particularly good human food without being massively processed into fructose, sugar and all that garbage, corn syrup. What we really need when we start asking about what kind of diet we should be eating is local, much more local food systems which produce all of the veg, the nuts, the fruit, all of those things for a much healthier diet and we now know that those actually require smaller farms with way more human skill, way more hands-on human management. They don’t scale up in the same way. So there’s a sort of myth at the heart of the industrial model because now the great farmers, when you look around the world, the people like Richard Perkins, who’s trying to work out how small a farm might be to be this amazing sort of food hub doing no-till horticulture.

    There’s another school of thought which came out of Japan. There’s a Japanese writer from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s with a book called The One-Straw Revolution and it was about how can I use natural processes so that I’m not working like a dog all of the time? If a rainforest can grow itself, why can’t a food forest? What are the processes that are happening there? How would I put plants together?

    There’s so much amazing stuff happening but the future isn’t what we were told it was, the huge fields of corn and soy. We actually need to engineer a different future in which we’re all surrounded, even in cities, we’re surrounded by local food which is the stuff we should be eating. And I think that lends itself to talking about the quality of life for people as well because I think it’s missing in a lot of modern life, city life, that people are connected with real tangible things like healthy air and water and soil and getting their hands and growing things and working together in green communities.

    Helen Rebanks: Yeah, mental health can be hugely impacted positively by doing real things. Going back to cooking from scratch is a passion of mine to try and help inspire people to do and it’s all connected.

    James Rebanks: And if you look at from the nineteenth century onwards economics was dominated by people who’d escaped the land basically, clever men usually. They’d never had anything to do with agriculture, they thought the places that they’d come from were dirty, stupid, and poor because everybody was a farmer and that human progress was getting as far away from that as possible.

    Turns out that’s a dreadful idea, an absolutely dreadful idea. It’s dreadful for our health, it’s dreadful for our mental health. We should not be trying to flee from work because it keeps you healthy, it keeps you active, it keeps you good. We should not be trying to flee from the land and that thinking is absolutely ingrained in our societies at the moment. Like when I first came to America some years ago I was horrified that people are using that expression flyover states. Like the place that feeds everybody in America is fit only for flying over. It’s of no interest to anybody, the people that live there are beneath contempt and then fast forward a few years you realize those people are angry and disaffected and they’re voting for Trump and it’s a huge political problem.

    James Rebanks: So all of these things, I keep saying it, all of these things are connected. We need to help healthy societies where we care about each other and as Helen wrote about in a book, food is an absolute key part of that. Like what is healthier for a family or a community than growing and eating food together? It’s literally the stuff of life, it’s what makes life good.

    Helen Rebanks: Oh completely. I completely agree. It’s unpaid, unseen, invisible. Looking after a family and putting the meals on the table – there’s a lot of labor there that is dismissed as being not a worthy way to spend your time and live a life in the modern world that tells us all to be shiny individuals. And I wrote the book to highlight the work of the carers in the families that do the majority of holding that emotional load as much as the domestic load. It’s something that is dismissed and unpaid and unseen, as I say.

    And I’ve always held to my values with what I’ve chosen in life, to be a stay-at-home mum and not have an independent income separate to James. And to throw it all in together and work together as a team to make things happen. But like you say, it is invisible. And as a farmer’s wife, I’m incredibly proud to do the work that my mum did, my grandmother, great-grandmother, going back generations.

    And I wanted to put that voice into literature and say, “This matters.” And I’m incredibly proud to do it to this day. And I want to be a cheerleader for anybody that’s cooking and sourcing good ingredients and doing that load.

    Nothing complicated, really honest, I call it honest food, just straightforward meals that you can put together. And it’s like another great American food writer, Michael Pollan, he said a long time ago, didn’t he? It’s mums. And mums are usually a woman, that could be a man. Mums are absolutely vital. It was mum’s job throughout history. Also, it was somebody’s job throughout history, usually a woman, to put the food on the table. And to think about what it was and what its nutritional value was and to think about who you bought it off.

    We outsource that too much, don’t we? We outsource it to companies and anywhere you can pick food up, anywhere. And the problem with that is that they’re not your mum. Those companies are not our mums and they don’t care and they have very different motives.

