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From the NS archive: Food production vs bricks

22 February 1941: There are still too many who think that milk grows in bottles, fruit in cans and sausages in cellophane paper.

By Laurence F Easterbrook

In this article from 1941, the agriculture researcher Laurence F Easterbrook argued for saving farmland. Demand for housing was surging, and the developments of “new or improved towns, garden cities and “satellite towns” often won land from farmers. Since the First World War, 500,000 more acres of British land had been “imprisoned under bricks and mortar”. Easterbrook believed such planning schemes were short-sighted. “The land is a limited quantity, and when good farming land is lost to housing and road schemes, the nation becomes poorer, for ever, by that amount of lost food production.” Townspeople, who had access to shelves “stocked in peacetime with a variety of goods from overseas”, and who reserved their interest in the countryside only for weekend walks, failed to recognise they were “pronouncing the doom of village life”. Like many farmers of the time, Easterbrook blamed the government.

In 1921, the Battle for the Fields of Britain was lost across the urban food counters. Politicians have been blamed for this monumental betrayal of home agriculture, and a handsome share of discredit is due to them for their failure to put up any sort of a fight for the land. But ultimately it comes back on the people themselves, who had no feeling or understanding about the land and its life, who were quite prepared to sacrifice the countryside they pretended to love in the interests of bigger and better usury and a good rake-off for the growing army of middlemen.

There are still too many who think that milk grows in bottles, fruit in cans and sausages in cellophane paper. How easily do the long shelves in the town shops, stocked in peacetime with a variety of goods from overseas, hide the picture in the background of the village where life is dying out, the grassed-down field where the arts of husbandry are being quickly forgotten. So many who walk at weekends through the countryside forget that the landscape that they admire has only been preserved by the care and love and roil lavished on it by those who have made the land their way of life.

“We must use the land to produce our milk, and some vegetables, and fresh eggs,” they say. “And English fruit is very good, when it’s not too dear. But we needn’t worry too much about things like corn and beef and bacon. We can get them cheaper and better from abroad.”

They have no idea that in saying this they are pronouncing the doom of village life, that farming cannot be divided up and parcelled out like contracts for making the component parts of a motor car. No one puts it to them that the plough, even in peacetime, is essential to fertility and we must plough for milk and plough for grass just as much as for corn; but that ploughing must mean corn-growing and root-growing, with cattle to eat the roots and tread the straw to put dung back into the future cornfields again. They see no difference between a nation of cow keepers and a nation of skilled, resourceful farmers. They forget that the most valuable product of the soil should be the men and women it produces.

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If we are to have a rural civilisation, urban opinion must be roused and educated in these matters. Even if the most precise guarantees ever known were given by the most upright politicians who ever lived, agriculture cannot be permanently safe until the people of this country understand what that industry means and are determined not merely that “farming must pay,” but that rural life must flourish and grow to its full stature. For no Parliament can bind its successors. It has become essential that the country should explain itself to the other 85 per cent of the population who live in towns.

At the moment, there is much talk of planning a new Britain. There are plans for new or improved towns, for garden cities, for “satellite” towns, for more and better roads to link some up and by-pass others. Some are already saying, for example, that the unwieldy, amorphous mass of habitations we call London must be given a fairer and more rational shape. And more factories are to be moved out into the country.

All this is well and good. But where is agriculture in such a plan? Where the voice of its leaders? Where the leaders themselves? In any society that understood about agriculture, the land would come first in any planning scheme, and for a very simple reason. The land is a limited quantity, and when good farming land is lost to housing and road schemes, the nation becomes the poorer, for ever, by that amount of lost food production. If a factory, or even a town, is demolished, it is not of supreme importance from the point of view of national production. They can be built elsewhere and just as much produced. Not so the land. It is irreplaceable.

Since the last war, 500,000 more acres of Britain have become imprisoned under bricks and mortar and macadam, and a large proportion of it was the best farming land; for this is just the sort of land most readily chosen for housing, being usually flat, well-drained and easy to build upon. This involves not merely the loss of so much cornland or (more often) land well suited to grow market-garden crops for towns that adjoin it. The soul of the countryside as well as its body is destroyed, for what farmer or landowner will bother himself with crop yields, or milk records to save a halfpenny or two per gallon, when the vision of building sites at £500 per acre is suddenly dangled before eyes accustomed to agricultural land values at £20 or £30 per acre? A farmer is not so different from all other men that the easy way to wealth offered by speculation has not attractions for him.

The result often is that the owner sells a few parcels of land, lives on his unexpected profits while awaiting a better bid for some of the remainder, and no longer bothers to farm much of his land at all. Why should he? It’s all due (he hopes) to become bricks and mortar quite soon.

This queer process is known as “land development.” It lops odd bits off farms, so that they are no longer workable units; it presents farmers with the problem of planning their work, which must often be planned five or six years ahead, to meet an unknown but continuous shrinking in acreage. It sells the house and farm over the tenant’s head, so that he may live for years in the enervating shadow of uncertainty. Where it operates, in fact, it is the best of many devices we have yet invented for destroying the values of rural life in body, mind and soul. During this war, its results have produced almost insuperable obstacles to increased food production in parts of the Home Counties, and probably elsewhere.

It must be evident that this wasteful, insane, immoral system cannot be allowed to continue if we are in earnest about a decent Britain after the war. Agriculture has lost too many good acres, too much good life, already. Hardly anyone, in fact, any longer seriously disputes the need to decide how our land is to be used. But I doubt very much if it will be enough merely to give agriculture and forestry a seat with other interests on any national body that may be set up in the future to plan the use of our land. There is too much danger that these twin Cinderellas will be outvoted every time, especially since they suffer the terrible stigma of creating less rateable value than houses and by-pass roads. This damns them from the start with the local authorities, who have much power and are not unversed in wielding it. If the use of land for agricultural purposes is to come first, the most sensible thing is to take it first and empower some national lands commission to earmark the land available that is needed for agriculture and forestry.

To do this, however, it is necessary to know how much agriculture we intend to have after the war. Shall we, for instance, grow sugar beet? On that depends the future of land in East Anglia. Are we to encourage mixed farming with hurdled flock? In the present state of our knowledge the future of much land in Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Berkshire and the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire depends upon that. Large areas of Essex and Huntingdonshire will again be laid waste unless it is financially possible to grow corn on their heavy soils. The decisions we make about home beef production will vitally affect the amount of cultivated land in practically every province of Britain.

But we cannot sit down and do nothing about all this, awaiting the end of the war. Such policies cannot be produced in a few months, or even a year. I suggest that the first important step is to survey our country; it is what any reasonable person would do on inheriting an estate in which he intended to take an interest. The Minister of Agriculture has recently caused a survey of farms to be carried out. No details of it have been disclosed, so it is impossible to say if it has been comprehensive enough to meet this case. But it must have collected an immense amount of valuable information that will expedite the task of discovering what this country can produce in the way of food and how much it is likely to cost to put the land in proper order. It might even be possible to draw up a series of estimates according to the types of land that are to be included; so much if you want to cultivate the heavy clays, so much if a system is to be adopted that keeps the light lands fertile. On such evidence final decisions could be made, and then we would at least know where we were. The suitable farming land would be permanently scheduled, also the land for the greater afforested areas we must have. It would be the nation’s responsibility to see that conditions were retained to ensure good farming and fertile soil on the scheduled farming land. Potential site values would no longer be one of the worst enemies of agriculture, a big step forward would be made in cleaning up the existing chaos, and, whatever the amount of farming it is decided to maintain, the unscheduled land would at least suffer a fairly quick death instead of slow and painful strangulation. It would be handed over to the towns and the speculators.

But we have now an opportunity, a tremendous opportunity that may never recur, to establish again good life and a vigorous farming industry over a very large part of that 85 per cent of the face of Britain that is not now covered by towns and roads. The war has brought us back to essentials and made us realise that the soil is not just a rather expensive plaything that ought to be kept going for the look of the thing and because it is amusing at weekends. The soil today is the nation’s life.

There has also been a change of spirit. Men are thinking, with a queer sort of homesickness, of peaceful occupations in our own incomparable countryside when this nightmare is over. Thoughts about “the standard of living” are being exchanged for ideas about a standard of happiness, and to some, reasonable security and a modest income earned by an interesting job under natural conditions seem more attractive than a fat weekly wage cheque or a bursting bank balance. That is not new. I have had all too many letters in the past from city clerks asking: “How can I get a little farm? I’m sick of this life.” Hitherto, it has been impossible to offer them any hope. For although there is a fast-moving escalator from the villages to the towns, there has been no ladder back to the land. But need this be so? Half a dozen possible solutions give the negative to that.

But the fact that men’s thoughts are now once again focusing on the land as they have not since we made such a horrible mess of a similar situation twenty years ago makes it extremely urgent that we should strike while the iron is hot. We should begin here and now to tell the people in the towns about the country, about their food and how they get it, about the life that goes on outside the cities’ walls in England’s seven thousand villages. Most people have farming in their blood not more than two generations back. The instinct and the interest are there, waiting to be awakened, for it is only in very recent years there has been this monstrous divorce between the majority of our population and the source to which they owe their existence. Within the next year or two our rural civilisation will be given new life or irretrievably destroyed. Yet hardly one townsman in a hundred knows what is in the balance or dreams that it concerns him.

The time to act is now, if we wish to make quite certain we never write on the tombstone of rural England, “Died with the goodwill of all from a general misunderstanding.”

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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