“The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes, roads, creatures, and people.
And the real name of our connection to this everywhere different and differently named earth is work … “good work” honors the source of its materials; it honors the place where it is done; it honours the art by which it is done; it honors the thing that it makes and the user of the made thing.” Wendell Berry
Not long ago, our farms were about people and animals and natural resources, working closely together. Farming was hard work, but good work. The picture has changed. Almost gone are the barn raisings, the hay gatherers, the voices of people at work in the fields, the potato pickers, cider barrels, bowed backs, shared purpose, harvest festivals and sun-browned children learning alongside their elders. Instead we have a world where commercial farms are often dangerous places. Keep out. Don’t touch. Danger. And instead of farms, we go to supermarkets. Most people today are consumers, but not participants, in food production.
Our farmers have become solitary beings, because most labourers have been replaced by technology. Nowadays it is oil that enables cultivation: powering machinery, providing artificial fertilisers and chemicals, fuelling global distribution networks. But as long as human society clings to the vision of an ever-expanding “growth” economy, there exists a dangerous paradox: The availability of naturally occurring resources, like oil, cannot “grow” with the economy. Far from it. And even more important than oil, is soil. It is our most precious natural resource. We reached peak soil long ago, when humans first began to cut down trees and clear forests. It continues to erode at an alarming rate. Oil and soil are finite resources. Natural growth is cyclical. It’s not whimsical, it’s a fact.
So we search for new technological fixes that will help maintain this grand illusion of economic growth and feed the ever-expanding population that accompanies it. Maybe genetic modification will help? Or soil free hydroponic growing systems? For we have a lot of mouths to feed.
This May, Michael Whithouse of Care Farming West Midlands invited me to an open day at Top Barn in Worcestershire. “Top Barn Training” is a small one and a half acre Care Farm situated within a 500 acre ‘regular’ farm. Most of the work force for the Care Farm have learning disabilities, but it also caters for a wide range of others: disengaged young people (who are referred from schools and Pupil Referral Units), mainstream schools (to whom Top Barn offers OCN and ASDAN courses) and playgroups. There has also been interest from the county council’s Drug and Rehabilitation Unit.
The training is centred on land-based skills: farm animal care (the care farm has pigs, poultry, goats, and the main farm has cattle and sheep), rural skills, horticulture, farmhouse cooking and sustainable building.
The concept of Care Farming may seem like an insignificant part of the jigsaw when it comes to feeding the world. But it is an idea that has longevity. At Top Barn they have transformed poor land to very productive land thanks to careful composting , management and people power. And, if you visit, you will see that they have also transformed people’s lives to something meaningful and also joyous. The overarching sense of motivation and enthusiasm is palpable, the conversations whilst people work refreshing, the value of this work enticing. I wish I could work at a Care Farm for a while. Its great!
In the farming world, one gallon of oil is the work equivalent of three weeks manual labour. When money is the guiding principal, people are often replaced by technology. But a community-based, people-powered approach to the future gives us the chance to re-engage and give life new purpose, for example by producing food in a low impact, sustainable way.
By growing good food by people-power, we also reduce the strain on dole queues, referral units and day centres. Most people don’t want to be consumers with no purpose. They want good work and to be valued.
Care Farms are good for people and the environment. And what’s more, they are productive. I asked a few people at Top Barn what they thought and here’s a lttle taste of what they had to say (we have protected people’s identities on request):
“I wish I could write out prescriptions for 6 weeks at a care farm” quote from mental health practitioner
“Its not just curative, it’s also preventative ‘ Visitor representing AONB
“There’s loads of space and loads to do” Student from referral unit
“I’m proud of these pigs. Very proud” Young workman at Top Barn
For more info contact
Posted by Rachel