    James Rebanks: We’re both, you can’t see, but we’re both grinning at each other because we haven’t got used to the fact that we both write books.

    Helen Rebanks: That’s a lot of surprise. We’re both a little surprised that we’re that couple. Yes, Susannah, they do compliment each other and they speak to each other, the works that we’ve created. I felt that there was a voice that was missing in books and media and all sorts. And it was the work that, the voice of the work that I do.

    And as I’m sending this book out into the world, various different places, the responses I’m getting are phenomenal from so many people that are seeing their lives on the page for the first time and saying, I feel seen here. I feel heard. I feel respected and valued. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for writing this. And it seems like I’ve turned such an ordinary life into looking at it and putting the spotlight on it and going, this is extraordinary.

    James Rebanks: It’s very worth saying that one of the things that triggered Helen to write her book was, and I’m speaking well on here, we went to quite an important gathering of people. It’s actually on Prince Charles’s farm – the King as he is now.

    And there were all these people who were the heads of organizations about food or farming or the environment. And technically Helen had sort of come with me. I think that was the sort of thing.

    Helen Rebanks: I went, honestly, I went for a day out. I went for the nice lunch and to visit Highgrove, the home farm of King Charles. And we had a really good tour and a look round and there were an awful lot of people with different interests in land. And there was like a think tank kind of meeting, wasn’t it, James, that you were part of?

    James Rebanks: And there was just a moment where I looked across the room and Helen’s eyes were fired open. I could see something had happened. And then when she spoke, she basically spent most of the day thinking she was with important people who were changing the world and she wasn’t. And then – I’m using Helen’s words here, she basically realized that everything they were talking about would never happen unless mums did it.

    Helen Rebanks: Unless people like me chose to spend the money on food that was from good farming, who understood how the food was being grown. And somehow in our lives, it doesn’t have to be an old fashioned man and woman couple of traditional gender roles. But somehow we’re going to try and organize ourselves in ways so that somebody does that for us, haven’t we? For our community, for our village, for our house.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, I would like to pivot at this point, if that’s OK, by throwing out a bit of a, I guess, a theory and I’d like you both to respond to it. So this podcast episode is going out in sort of tandem with a new issue of Plough magazine called The Riddle of Nature. And the starting point is that our civilization increasingly has a bad conscience about nature.

    I’ll put it that way. And James, you’ve mentioned many of the reasons, and Helen, why that is the case. You focused on the role of agriculture, right? And everything from soil exhaustion to poison to aquifers to agricultural runoff and worse nutrients and food. But there’s a million other ways that everyone who’s just a little bit aware of the discussion around these things can recite in their sleep, climate change, deforestation, habitat loss, and all those things. And so environmentalism has become a bigger and bigger force, especially for younger people, and a desire to reconnect, to heal, to protect nature. And a lot of that is great and we’re 100 percent for it.

    However, there’s one piece of it that I think would be worth querying a bit, and where I think that your books and what you’re trying to do on your farm helps us look at. And that is this idea that humans aren’t really part of nature, and that nature would be great if humans would kind of just vanish from the landscape.

    And, you know, there’s this idea around rewilding, which is kind of cool, right? You can read about these big parks in the Netherlands, I believe, where they just removed all people and brought in big herbivores and let the forest grow. And it all got sort of like Paleolithic again, and it’s kind of nifty. Obviously, you can’t do that when you have 7 billion people to feed everywhere.

    And so I guess that’s why we were thinking about focusing one episode on this “Against rewilding?” I guess you can put a question mark after that. Because so much of the landscapes you describe were shaped by humans, and their beauty and their natural richness actually comes from the work of long generations of farmers on them. So that’s my theory. What do you think of it?

    James Rebanks: So I find this whole topic fascinating. So I want you to kick me when I talk about it too much. Yeah, it’ll be a long answer. I’ll try and keep this as short as possible.

    Peter Mommsen: Shorter than my question.

    James Rebanks: Yeah, maybe. Maybe not as well. So I think we have to be really clear about definitions, right? So the first thing I think you have to do is go, OK, what is rewilding? Right? And for many people, it’s now a word that is everywhere, and it seems to mean everything and nothing. It seems to mean anything which puts more nature back in the world at one level. Right? Right, so letting some flowers grow in your lot. Yeah, from the most basic things, everything’s now called rewilding, right?

