James Rebanks is a British farmer who runs a 600-year-old farm in the Lake District in the UK. He is also the author of 2 best-selling books and is a campaigner for sustainable farming.
After the global pandemic
of the last two years,
and a war in Ukraine,
there is a worldwide crisis
in agriculture taking place.
Yet it has never been so important
to create sustainable food systems
which do not destroy the biodiversity
and ecology of the land.
The Lake District is one of the
most beautiful places in the United Kingdom.
Measuring almost 1000 square miles,
it is a place of lakes, valleys,
walking trails, and farmlands.
Such is its importance;
it was designated a
UNESCO World Heritage site five years ago.
In 2015, a sheep farmer
living in the Lake District,
became an internationally bestselling author,
drawing global awareness
to debates about methods of farming
and food production,
that have been raging for years.
James Rebanks is the most
famous shepherd in the UK if not the world.
His two books on his life
and experience as a sheep farmer,
have been translated into 18 languages.
He runs a 600-year-old farm in Matterdale,
where he lives with his family,
as well as 500 Herdwick sheep,
cattle, chickens and sheepdogs.
Farming for the Future
Direct Talk met him at his farm
to hear about his passion
for regenerative farming.
This valley of Matterdale is
where my family have lived
and worked for the past three generations,
for the past 600 plus years.
This landscape represents
my family and my friends
my communities work,
for many, many centuries.
And it's a sort of
powerful cultural identity, really,
I think we're in a slightly
terrifying situation now,
particularly because of the tragedy
that's unfolding in the Ukraine.
Ukraine and Russia
produce something like 30% of
the world's grain and barley.
Suddenly we're...and covid as well,
put massive stress on
food systems around the world.
I think a lot of people
are waking up to the fact that,
is our food system resilient enough,
is it robust enough, can it feed us?
And I think a sensible calm
measured take on that is
no, it isn't right, actually.
Sadly, now's the time to wake up to that,
to say hang on a minute,
how would we feed ourselves
if we didn't have that 30% of grain?
How would we create a food system
that would be resilient enough
to cope with a future,
something worse than covid that might happen?
James has witnessed first-hand
the huge changes to farming in his lifetime.
His grandfather's farm
in the Lake District hills
was part of an ancient
a patchwork of crops and meadows,
of fields filled with grazing animals,
and hedgerow buzzing with wildlife.
But change was already underway
during James's childhood.
For most of my young life
we were told we needed to be
more like a larger industrial American,
Australian, Ukrainian farm.
And that meant huge big fields,
get rid of all your hedgerows,
get rid of this little patchwork landscape,
the historic landscape,
get big or get out.
And for most of my young life
I believed that was progress,
that was what we needed to do.
What is really interesting is
if you go to those farming landscapes,
you see that that's deeply unsustainable.
That you have monocultures of
one or two crops that are beginning to fail,
that have massive soil erosion,
that have dead soil
that has no soil health left in it,
And at that point you have this
horrible realisation that
we're copying the wrong thing,
we're going in the wrong direction.
Agricultural practices changed dramatically
throughout the 20th century,
particularly after the second World War.
New technologies in the 1960s,
led to powerful machines
which replaced the plough,
heavier use of pesticides,
and antibiotics were all introduced.
Food was being produced faster and cheaper.
But few anticipated
the long-term effect upon the land.
So after the Second World War
people have experienced hunger,
there's a massive demand for cheap food.
And there's a bunch of new technologies
and a bunch of new chemicals.
that have been used in explosives,
that were, that the scientist
and the chemists work out
how to apply to agriculture
to have this boom in in productivity.
And I'm not sure any generation
of people in the entire history
of the human race would have
turned down those things.
It seemed like you could
grow crops magically,
it seemed like you could
kill weeds magically,
we could produce more stuff
to feed the people who needed the food,
and it could all be put into a supermarket.
So when you industrialize animal agriculture,
when you build these big huge sheds,
when you feed them lots of grain
imported from the other side of the world,
you can massively
bring down the cost of food.
But you're doing it with antibiotics,
you're doing it with fossil fuels,
and you're doing it with cheap grain
grown with lots of fossil fuels,
You haven't really dropped the price of food,
you've just masked the fact
that you've dropped the price of food with a
huge influx of fossil fuels and medicines,
And we were all told,
we were told by governments,
we were told by economists,
we were told by everybody that this was good.
