Yesterday, I was at the Royal Welsh Show where I was delighted to spend time with ‘The Archers’ scriptwriter and agricultural commentator, Graham Harvey. We were both being filmed for a BBC Wales programme on the future of dairying. It was a wonderful opportunity to get to know Graham better and to be able to share some of his story here with you.
Graham works with fiction and facts. He deals in fiction as a writer for The Archers, the celebrated BBC Radio drama series. And facts as an author of an acclaimed series of books on farming in Britain (see We Want Real Food (2006) and The Carbon Fields (2008)). Whether its fact or fiction I know from working with Graham that what he has to say is always insightful and informative.
Philip: How did you become involved with farming?
Graham: Other than my grandfather was an agricultural labourer, there is no family connection with farming that I’m aware of. I grew up on a council estate in Reading. I enjoyed being outdoors. I always had an interest in farming. I went to Bangor University to study agriculture.
Philip: Why does farming fascinate you?
Graham: It’s the sense of working with nature. It’s an understanding of ecology. Although the farmers I worked with wouldn’t have expressed it that way. I recall from my student days on the farms in North Wales. Many of the farmers had a sense using natural resources for the benefit of people, animals and the land.
When I was an agricultural student, I suppose I had a romantic notion of what farming was about. I was particularly influenced by the books which were published in the 1940s and 1950s. The authors were founders of what became the organic movement. For example, George Henderson’s The Farming Ladder and Newman Turner’s Fertility Farming were inspirations as they saw farming as a vocation. They remind me of a saying I learnt at the time: “You live as if you’re going to die tomorrow but you farm as if you’re going to live forever.” These farmers looked after the land. They were custodians. They were also successful farmers, including financially. They let nature do its work brilliantly. They respected nature and animals.
A key part of farming is that you’re managing nature. A farm, of course, is an artifice or a construct. A traditional sense of farming allowed the natural system to play its role but it was tweaked as needed over the years. The best farm is a mixed farm in which grass and forage crops grown for ruminants are reared in rotation with crops grown for human consumption. This is a very balanced and sustainable system that mimics natural systems. It’s very productive and produces healthy foods.
Philip: When did you leave farming and become an agricultural correspondent?
Graham: I went to work on Farmers Weekly in 1972. I was there for five years and then went freelance. I left farming because I was frightened by how much money I would have to borrow to buy a farm. I always wanted to be a writer at school, including working on the local newspaper. I don’t think I would’ve made a good farmer!
I travelled the country for Farmers Weekly reporting on various developments. I saw how farmers were driven by the business of farming. I was quite disappointed that farming was like that. It was about profit and not the ideals of health and biology. It was also the time when we entered the Common Market or, as we know it now, the European Union. I could see what huge changes the Common Agricultural Policy was having. Centuries of development in very efficient mixed family farms, which were in balance with nature, were replaced with specialised farms, which only survived with chemicals and intensification. This is mostly how factory farming came about. These developments sadden me.
Philip: Did you ever meet Peter Roberts, Compassion’s co-founder?
Graham: No, I didn’t. I probably first heard about Compassion when I was at the Farmers Weekly. I heard more about you in the 1980s. Joyce D’Silva invited me to speak at one of your meetings in the 1990s.
Philip: What is your take on animal welfare? Why is it important?
Graham: I always had a feeling for animals. I always felt a sense of compassion. We have a small flock of Exmoor Horn sheep on three acres of very steep unimproved grassland. It’s so steep that it has never been sprayed. My wife and I have learnt so much from our eight ewes. They enrich our lives just by being sheep. I believe most farmers want to have this kind of relationship with their animals. But they think it’s impossible. I was a vegetarian but now eat meat only from animals where I know how and where they are raised. I believe pasture-fed beef and lamb are particularly healthy foods. My wife, however, has been a vegetarian since childhood.
Philip: Please tell me about The Archers! How long have you been involved? Who is your favourite character and why? Is it a medium for getting the message out about better food, farming and animal welfare?
Graham: I started listening to The Archers when I was a student at Bangor University. Then, when I was a freelance farming journalist, I sent in some scripts I’d written. Several months later I got a call and was offered a week’s trial episodes. This was in 1984. I’ve been there ever since. I was a scriptwriter for 10 years. There are about ten scriptwriters in total at any one time. I became the agricultural editor 14 years ago but retired this year to let someone else have a go. The agricultural editor is responsible for coming up with new story lines every month. I’m now back to writing scripts. The writer’s job is to tackle all farming issues in a balanced way. As a writer you inherit a group of fictional farmers who represent all shades of opinion within the farming community. My job is to put across all their points of view. There’s a sufficiently broad range of characters to play with so that a range of farming issues can be explored. It’s important to illuminate issues in a balanced way for an audience who may not know too much about farming.
The Grundy’s are my favourites. I enjoy writing them. I’m more comfortable with Clarrie, Eddie and Joe than with the Archers because I feel I know them the best. In a way they’re the inheritors of peasant farming dating way back to Norman times. They represent the best in peasant characteristics, including good husbandry, care of the land and making good use of resources even though they can be a bit foolish.
Philip: Last year we visited Peter Willes’ zero-grazed dairy farm in Devon on the same day but at different times. As you know, he was proposing the mega-dairy at Nocton in Lincolnshire. Why was stopping Nocton so important?
Graham: Quite simply because cows ought to spend their days on grass or pasture. They’re ruminant animals. We’ve bred them for 5,000 years to convert grass into pasture-fed meat and milk. Ruminant animals that graze produce healthier meat and milk to eat and drink. British farming should be based on the mixed family farm.
Philip: Can we stop industrialised factory farming?
Graham: Yes, consumers can stop it. But they need to understand the issues. This is what I’d like to see happen. I want to see a level of public consciousness which would make it impossible for animals to spend their lives in sheds. Industry is driven by the idea that milk is being repositioned as a low cost commodity for the world market in, for example, south east Asia. There’s an alternative vision, however. Milk from pasture based farming as an intrinsically healthy food. But the economic force is behind the infrastructure of mega-dairies, including machinery and buildings, which are all places where corporations make money.
Philip: Tell us about Pasture Promise TV. What are its aims? Why is it important? How people can see it?
Graham: Pasture Promise TV is a new project which explores in short documentary films different aspects of pasture farming. We will make them widely available on a dedicated site we’re calling Pasture Promise TV. Our central philosophy includes animal welfare as well as biodiversity, food quality, family farms and the environment, so we are four-square behind everything you do at Compassion. Our core funding is for films that will interest farmers, but we’re trying to find ways of making films that will be of interest to consumers, environmentalists, and indeed everyone.
Philip: That’s an exciting project! Pasture Promise TV and Compassion have common themes. Our aims are convergent. I look forward to us working closely together.
Graham: I look forward to it!