    If it means we need to put more nature in the world and we need some new answers and we need to let nature have its head more often, I am a rewilder, right? Like, that’s what we do on our farm. We’ve just helped nature along all the time. We make space for it all the time.

    But it sort of doesn’t mean that. And it begs some unpacking, right? And one of the sort of foundation questions needs to be what is nature? Like, what is nature? And are we really separate from it? When was that?

    The truth is your landscapes and our landscapes were once sort of savannas, they’re sort of a mixture of woodland and scrub and grazed grassland. They, wherever you live, I think there’s pretty much large herds of herbivores coming through. You had bison, we had something similar, wild cattle, etc, etc. They had long migratory routes, so they’re moving around between upland and lowland or even between countries that are across continents. And all of those things are shaping … and there’s large carnivores.

    And the really weird thing is when you look at it now, lots of that stuff’s gone. There aren’t any large herbivores, wild herbivores left in Britain that do the same job. We’ve parceled off all of the land, so you couldn’t recreate the large migration roots that used to be there. In many countries like Britain, we don’t have all of the large carnivores who regulate the populations. So what you really end up with when you talk about rewilding is sort of different forms of gardening or big enclosures, at one level or another.

    Now, less so in America, where you have some genuinely wild areas, but in many of the European countries, you’re talking about sort of forms of gardening. And they’re not necessarily bad. So if you take the Dutch example you were talking about, the Oostvaardersplassen, something like that, they basically had to put a fence around an area of the Netherlands that was reclaimed from the sea. And yes, fascinating things happened in there. There’s no large carnivores inside that pen, and they’re regulated by starvation.

    So it quickly becomes quite complicated and grim. So there have been legal challenges of that place because the animals within that large, supposedly wild pen are actually somebody’s responsibility legally. And they were basically letting them regulate their populations by starvation in cold winters.

    Now, a lot of that happens in the wild, in truth. But it turned out that if animals are legally under your responsibility, they’re still legally in Europe, farm animals. And if you don’t feed them when they’re starving, you’re guilty of welfare breaches.

    So I’m sort of blurting this out just to give you one example of how complicated this really is. So when somebody says to me, should we rewild your valley? I say, yeah, great. Restore the migratory routes to the south of England, bring back the saber-toothed tiger or the cave lion, bring back the oryx, the wild cattle that no longer exist, recreate the land bridge, while you’re at it, to Europe. What? That makes sense.

    So what we’re finding as farmers on the ground is that stuff just doesn’t make sense. Right. We have to work with what we’ve got. And the seven billion people to feed as well. We’re not going to get land off people without there being sort of massive, massive protests and problems. So what can we do?

    And what we can do is to learn from some of those rewilding projects and do everything in our power in and around our farming to put back the missing species where that’s possible, to use things like our cattle as a proxy for the old wild cattle that would have once been there, to think about how they would have moved around, maybe do it with electric fence wire.

    We haven’t got large carnivores, so it’s us being the carnivore, we’re culling the weakest animals or the slowest or the one we don’t like the look of, whatever that might be. So I think you can start out with these really grand ideas about what that rewilding would be. But if you’re not in Alaska or you’re not in the Rockies or maybe in the Alps, a bit of the Alps or bits of Russia, the reality for most of us is that we’re not going to get anywhere near to pristine nature. We’re going to have to fiddle around and sort of garden.

    And there’s a book I really like by an American called Emma Marris called Rambunctious Garden. And the sort of ethos of her book, I hope I’m not doing it a disservice, is she says, don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about all these details and theories. Just pack as much bloody nature as you can, and as much diversity as you can into your garden, your city, your town, your farm.

    Don’t worry about the ideological purity of these things. Let’s just do the best we can in all its glorious mad forms. And I think I’ve taken that sort of ethos, we’ve taken that ethos to our farm. Can we recreate thorny scrub? Yeah, let’s do it with fences in the worst bits of the farm. We haven’t got beavers. Can we recreate wetlands? Yeah, let’s do it with the digger in the boggy bit of the farm that my dad used to drain.

