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17 August 2022

Sarah Langford Q&A: “Pay something attention and it rewards you a hundredfold”

The barrister-turned-farmer on Madonna, Mad Men and why success doesn't equal happiness.

By New Statesman

Sarah Langford was born in Hampshire in 1980. She worked for ten years as a criminal and family barrister before moving to her husband’s family farm in Suffolk, which the couple now manage.

What’s your earliest memory?

My nursery teacher crouching down and telling me “You’re ready, Sarah”. She led me from the baby room into the big kids’ hall. It was huge and terrifying but I felt so proud to be there. I sometimes still tell myself “You’re ready, Sarah”.

Who are your heroes?

Madonna: I like people who don’t care about disapproval. And Lady Eve Balfour, the farmer and co-founder of the Soil Association. She understood soil in a way we are now relearning nearly 100 years later. She wasn’t bothered by disapproval. She lived openly with her female partners, rode motorbikes and flew Tiger Moth planes, and subsidised her farm during the Great Depression by playing saxophone in a jazz band and writing crime novels.

What book last changed your thinking?

Graham Harvey’s Grass-Fed Nation. It changed how I think about food.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Rory Stewart. He not only has principles but acts upon them.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The soil. I’ve just completed a soil science module at university where I’m studying for a diploma in agriculture. The complexities of our soil, its relationships with plants and animals, blows my mind.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

San Francisco, 1975. The changes happening in culture, society, music, politics and art must have felt electric.

What TV show could you not live without?

Mad Men. It is a work of art.

Who would paint your portrait?

Maggi Hambling. I know I would have to leave my vanity at the door and let her see into my soul.

What’s your theme tune?

“King” by Florence and the Machine.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“Attention is the beginning of devotion”, a line from an essay by the poet Mary Oliver. When I moved to Suffolk I began learning the names of wildflowers, bird calls and trees, and looking closely at the soil. The more I knew, the more I saw and heard. When you pay something attention – whether a person or a plant – it rewards you a hundredfold.

What’s currently bugging you?

The impending US trade deals, in case our shelves fill with low-quality imports that destroy our farmers. Climate catastrophe. The five-year-old child hanging off my leg.

What single thing would make your life better?

Someone to do all my young children’s laundry, cooking, life-diarising and clearing up so I can write more.

When were you happiest?

I feel happy often. Happiness rarely comes solely from wealth and success but from connection and a sense of your place in the world. I am very lucky to have these.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A private investigator: I’m pretty good at drawing information out of people. You should hear some of the stories I’ve been told by strangers on buses.

Are we all doomed?

What is a life if there is no hope? There’s plenty of it about, if you look for it.

“Rooted: Stories of Life, Land and a Farming Revolution” by Sarah Langford is published by Viking

[See also: Cold War Steve’s Q&A: “I still have a strong affection for the sound of a tent zip”]

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This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World