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7 October 2020updated 29 Jul 2021 7:05am

What Britain can learn from its disappearing orchards

Our farming industry has done untold damage to habitats and humans nationwide – but it's not too late to regenerate our agricultural land. 

By John Burnside

When is a farm not a farm? No, not a riddle, or an exercise in semantics, but one of the most urgent questions we face today. Industrialised food production has done untold damage to habitats and human well-being worldwide. Even in Britain, where the accepted image of agriculture is still mostly benign, it has cost us dearly. As Philip Lymbery points out in his 2017 book Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were, “when farms are being run like factories, using machinery and chemicals to eliminate anything that does not support the main product, they’re just another ugly industry”.

So, given that we know what is going wrong, what can we do? One small but useful step might be to pose our question in a different way. Not “when is a farm not a farm”, but: how can a parcel of land, designated for food production, be managed so that it remains truly habitable, and not merely bottom-line productive?

Cue a wonderful new book from Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates, veterans of the BBC’s Springwatch series, entitled Orchard: A Year in England’s Eden. True, it is specifically about orchards, but the questions its authors ask, and the vision they advance, could be applied to all forms of cultivation, from apple growing in Kent to sheep farming in the Scottish uplands. At the heart of this vision is the understanding that we cannot farm in a vacuum, that everywhere is habitat and the quality of our own lives depends hugely on how well we live with our non-human neighbours.

As the book moves lyrically and vividly through one calendar year in an old Herefordshire orchard, paying attention to everything that inhabits that pocket of “older countryside”, from spotted flycatchers and redstarts to a plethora of insect life, we come to see that the invocation of Eden in the title is not merely a rhetorical flourish, but a challenge: to violate Eden in one place is to violate it everywhere; habitats are not islands, they are continuous and interdependent.

From the introduction, in which Macdonald first stumbles upon the Edenic orchard that becomes the book’s main character, to the end, we are constantly reminded that what should be vanishing is “the empty, chemical fields and flailed hedgerows that constitute the countryside handed down to our generation”; not the ancient, richly populated orchards that continue to be grubbed out because landowners cannot find a way to make them profitable.

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In a particularly moving passage, we learn that “Britain leads the world in waste: waste on an epic and needless scale”. This is thanks to governmental policies rewarding landowners for destroying old orchards, and our propensity to choose cheap, poor quality food in the weekly shop. As the authors note, “like something from an Orwellian vision or a Roald Dahl parody”, our supermarkets are more interested in “wholly green apples, or those with a certain percentage of red” than taste. “Clones of conformity are the order of the day… Flavour holds little sway in these cold calculations.” But then, who drives this quest for perfectly uniform, tasteless and mostly imported apples? No business in the world can survive if its customers demand, and do not receive, quality. Again and again, through the pages of Orchard, it becomes clear that if anybody is to be responsible for regenerating Britain’s orchards, it is us.

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid