A shepherd’s guide to feeding the planet and saving the Earth

Courtesy of Katie J. Stanley
Sheep farmer and author James Rebanks talks about sustainable agriculture practices to a group of students on his farm in Cumbria, England, in 2019.
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As he’s wrestled with how to steward his family’s ancestral sheep farm in England’s Lake District, James Rebanks has won legions of fans who have made his books into international bestsellers, starting with 2016’s “The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches From an Ancient Landscape.”

His latest, “Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey,” captures the beauty and difficulty of raising livestock, safeguarding the environment, and supporting his family. In an era of increasing factory farms, which churn out meat products with little regard for long-term environmental consequences, small family farms offer a path to sustainability and dignity – for people, plants, and animals.

Why We Wrote This

Can family farms support not only livestock but also the environment? A British sheep farmer tells of his path toward cherishing the animals, wild plants, and natural landscape for future generations.

As I picked up James Rebanks’ “Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey,” I was transported back to a day in the rich, deep green fields of England’s Lake District in 2019. My colleague, John Lovseth, a biology professor, and I, an English professor, had brought a group of students to meet Rebanks on his sheep farm.  

That day, he spoke of the land as a habitat, a living organism made up of complex relationships of grazing animals and native plants, insects, and animal species. He explained how the sheep, when properly managed, help create the wildflower meadows by churning up the soil, fertilizing it, and aiding with seed dispersal. 

England has lost over 90% of its wildflower meadows since World War II, and with them, important biodiversity. Rebanks asked us to pick flowers from one of his meadows and count the variety of plants in our hands. His young son Isaac proudly named many of the species around us. 

Why We Wrote This

Can family farms support not only livestock but also the environment? A British sheep farmer tells of his path toward cherishing the animals, wild plants, and natural landscape for future generations.

Rebanks’ passion, so evident during our visit, permeates “Pastoral Song,” which drew critical praise and continues to earn popular acclaim in the United Kingdom. His quiet strength and vision for the land is here. And perhaps more importantly, the story of his farm (and farming in general) over the last three generations is here, too. He tells how families, including his, have struggled in an increasingly mega-agricultural world – one that demands more food for a hungry world but at ever cheaper prices. 

Factory farming has created an unsustainable system in which 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions are blamed on livestock farming. Rebanks’ method – and that of a growing number of farmers around the world – presents a different model in which carbon can actually be sequestered in fields that serve both livestock and natural habitats. 

The book tells of Rebanks’ growing realization that this overindustrialized approach is ruining both the land and farmers’ livelihoods. For him, caring for farms and farmers has become identical with caring for the land. He writes, “The logic chain is simple: we have to farm to eat, and we have to kill (or displace life, which amounts to the same thing) to farm. Being human is a rough business. But there was a difference between the toughness all farming requires and the industrial ‘total war’ on nature that had been unleashed in my lifetime.” 

How to feed the world in a way that supports farmers, their families, and the environment is a key question. Rebanks offers a sensible way to think about food and the planet. His answer may not appeal to everyone. His is not a world in which our problems are solved by vegetarianism, for instance. Instead, it’s a world in which the close relationship between animals and land is explored to find a balanced system in which farming and nature can coexist. The question, he argues, is not whether or not to farm, but how to do so in a way that helps everyone. 

The book evinces the same quiet, humble, patient strength that we found in Rebanks during our visit. His prose will transport readers, introducing them to both the harsh realities and the joys of everyday life on a piece of land that has deep, personal meaning. 

This book asks readers to consider deeply where their food comes from and under what conditions it was produced. Rebanks suggests that thinking in terms of local agriculture – instead of massive industrial farms – will enable people to answer these questions, because they will share the responsibility for how land is used. This perspective shift will, he hopes, relieve farmers of the burden of advocating for holistic farming methods.

Readers will close the book, as we left Rebanks’ farm, nourished by his vision and his hope.


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