Sunday book review – Rooted by Sarah Langford


I liked this book, which at its best is a mix of James Rebanks and Jake Fiennes at their best. It’s about farming and the changes in farming over three generations, and what might happen in future. I think the author ends up in the right place, more or less, but I wondered whether or not she would once or twice along the way.

My favourite pages (pp38-40) are those that describe Charlie, a 60-year-old farmer who is climate-sceptic, pro-Brexit, pro-UKIP and loathes the BBC.  We can all agree with Charlie about the NFU (though ‘flipping’ is not the usual word used for the F in NFU) and that Countryfile is often ‘bollocks’ but are vegetarians really hypocrites as he seems to think?

When I got to the end of the book and read that the author believes that ‘farming can offer us solutions to many of the problems we face’ then I agree with her, but that has been true for the last 50 years too, and it has been a large number of Charlies who have prevented much progress. It can, but it hasn’t. The proliferation of Charlies, you can see them everyday on social media, is the major block to farming getting to a better place. It’s good that not all farmers are Charlies.

There’s a bit too much contrast between farmers and urban dwellers in this book – as though all of us living in the countryside agree with Charlies – we don’t. I suppose I might be classed as urban living since I live in a small rural market town but while reading this book I have been listening to the sound of an unseen combine harvester in the nearest field to my house.  The split in the country is not between the 1% of us who are farmers and the 83% who live in urban areas (p324) but between the 1% who are farmers and get income support from the taxpayer and the 99% who provide it. Strangely, the 1% getting the income support have an enormous say in that process whereas the 99% have very little.  Twenty years after its publication, the recommendations of the Curry Report remain relevant – and farming is still disconnected from the rest of the economy and the environment.

When the author has a close encounter with a bird of prey (which I am not sure she identified correctly, but that doesn’t matter [Note added later – certainly was a Kestrel, I’ve now seen the photo]) she writes ‘Some blame [raptors] for the crash in small-bird populations, but when I look it up I find that every study undertaken has found the opposite’ which is not a bad summary of where the science lies.

I enjoyed this book very much and I will now purchase the author’s first book, In Your Defence, to find out what she says about her life as a barrister.

It’s a shame there isn’t an index, but the references are pretty informative, although when I checked the reference to the statement about raptors mentioned above I found that reference jumbled up two reports which would make either of them a little difficult for the busy reader to find.

The cover? I like it a lot and would give it 8/10 (although the publisher might reflect on the fact that having all those little words at the top of the cover means that it reproduces badly online even though it looks fine in the hand).

Rooted: stories of life, land and a farming revolution by Sarah Langford is published by  Penguin, Viking.


2 Replies to “Sunday book review – Rooted by Sarah Langford”

  1. I’ve been reading several of the recent farming/ wildlife books. I liked both Jake Fiennes and James Rebanks though reading the subtitle to Jake’s book ‘How farming can save the countryside’ I could help adding ‘from farming’.

    Every single book like this will always say ‘you must have the co-operation of farmer to change’. I agree with mark that we’ve seen precious little of this over the years but actually it’s complete rubbish: if the Government said ‘we want you to grow bananas’ the only question from farmers would be ‘how much are you paying ?’. Virtually all farms depend on Government money for making a profit and its amazing how fast farmers react to changes in the money. Bluntly, us taxpayers can have what we want.

    Having said that, I think you are right that the Charlies have successfully held things back but I fear chickens are coming home to roost: it seems inconceivable that farming is going to end up with as much money as it’s been used to. I’ve seen a figure of a loss of £800 million pa from the £3.2 billion pre-Brexit budget. In contrast to NFU, CLA seem to have gone down the natural capital route, doing the right thing in making a positive bid for money going to the countryside. I’m always amazed by both farming and conservation sitting there waiting for what the current Government is going to do as if they trusted it rather than getting out there and bidding for the future.

    1. Well said! What constantly infuriates me is that the regular claims the NFU and other representative bodies make about what great conservationists farmers are in general and we’re duly expected to give a big round of applause. The farmers that are making a real effort are very much a minority and they aren’t broadcasting what great conservationists they are to all and sundry. If anything they seem to be at odds with the rest of their profession. In fact when was the last time the NFU held up the work of Chris Jones, (hosting beavers on his Cornish farm), for example? Is their reluctance be due to him being one of the exceptions that prove the rule – mainstream farming does little if anything for wildlife? How would the rest of the farming community compare with him? Poorly is my answer, many can’t even refrain from flail mowing their hedges to near death, going after the suburban look.

      Saying you’re pretty much automatically a conservationist by being a farmer, or for that matter an angler or shooter, isn’t something the rest of us should feel obliged to accept and not challenge, very much the opposite. I would dearly love to be able to applaud the farming community as a whole for its support of conservation, but lack of evidence and direct personal experience won’t allow me to. I won’t be pressured into participation in a bullshitting exercise, none of us should be.

      I’ll be one of the first to publicly applaud someone like Tom Bowser of Argaty Red Kites, but that’s all the more reason why I specifically WON’T give universal praise to the whole of his profession when it’s clear so many (or their reps at least) put effort into getting rather than earning it.

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