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Explore the ideas and practice of
ecologically sound land management in
the beautiful Devon countryside
A talk by Jonty Williams
In February 2013 Jonty Williams gave a 10 minute talk at the Bicton Earth Centre on Fossil Fuel Free Farming. Below is the transcript of that talk.
Title, The importance of husbandry in farming….

Hello everyone and thanks very much to our hosts….etc

I think this is a brave and exciting time – and I think all our panel and all of you here are brave in enabling this exciting forum to get off the ground.

I really, really am not going to suggest that farmers start practicing husbandry – what an outrageous suggestion that would be: every farmer, every single farmer I have ever met or heard about, in my opinion, is nothing less than heroic in their efforts to bring husbandry into their agricultural practices. - Farmers know the immensity of meaning that this single word contains. For those not familiar with the concept husbandry means looking after the stuff of nature – all of it.

No. No one could do a more heroic job than our farmers, given the economic parameters farming operates within.

I believe just 1% or so of the population in this country, similarly in America, are involved with agriculture - tilling the soil or looking after its ecological communities. Our farmers – and I mean not just the special breed here in Devon, but the world over - are so skilled in this that, with very little help from the rest of us, they feed us and look after huge tracts of agricultural land all without most of us having to lift a finger or handle any dirt.

So I’m not going to tell any farmer about husbandry!

It is us urban folk who need to take a look at what husbandry and agriculture in general really mean to us.

What I’d like to do, very quickly, is to introduce the project – the mission – that my wife Carole and I have given ourselves over the last ten years. She is my great inspiration and all that we have achieved is due to her passion, her hard work and her extraordinary skills.

My teacher in husbandry was a farmer just up the way in the Blackdown Hills called Walter Edwards. His life was the inspiration for this mission. I only wish I were a tenth as good at husbandry as he was. However one thing I have learnt is that we must all start from where we are!

Just to give a glimpse of the intimacy he had with the land communities he looked after, his sister told me after he died that he’d only spent three days and nights in his whole life away from the farm he loved…

On that farm I discovered some historical documents. They are actually in the records office in Exeter. These give hard evidence of the traditions of teaching husbandry and also the practices required by law of those holding tenure of the land. These documents date from the 1700’s and the 1800’s. However tradition persists and you will find agricultural tenancies today which still retain husbandry clauses.

When Carole and I found out what an amazing tradition there is here in Devon, there was no way we could not devote our lives to helping a renewal of this most important subject. So we have established what we named The Husbandry School with an aim to build and learn a wider understanding of what this is about, and to learn how to bring husbandry, as a creative art, to apply to the needs of today.

What these old timers meant by husbandry was looking after the whole of nature as presented to them within and including their boundaries.
The words we would use for these practices today are perhaps “management of ecological communities”.
Now, these communities are very many and at every scale. They are every community from the microbiological stuff living under the feet of sheep, through the communities of our families and localities all the way to the communities of the authorities who control the land.

Husbandry for us humans – us urban folk – indicates a special role for us in these ecological communities: we have the special position of being the alphas – the top of the food chain and thereby responsible for all in the food chain – all the land community. (This is the phrase Aldo Leopold, the great inspire of the conservation movement used many years ago)

I was trimming my sheep’s feet a few weeks ago, in the sleet and the mud of midwinter, and felt a growing emotional bond for the communities I am privileged to be a member of. It includes the sheep, the concrete under their feet, the manure heap, the whole hilltop where our school is, and of course the human part - my wife – as very definitely top dog – my family, my whole environment. But this community I was feeling an intimate bond with does not stop there, it reaches out and encompasses all of you here in this exploration of our futures we are embarking on.

I’d like to say just a brief word about the meaning of agriculture. Our work at the Husbandry School has led to a widening of our understanding of the real nature of agriculture. The origins of the word come from bringing Culture to our Open Spaces. This must – why should it not? – include bringing every cleverness and skill of every cultural practice to bear on looking after our open spaces. It is a big task!

I repeat – agriculture means bringing culture to open spaces. This is a responsibility of all of us.

This is too important a task for us to leave only to our farmers. We need people in agriculture – all of us! There is already a huge local and global movement to become more familiar and participate more in our food chains. This is a start. This movement is only going to grow and grow.

The ancient Romans, so it was said, I believe by Pliny, met their demise because of neglect for their agriculture. We must not make that mistake.

We would like to encourage and enable people to make the first steps towards becoming husbanders. That is husbanders of nature, including boundaries, on all and any piece of neglected ground. We simply have to start from where we are. As the demand for people to be involved grows, so the supply bits of nature to be looked after will grow. If this supply and demand is handled through agricultural tenancies – complete with husbandry clauses - then of course the supply of neglected land will respond to that demand.

Only this way will we be able to lighten the terrible twin burdens of feeding the world and looking after huge parts of the planet that at present fall on the shoulders of our farmersand their use of fossil fuels.
Only with a renewed understanding of the dignity in loving our land communities will we start to relieve the reliance on all that fossil fuel used in agriculture today.

This is the start of a process of evolution and every input towards helping this is to be welcomed.

When Carole and I started our project, our greatest desire was to start to see many, many husbandry schools and universities of husbandry to grow all over the country. We want to see this concept in modules of learning in all sorts of subjects. There is so much to learn from each other. We are sure now that this is going to happen.

If we urban people do not dare to start to bring our whole culture to bear on agriculture, if we do not start to get our hands dirty occasionally, if we do not dare to start making mistakes and forever learning about the intricacies of nature, if we do not dare to love some piece of dirt, then I believe we have no future worthy of ourselves or our grandchildren.

This is a fascinating journey beginning here today, and I welcome it with all my heart.

We here in Devon have a track record of being a fair and steadying influence on the rest of the country and on through to the rest of the world. Devon is an important leader in this.

I am 100% sure this collaboration – this mutual leadership - will lead to a better future for agriculture. That is agriculture in its most generous and dignified sense.

Thank you.
For further information and constant updates on Fossil Fuel Free Farming visit the Bicton Earth Centres website:

Traditional farming methods for a sustainable future
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