    Trees, how do you do that? Let’s do it around the edges of all of the fields in the hedgerows. So we’ve planted between thirty and fifty thousand trees now. It’s frankly more like gardening than it is sort of wild nature, but wild nature is the species we’ve still got a thriving in it. Right? I think it becomes really true. So in a nutshell, rewilding means everything and nothing. If what we really need to do is to get way more nature, way more biodiversity, way more natural processes back into our farm landscapes. That’s a great thing. And we need farmers on site to do it.

    I think what we really need to avoid is like a really damaging and disastrous culture war in which environmentalists are associated with land grabs and taking people’s land from them. And farmers in turn are associating themselves with fake foods and processed foods and other ways of feeding ourselves.

    I think a lot of us are just not going to go with that. We’re going to want to have some control over our food systems. And that means farming lots and lots of small farms crowned with nature. That’s what I think anyway.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, I was just thinking, I wish I could ship you some of our beavers because they just built a dam and it washed out a bunch of our roads and we had to rip their dam out. So we’re kind of like unrewilding here. So I feel a little hypocritical talking about it.

    But you know, there is an irony, right? You’re in the Lake District, this famous place where poets like Wordsworth went to seek, you know, nature. Right. And actually the nature they were looking at was a manmade, a human made landscape, one that your families had helped create.

    Could you talk about specifically, you know, your region and what you see when you kind of look out around your valley in the Lake District?

    James Rebanks: Oh, yes. I mean, it’s still quite a lot of small fields surrounded by stone walls. You call them stone stacked walls in the United States.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Drystone.

    James Rebanks: Exactly. Drystone walls that have been created by hand and built and maintained. And then there’s the intakes and common land and then the meadows in the bottoms of the valleys that we make some hay through the summer while the sheep and cattle are up on higher ground through the summer. And it’s just a flow and a pattern of livestock through the landscape at different times of the year and small roads and lakes and valleys, really. Yeah. And it’s a world heritage site because of that. It’s recognized by 190 countries as being one of the most beautiful and important cultural landscapes on Earth.

    It’s yeah, it’s a unique mix of humans and the landscape that was there. But you’re absolutely right. What it’s not is wild and it hasn’t been wild for a very, very long time. In fact, when we look at some of our landscape features and think about changing them, it’s quite amusing to discover how long ago the changes happened. In some cases, some of the mountains were cleared of forestry thousands of years ago, certainly many, many hundreds of years ago. And much of the biodiversity that’s there on species that are there now have adapted to live in what it’s become, not what it once was. So it’s yes, hugely complicated.

    Although what I would say about it is Wordsworth in particular, people forget this, but he said it was – he described the Lake District as “a perfect Republic of Shepherds.” And he absolutely believed that what our families would have done in the past was a unique kind of society that was formed by the landscape that people worked in. And he thought it was more egalitarian, less class ridden than most of the rest of the United Kingdom. And there was a lot of good in the people that had come about because of the way that they interacted with the landscape.

    Peter Mommsen: So in some ways, we’re just in that tradition. And but, you know, going back to the previous question about rewilding, can we and should we put more nature into these landscapes as well as the historic stuff?

    James Rebanks: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it doesn’t excuse us from doing our bit. And often there’s a kind of romance that covers just how much has vanished in the last hundred years. I’ve got a lot of good ecologist friends and they’ll tell us the uncomfortable truth that some of the bird species have just declined and disappeared in the last century. That you can’t excuse that with a sort of romantic story about sheep or something. You’ve got to listen to that and wonder what the change was in the last hundred years and perhaps undo it.

    And there’s other things to think about as well as the farming methods that are used here. It’s about the tourism that comes to these areas, these protected special landscapes. Some of the fells around us, the mountains are like highways of people up and down, like hundreds and hundreds of people. They need to do regular footpath repairs and there’s litter. There’s all sorts of issues with wild camping, people abandoning tents and things on the mountainsides.