This was how we were going to feed the world,
this was how we were
going to make everything better.
we didn't know the downsides
and we needed certain things.
But we do know the downsides now and
we know the limitations of those things now.
The long-term damage to the land
created by some modern farming technology
is recognised by environmentalists.
But better farming practices
may mean consumers
will have to pay more for food.
Spending on food proportional to income
has declined in First World countries.
And food production has
moved away from local suppliers.
In the UK, the price of meat,
vegetables, and grains,
is dictated by a monopoly
of large food corporations
So, do we have a problem now
in terms of being addicted to
overly cheap food of the wrong kinds?
Yes, we absolutely do.
I think we're the generation
that have to be adults,
where we go OK, we're eating too much pig,
too much chicken, grown in systems using grain
that uses too much antibiotics,
how would we get out of that?
What would future farming systems
look like, where we could,
in some cases turn the clock back,
to something more sustainable and healthier,
in other cases do new things,
using new science, new knowledge,
knowledge about soil,
knowledge about grazing.
And we might have to eat different things.
We have created this insane society where
were asking 1% of the population
to produce all of the food for the other 99%,
whether we like it or not,
that's an obligation of responsibility,
we all need to care about food
and we need to care about
how our food's produced.
Given what's happened
in the last couple of years,
we need to be really worried about
some of the things
that could happen down the road. So
I personally believe in having
much more local, local food systems
that are much more resilient,
much more robust.
We need more farmers not less,
it's the opposite of what we were told.
And we need to work out
how to do sustainable farming
in the ecosystems we live in.
Born in to a farming family
dating back several generations,
James never expected to
become a world-famous writer.
After dropping out of school at 15,
he discovered the joy of reading,
and he decided to return to study again.
He proved this time, to be so clever,
that he won a place to study history
at Oxford University
where he graduated with a double first.
The thing that changed me really
was when I was 17 or 18
and I began to realise that
my family was struggling
and I didn't understand why.
But I think what really changed
is like 20 years ago
I began to feel really frustrated
by how disrespectful
or how little respect we had
for farmers around the world.
How much we took them for granted,
or even worse,
how angry we were with them for the
impacts they'd had on the world,
without the rest of us taking
any responsibility for why that happened.
And I think somewhere along the line
I thought, I can't keep quiet about this,
I have to speak about it,
I have to explain
as to the best of my ability.
And then ultimately the penny dropped,
which is all my dreams about being a writer
had not been about being a farmer writer
but ultimately that's what I became.
I wrote about my family and the history
and how our little farm had changed.
and I've stumbled into the strange situation
where people all around the world
have responded to that
and feel like it's their story as well,
or they recognise the truth in it, hopefully.
After university and while writing his books,
James researched other farming techniques
in different parts of the world
looking for solutions for the
lack of sustainability in farming.
I went all around the world as part of that
to look at different farming systems,
to look at what works,
and look at what we need to do.
If you go and look in the American Midwest,
places like Iowa and Indiana,
and you can see this
at its greatest extreme.
And you can see what
an ecological disaster it is,
which is the Mississippi
taking all of the soil away,
dead zones because of all the phosphates
and the chemicals in the Gulf of Mexico,
huge erosion of top soil,
so that thing can't last very much longer,
and you realise oh, we are in big trouble,
In this difficult terrain
of steep hills and valleys,
James breeds animals
who will flourish in this landscape.
On James's farm he has 500 Herdwick sheep –
a breed native to the Lake District.
On the farm we have gone back
to the heritage breeds.
the Belted Galloways cattle
with the white strip around the black body
and the Herdwick sheep which are
the native sheep of this landscape.
Which go back to ancient British sheep with a
big dollop of Viking genetics in their makeup
So this is a pastoral farm,
which basically means we are a grass farm,
the whole farm is just
one big green solar panel.
A lot of food that humanity eats,
it's going to be on land that's ploughed,
so you need different solutions,
different farming and different
ecological solutions in different places.
This is what, this with the habitats that
we're building around these cattle and sheep
might be what a solution
would look like for a pastoral area,
with the animals and the grazing.
