The famous British shepherd-author-influencer wants to transform agriculture to save the planet


MATTERDALE, England – British Shepherd rock star and bestselling author James Rebanks is at the family farm, giving the tour, elated about his manure. The glory of it – from the crumbly, muffin-like consistency of a well-made plop from a grass-fed cow.

“Has anyone in your life really explained grasses to you?” ” he asks. And we think, not really.

It’s not just the digestion of ruminants. Don’t throw man on the health of the soil. Rebanks is a geek of the ground, with the zeal of the convert. We are soon on our knees, digging in the dirt. Sniffing. He is distracted by a red-tailed bumblebee, then by the ambient sound of birdsong. “I don’t trust a quiet farm,” he says. “It should be noisy with life.”

Rebanks represents a possible future for agriculture, which should turn into the promise of a post-Brexit and zero carbon world. The UK government plans to remove all traditional farm subsidies and replace these payments with a foreign system of ‘public money for public goods’.

What are these public goods? No food. The bees! In 21st century Britain, the assets will be clean water, biodiversity, habitat restoration, hedges, pretty landscapes, wildflowers, flood mitigation and climate change adaptation. Anything the public wants, pollsters say.

This transformation could be enormous: agricultural land represents 70% of the English landscape and produces 10% of its greenhouse gases. There is no net zero carbon future without farmers.

The UK’s best-known farmer, Rebanks is at the center of this transition. In agricultural circles, he’s a great influencer, famous for his Twitter feed. He has nearly 150,000 followers, who check his posts, videos and photos perfect for the postcards of his idyllic home in England’s poetic Lake District and the doings of his beloved sheep Herdwick.

The shepherd’s riffs on the cycle of life, the frenzy of lambing season, the delicious grilled mutton and the wisdom of the sheepdogs – studded with rants against the alleged ruinous stupidity of industrial agriculture “where the field became the floor of the factory”.

In his tweets and in person, Rebanks, 47, is by turns elated, frustrated, hopeful and angry. He can’t imagine that the planet, and his little corner of it, has been so messed up. He also can’t decide if we’re doomed or if we could just get away with it, a sentiment that resonates with many.

He has written two books on all of this, both international bestsellers. The latest, published in stellar journals this month in America, is “Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey”.

On the one hand, the book explains how cheap food cultivation, globalization and modern super efficient, hypermechanized and highly productive farms (giant monocultures of beets, wheat, corn) are terrible for nature (insects, rivers, climate) and our health (obesity, diabetes) and our farmers (in debt, dependent on pesticides, stressed).

On a deeper level, however, the pages are about healing, how a farmer in Cumbria strives to transform his landscape into a small, sustainable and profitable Eden by deploying both ancient and cutting-edge techniques.

Through his books, his online ubiquity, his lectures, interviews and tours, Rebanks has become the man of the day in British agricultural policy.

When he started on Twitter a decade ago, he was an anonymous guy with a chip on his shoulder, a degree in history from Oxford, a legacy farm, a small flock of sheep. Now he’s a guru, it doesn’t matter whether he likes it or not.

British politicians are making the pilgrimage to see what he has done. British journalists too. It was on the cover of Financial Times magazine and was the subject of a 30 minute documentary on the BBC. He writes guest columns for the Right-wing Daily Mail and the Left-wing Guardian.

A fellow farmer observed without resentment last year: “When you turned on the television, listened to the radio or opened a newspaper, it was impossible to prevent upland farmer James Rebanks from expressing his views on the future of sustainable agriculture by advertising his new book. “

With Brexit being a done deal and Britain freed from the European Union’s common agricultural policy, the government is embarking on the biggest change in the management of its countryside since the end of World War II.

Farmers will no longer live on the basic payment scheme. They will be paid for these new public goods; the old “food security” subsidies will come to an end. It is a radical experiment, to be carried out on a national scale.

Yesterday’s farms grew food and degassed methane.