    And nature struggles and is being impacted by lots and lots of things, increased cars on the roads. Cars are a massive one. It’s a huge problem. We noticed – so the ninety million visitors didn’t come to our mountainous landscape when Covid-19 was happening. And I went with my kids actually on the day that lockdown finished, we jumped on a kayak thing that we have. It was in the back of the farm truck and we went across the lake to this little island just for a little adventure at the end of lockdown. And when we got to the island, the islands were all littered with broken eggs. We’ve never seen eggs on those islands before because they’re so busy with people. And basically the geese and the other sort of water birds had all taken the lockdown to nest in those places because that’s where they really want to be. And then the people had flooded back in that morning and everything, all the eggs were broken and it was just a really good wake up call, I guess, to how our normal activities are stopping nature happening in so many places.

    And just to see it so brutal like that was amazing. I think it’s important just to remember it’s not just the farming that causes this, and the food production. Choices that people make in their daily lives about whether they pave their front garden to make a parking space or whether they leave the old trees there and have plenty of things in the gardens, ponds and things for corridors for city wildlife. That’s hugely important. Yeah, and allotments to grow food if they can. That’s important too.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So do you want to go back to the perfect republic of shepherds?

    James Rebanks: So, this might surprise you but I don’t want to go back to his thing, or what it looked like in his day. I think we can do better, actually way better. So, we know what’s missing from our landscapes in terms of British species that were here like one hundred or five hundred years ago that are now not here.

    Things like beavers, we can do that. We can bring them back. They’re already in loads of Britain. Whether I say it’s a good idea or not, they’re gonna end back in our valley.

    We can recreate the wetlands. Sometimes they were cleared, like, drained five-hundred years ago. There’s no reason at all why we can’t have amazing wetlands. We can get massively more trees into our landscapes that have probably been there for five-hundred years.

    And I think your question was what changed in the last hundred years. So we’re a grass farm and just like the simplest version of this I can give you is the last hundred years we went from fields with between fifty and one-hundred-and-ten species of flowers and grasses and herbs, and we farmed it down to under five, sometimes one. And that’s ploughing, that’s pesticides, that synthetic fertilizer that the wildflowers can’t stand, and it’s so declined.

    And we’re now learning that that’s dreadful for in terms of animal feed it’s dreadful for soil. So I can take out the whole five-hundred between five-hundred and seven-hundred acres that we graze. I can restore that and have a really good grazing platform where I graze native breed cattle. It’s amazing for wildlife. It’s amazing for birds. And if I do the other stuff around it, the trees, the ponds, the wetlands, that might be better in twenty-five, thirty years time. If all my neighbors do it too, and I think they will, that may be better than anything that’s been here for many, many centuries. So I don’t think we should have like a feeble ambition on this. I think we can be really ambitious and we can still keep those old breeds of sheep and cattle in that mix.

    Peter Mommsen: I have one final question and then we will let you go. This has been such a great conversation. And so that vision that you just described – Obviously, that’s a big change for people already farming in conventional ways. So some of my relatives are big farmers in South Dakota of corn and soybeans – conventional, right? They’re locked into it.

    What do you say to farmers like that in a way of helping them think about a different way of growing food?

    James Rebanks: So I think the first thing I would say, and I probably wouldn’t say it if I’m really honest, I would let them work it out for themselves, is I would look at their soil. Are they managing soil brilliantly? From what you’ve just described, I bet their soil’s pretty lousy. If you measured the organic matter, the biological life in the soil. They would need to think about how long they could sustain that model.

    I think if they’re smart, they’re going to be asking questions about how subsidized that is by federal crop insurance and other things that happen to enable that system to carry on. If they’re smart, they’re going to be asking questions about what people are going to want to eat in ten, twenty years’ time. And is it really soy and all the rest of it that’s leading to massive public health problems?

    I think what I would do that’s less preachy is if they ever came to my farm, I would show them it. I would show them my accounts, which are better than they ever were when we were conventional farmers. We worked out to make money doing the right thing. Most farmers around the world are losing money, unless they’re absolutely at the cutting edge of a lot of this stuff. I would show them my farm and I would say, “What is there not to like about this? Seriously, you can’t do any of this? You wouldn’t rather live in this than that?”

    I’d probably have a conversation about debt. I think you said they were locked in. I’d be really interested in. That doesn’t sound like a healthy thing to me, being locked in. I think just the language that you used suggests to me that there’s a problem there that they probably know they have to think about.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, I think a lot of farmers are feeling that because, as I understand it, and I’m not one of them, but in the United States, you either have to be absolutely enormous and even just being big, it’s pretty scary in terms of security.

