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Explore the ideas and practice of
ecologically sound land management in
the beautiful Devon countryside
   
     
 
 
 
 
Walter Edwards 1925-2003
A personal tribute by Jonty Williams

The life of Walter Edwards is the main inspiration for our work here at The Husbandry School. He was an extraordinary, courageous and strong man who took full responsibility for the husbandry of his land. He was a master of his art. Without Walter Edwards this project would not exist. It is because we have a strong connection, through him, to the ancient and most important traditions of husbandry, that we can speak with some authority on this subject.
     
I worked alongside this man, as a general agricultural worker, for five years, 1975-1980. I received a good training in agriculture from him. However, it is only now, after his death, that I realise I had the rare honour of serving an apprenticeship in husbandry. I come at the end of a line of training in the business of husbandry which goes all the way back to the beginnings of humanity. It is for this reason that it is now my duty, as well as my passionate desire, to carry on this business and to do my part in sharing the tricks of the trade with as many people as possible. This business of planetary management is too important to be protected with trade secrets.

Walter Edwards was a Devonian farmer of the apparently old fashioned sort that one can come across in many out of the way places around this county. Walter’s prime business was husbandry. This is not to be confused with farming, although he was a farmer as well. Farming is a business measured by accounting for the costs put into the land and the value of the produce coming out of the land. Husbandry is also that but it is a much, much bigger affair.

Husbandry involves having a broad enough understanding of what it is to be human to see that it is our job to look after the soil which looks after us. It is an open love affair with a portion of the Earth. Husbandry has its own long term accounting system: it can be judged by the longevity of what is best about humanity.

Walter loved the dirt that supported him with an enthusiasm. He was a man who spoke up on behalf of the soil he looked after. He was a man with a traditional upbringing in the husbandry business and he was also a deeply intelligent man who thought and worked hard all his life for better ways in which he could carry out his trade.

Walter as a young man
The soil Walter loved is located at a place called Fair Oak, in the Parish of Upottery in Devon. Walter was born in 1925 at Fair Oak. In 2003 he died in the same house. His whole life was spent at Fair Oak.
He went to Upottery School as one of three children. He had an older brother, Arthur, whose remains now lie near Walter’s in the graveyard at Upottery. And he had a younger sister, Olive, who still lives just a mile or two away from Fair Oak. I talked to her after his death and she told me a little about his early years: "'E was the clever one at school, Walter was. Arthur per’aps less so”, said Olive, remembering them as boys.

Olive remembers him in those years as the sensible one of the family – but she remembers him as the mischievous one as well. Clever, sensible and mischievous: that was a difficult combination to pull off, and he did it with a likable style.

He was married to Ida. He looked after her, and was looked after by her, for over fifty years. They sit holding hands in the picture of their golden wedding: “First time I ever seen them doing that!”, says his daughter Hazel.

Walter was in the Home Guard during the Second World War, based at Honiton. Some of the time they would be guarding the Waterloo line where it goes into a tunnel on its way between London and Exeter. He would be up all night armed with his shotgun. In the days he would be doing his farm work, armed with the new Standard Fordson tractor.

The mechanics of husbandry - being open to the new
Walter had a natural aptitude for mechanical things, as well as an aptitude for looking after his soil and his livestock. The first tractor arrived on his farm in 1942, when Walter was seventeen. Up until then all motive power used for the husbandry of the acres of Fair Oak came from horses plus a single, ancient water mill. Walter became the man responsible for the mechanisation of husbandry at Fair Oak. Fair Oak was well mechanised when he died with electric milking, powered grain handling, ten tractors, a telescopic materials handler, two combine harvesters and a computer.

Even though Walter’s health was failing in his last years, he had bought himself a computer. He was cautious about taking in new technology but he wasn’t shy about it either. The apparent slowness of country people in areas like Devon is because thoughtful people like Walter need time to work out how to use new materials and tools as husbandry tools. Husbandry – taking responsibility for the whole of an ecology – demands that we pause for thought.

His life spanned the management of husbandry assisted only by horse power when he was sixteen, all the way through to the computer age when he was sending e-mails to his daughters. It was a long and creative life.He was taught in particular how to look after the 247 acres that lie within the boundaries of Fair Oak, by his father Tom, and his mother, Eva. Old Tom was born at Fair Oak in 1898. These people and their ancestors have been intimately concerned with the soil business since the beginnings of husbandry.

In conclusion: fighting husbandry's corner

Walter’s life was courageous and it was tragic. He was fighting a battle for our soil against the forces of our economy which do not value our soil. The traditions of the peasantry around the world go right to the roots of humanity. Here we have the remains of the traditions of the systems of husbandry which are particular to this corner of Britain. Tragically our noble peasant culture is failing, as they are all round the world. They are being lost because of the illusion, set into the rules of economic engagement, that we have more important business than handling the soil. This illusion we must lose very soon, or all our futures will be grim and tragic.

Humanity has now at its fingertips an awareness of the importance of looking after our natural resources and our climate. Unfortunately many people are under the paralysing illusion that it is an impossible task, and that the forces of economics and planetary climate change are too great for us to handle. However husbandry, as Walter and all our ancestors practiced it, is the business of handling the immeasurably vast forces of nature which act on our soil. We can look after these vast forces within the boundaries of our capabilities.

However, before husbandry can thrive again we must align the economic interests of each and every one of us with looking after the soil of the world. A way to do this has been indicated by another inspiration for our work, the ideology of Henry George (see seperate page about Henry George).

Husbandry is the business of looking after systems of nature far bigger than ourselves. By carefully tilling soil, and communicating the importance of doing so, we can influence even the global economy. We can and must contribute to helping our authorities put in place taxation systems which align the powerful forces of human self-interest with the business of looking after the immense forces which act on our soils.

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At the Exeter Records office
Documentary evidence of Walter's family and the land they looked after goes back over three hundred years. Much of it is available for inspection in the Exeter records office.
It includes two apprenticeship 'indentured labour' documents describing the 'teaching and instructing in husbandry' on Walter’s land where I worked, one from 1742, and one from the early nineteenth century.

Walter’s family and his ancestors were (and still are) a repository of the most sound and long-lasting traditions of land management. They were required by these old legal documents to abide by the rules of husbandry and to teach and instruct in them.

This system of apprenticeships in husbandry, I have since found out, is peculiar to the West-country of England (see Marshall’s Rural economy of the West of England 1796, p 227). It is therefore all the more important that we pass on the knowledge that we have been taught.

Read a transcription of the 1724 Indenture for Faire Oake - here
 
 
Life at Fair Oak Farm
- in pictures
 
Walter (left) and his father Tom in the shearing shed
One of Walter’s pair of carefully maintained combine harvesters
Walter and his father Tom inspecting the new Howard Rotovator
Walter greasing the wheel of his cultivator, with his son, Robert, and daughter Hazel. The red Devon cattle are grazing in Path Field on the higher land of Fair Oak.
 
Walter and Ida
   
All photos courtesy of Iris, Walter’s eldest daughter, or Ida, Walter's wife.
   
 
 
       
 
Traditional farming methods for a sustainable future
 
 
       
 
 
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