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An English Sheep Farmer’s View of Rural America

An abandoned building in Owsley County, Kentucky. Credit Mario Tama/Getty Images

By JAMES REBANKSMARCH 1, 2017

MATTERDALE, England — I am a traditional small farmer in the North of England. I farm sheep in a mountainous landscape, the Lake District fells. It is a farming system that dates back as many as 4,500 years. A remarkable survival. My flock grazes a mountain alongside 10 other flocks, through an ancient communal grazing system that has somehow survived the last two centuries of change. Wordsworth called it a “perfect republic of shepherds.”

It’s not your efficient modern agribusiness. My farm struggles to make enough money for my family to live on, even with 900 sheep. The price of my lambs is governed by the supply of imported lamb from the other side of the world. So I have one foot in something ancient and the other foot in the 21st-century global economy.

Less than 3 percent of people in modern industrial economies are farmers. But around the world, I am not alone: The United Nations estimates that more than two billion people are farmers, most of them small farmers; that’s about one in three people on the planet.

My farm’s lack of profitability perhaps shouldn’t be of any great concern to anyone else. I’m a grown-up, and I chose to live this way. I chose it because my ancestors all did this, and because I love it, however doomed it might seem to others.

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