    James Rebanks: Absolutely terrifying. I saw some stats from Canada a few months ago, which said over the last ten years, the share of food income that had been retained as farm profits was in the minus. It was less than nothing. Literally, farmers are subsidizing with their own labor and their own terrible returns on their own investment everybody else’s diet at the moment.

    Everything they buy is going through the roof. All of the power is held by other people. That doesn’t make it automatically easy for them to flip into some utopia where they grow apples and everybody’s friendly and it’s suddenly 1920 again or 1820 again. Of course it’s tough. Of course it’s really difficult to get out.

    But nobody sane that I know thinks that our food system is a good one at the moment, or that it’s good for farmers. It’s big and complicated, but we can sort this out. Who wants a farming system which poisons the groundwater, leads to soil runoff, which has a finite lifespan that’s getting increasingly shorter because of soil loss, which results in less and less farmers, which has massive farmer suicide statistics, which are utterly grim, where nobody’s enjoying it, where the price of everything is going through the roof and the only people benefiting are insurance.

    firms, machinery firms and banks. And the food companies are churning out products from these ingredients that’s being farmed that are poisoning us. Your food’s lousy and you can’t swim in the river because it’s poisoned. Somebody tell me where I’m wrong.

    Peter Mommsen: And the positive side of that – there is no positive side of being poisoned, but the positive side of what is happening is that a lot of people are interested in this. More and more small farms, at least in this country, are being started. There’s many people who would love to be farmers if they could figure out a way how. The type of farming that you’re describing allows that. It actually isn’t some law of nature that only 2 percent of Americans are farmers. That’s a very recent thing.

    James Rebanks: So I would encourage anybody listening to this, go on YouTube, find Richard Perkins. He’s an English guy that farms in Sweden. If you want to see the kind of farming that I’m talking about, like on whatever, ten hectares or something, doing these amazing small farms, no-till horticulture, often doing it with very little capital investment initially, doing it on other people’s lands. I mean there’s other people all across the world doing this. What we love about our farming system now is that it requires very little investment. I can do it on other people’s land. They like me doing that kind of grazing on the land because there’s more flowers, there’s more nature, there’s all the things that a landowner would want. It’s more beautiful.

    And you’re not incurring these crazy debts or getting stuck in unfair systems where everybody else has the power. So I think there are far too few farmers. I want there to be way, way, way more farmers. And if that’s, I don’t even care if that’s, they don’t look or sound or smell like farmers used to. If that’s on some old industrial plot in Detroit or it’s where they’re just not building down in the middle of New York or something, great. Whatever it takes.

    Peter Mommsen: And our new issue actually focuses on some farmers in Detroit, exactly.

    James Rebanks: So anywhere and everywhere, sorry, my final thing is if you lived through the Covid lockdown and you saw how fragile, the beginnings of how fragile our food system is, seriously everybody, you need a good share of your diet to be within walking distance of where you live. You really do because it only takes, that wasn’t the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to our society by a long shot. You imagine a really, really bad disease outbreak. You imagine some massive volcano going off somewhere, downing all the flights or whatever. There are really bad shocks to the system coming at some point in the future. That’s not crazy talk. That will happen. And you’re going to want your food to be within walking distance of where you live or at least enough to keep you and your family alive. You need farmers down the road wherever you are.

    Peter Mommsen: So that’s the pitch, dear listeners. The world needs more farmers. Could it be you? Thanks so much, Helen and James.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Friends, this podcast is going on hiatus for a time, due to everyone having way too much to do, but we’ll be back. Meanwhile, we’ll be releasing on this stream a series of one-on-one interviews, usually with me as the interviewer – not terribly different in content and style, but not official PloughCasts. And if you’re really jonesing for the full podcast experience, you can catch me regularly at my husband’s podcast, at Catch you soon!

    Contributed By James Rebanks James Rebanks

    James Rebanks is a sheep farmer and author from Matterdale, Cumbria where his family have lived and worked for over 600 years.

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    Contributed By Helen Rebanks Helen Rebanks

    Helen Rebanks is the author of The Farmer’s Wife and the wife of James Rebanks, author of The Shepherd’s Life.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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