The farms of tomorrow will produce food and sequester carbon.

Or at least that’s the idea. Rebanks is supportive, but suspicious.

British farmers, like their European counterparts, have lived for three generations on subsidies. Without the allowance, government figures show that 42 percent of all farms here would be operating at a loss. Most smallholders would not survive without the controls. The payments – $ 3 billion a year – are to be phased out over the next seven years.

Rebanks fears that many traditional farmers on less productive land will make the transition and be forced to retire or sell. The government admits that this is a likely outcome for some.

If taxpayers and consumers do not want to pay the high costs of regenerative, sustainable and carbon-free agriculture, he fears, “then all the little guys will just go bankrupt,” and the big farms “will just go up the dial. intensity and play with nature on the edges.

As presented, Rebanks doesn’t think the plan is smart enough or big enough, or that the public understands how much it will cost to have a real impact on farmers, nature and the climate. He thinks that $ 3 billion a year is “a drop in the bucket”.

A few thousand pounds here and there to plant a few wild flowers at the edge of fields watered with fertilizer? “It’s not going to cut it, and we’re wrong if we think it will,” he said recently.

If anyone can switch to this new ‘public money for public goods’ system, it surely should be Rebanks. It already seems more than halfway there.

His Racy Ghyll farm is green and beautiful, but at just 185 acres, it’s smaller than it looks on the internet. The majority of UK farmers work on land of a similar size.

Rebanks and his border collies are tending to four herds totaling around 450 Herdwick sheep this summer. It is his main income. He also has 15 Belted Galloway cows, a stocky, fat-bellied breed that can winter outdoors. He bought the cows not only to sell their beef, but for the animals to trample the fields with their hooves, break down and improve the soil.

Three dozen hens live in a chicken coop on wheels, which makes it easy for him to spread their manure everywhere, and he puts the eggs in the aisle for customers who leave a few coins. He also grows hay, harvesting it later in the season to give the curlews a chance to raise their chicks.

His critics in Britain, as well as some farmers in America and Australia, have suggested that Rebanks is a nostalgic romantic. An amateur. A dilettante.

He does not agree. His family has been a shepherd in Cumbria for 600 years. His methods – moving sheep between the communal hills and the valley below – would be recognizable to the Vikings, who did the same when they settled here over a millennium ago with a similar breed of hardy sheep.

Over the past 10 years, with the help of environmentalists and supporters, he and his family – his wife and four children – have “stirred” a drainage ditch and created a natural stream and wetland.

They plant 25,000 young trees. There were no ponds on the property previously. There are 25 now, with otters. Three miles of hedges have been restored and 30 acres revived as a wildflower meadow.

A botanist told Rebanks that the farm is now home to 200 species of flowers and herbs.

Based on studies and advice, Rebanks drastically changed his grazing habits, moving his animals much more frequently from pasture to pasture. “There is no vegan meadow,” he said. Cows and sheep must turn the land.

He divides the farm into smaller and smaller fields – “it’s just hedges and borders, which is good for nature”. He estimates that he has removed 15 percent of his farm from active production.

“Listen, the truth is there has to be some letting go,” he said. “You can’t drain it all and use it all for farming or grazing. You have to put some aside. ”

This set aside should be compensated, he believes. Despite numerous laws, protections and reservations, birds in England’s farmland have declined by 57% since 1970. Summer swarms and buzzing insects are disappearing. The story is the same in Europe and the United States.

“So it’s beautiful here, okay?” But we don’t need a little beauty somewhere, we need a lot of it everywhere, ”he said.

In the post-Brexit world of free trade agreements, British farmers will not be able to compete because the British landscape does not allow large-scale or intensive agriculture without seriously damaging its remaining biodiversity.

When asked if this calls for protectionist policies, Rebanks replied that it does – and that the public will have to decide how seriously the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss need to be addressed.

“Pay me to do my regenerative agriculture,” he said. “Or go to a store and pay me twice as much for my steak.”

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