You would have a different
set of solutions in an arable area.
So the cattle that you're looking at in the
background here have to be the right breed,
the heritage breed of
this landscape so they can outwinter,
they can live on grass,
just grass, no grain,
and need no medicines,
no artificial inputs,
just giving things as natural as possible.
What's great about it
is how healthy they are,
so we haven't used any antibiotics in
any of these cattle for the last seven years,
we've never helped one to give birth,
it's just an incredibly natural system,
a very different system
to the one that I grew up with,
which was all about the housing,
all about the bought feed,
all about the pushing things intensively.
One of James passions is
communicating the importance of soil.
which means rotating animals
and assorted crops with different fields
is to ensure soil health
is renewed and not depleted.
So, soil is the basis of all agriculture
and agriculture's the basis of
everything that you and I eat.
And it turns out we've been
taking soil for granted,
thinking it was just dirt,
you stuck plants in and
you fed them stuff from the top.
In this handful in front of me
there's more living things
than there are people on earth.
Feeding soil means that
you need a superdiverse range of plants.
So in our fields we have over 200 species
of grasses and herbs and flowers,
and they all do different things,
We need to do some things that
would have seemed crazy to my grandfather
like wasting some of the grass
and tramping it onto the surface
so that worms and
insects and other things
can take that organic matter
into the soil as well.
So, our understanding of soil is,
And if you're a farmer
and you don't understand that,
you are in really dangerous territory
because we have to understand that.
In one area of the farm James has created
a woodland to boost the biodiversity.
He has also planted over 35,000 trees
So we're sat in one of the
woodlands or riparian river strips
that we planted back at the
start of our journey 10 years ago.
And I love this place
because it's where we're starting
to put the habitats
and the processes back
that should be in our landscape.
So what we've done here
is we've let the river naturalize,
you can probably see the little willow
that emerging on the river bank,
that will change the whole course of the
river where I'm sitting in years to come.
We've planted the alder, the willows
and nitrogen-fixing pioneer trees.
So these are some of the 36,000 trees
that we've found on the farm.
And you would think if you planted
36,000 trees you'd planted a forest,
actually most of those trees
have been in hedgerows,
or these wildlife strips,
or around the fields,
we're trying to make every field function
ecologically like a woodland clearing.
And also we haven't
eliminated grazing in this area,
but we just do grazing
that's very, very naturalistic,
very light, very periodic,
with the cattle occasionally.
There's an old saying
which is build it and they'll come,
and what we find is things come
really quickly, within weeks things come,
so we just built a whole series of ponds
on another part of the farm,
within a month of building those we had birds
that we had never seen before arrive on them,
and that's mind-blowing, and thrilling.
What I'm really passionate about is that
we can combine living here,
keeping livestock here,
being productive, feeding people,
but also think about the wider
responsibilities that we have.
James remains an optimist.
And on his farm,
the rhythm of the shepherd's year
is much the same as it has always been.
He believes that aiming to combine
the best of traditional and modern ways
using science to improve farming techniques
is the way forward.
I've never been more excited
about being a farmer
I've never been more proud
of being a farmer,
I've never been more filled with joy about
getting up every day and working on the farm.
Why? Because I think farmers can
solve the problems the we have.
I can learn from rewilding projects,
I can learn from conservationists,
I can learn from soil scientists,
I can pack my soil with carbon,
I can fill this farm with life
and I can build on everything
that my dad and my granddad did
and I can mend their faults,
I can mend the things they did wrong,
and I can mend the things that
I did wrong 20 years ago on this farm,
and how exciting's that?
I instead of being the bad guy, the farmer
can become the person who mends things,
the person who puts the world back together.
And I think that's something that farmers can
all around the world can get excited by.
James's message is that people
need to think about farming more often,
as the food they eat
depends on farmers around the world.
Three times a day you need a farmer,
whatever you eat, wherever you are.
And I would suggest that farming is
much more important than we thought it was
for the last 100 years.
I would urge everybody to think long
and hard about the food that you're eating
and where it's coming from
and how we can have a dialogue
with the farmers that feed us
to create the landscape that we need.
3 times a day you need a farmer.