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
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
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On that farm I discovered some historical documents.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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.