Can small French farms learn from the success of James Rebanks?

FROM the fields and hillsides of the Lake District shepherd James Rebanks calls home, he provides a view of a life few have ever seen.

And it is through Twitter that James Rebanks, or @herdyshepherd1 as he is known online, has shown his day-to-day work raising Herdwicks, a tough, rare breed of sheep.

Now though his reach is breaking away from the internet as his book The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District tops the best-sellers list, opening his world beyond the more than 60,000 people that follow him online.

But one thing is clear, James Rebanks and his family have found it very difficult to make a living from farming alone, just this week he said he’d received £326 for the wool from his herd.

That is why he is also involved in consultancy work, principally for Unesco, looking at ways that farmers can earn a living and be supported, to help regions balance farming with the tourism industry.

Here I have edited for clarity a Q&A email exchange with James Rebanks.

You seem to be reaching out from a British lineage of voices, using modern vehicles of communicating, like Twitter, and blazing a trail saying beauty and hard work count for something more than wages. Why do you think your story is now resonating so much with people?

I’m just one of many good farming people reaching out to other people and trying to bridge the abyss between us and the general public that has widened and widened over the past century.

I think my story, through Twitter and my best-selling book, The Shepherd’s Life, is resonating with people because a lot of families have lost their connection with the land over the past two or three generations.

There are very few books written by people who work on the land, so having one that is (hopefully) written well, and which has within it a kind of defiance is appealing to many people.

A lot of people want farming like ours to survive and are pleased that some of us are holding on hoping that the world comes to it senses. I don’t think anyone wants a landscape like that which is created by a Wal-Mart food economy.

How can other farmers, even in the Dordogne here in France, follow your example and raise the flag for farming. How did you do it? What is your advice?

People like direct, honest stories, and having direct access to working lives. I would love to be able to learn about farming life in the French Dordogne, to see behind the scenes at what happens.

You have to be very open, and share your life on things like Twitter, and to be patient in explaining your world. Photos help. If you can’t excite me with your knowledge and enthusiasm why should I care whether it survives? If you can, then you will build audience and supporters.

Here, a shepherd still uses a stick and dog. As in Cumbria, farmers earn little from older industries such as tobacco, walnuts and geese so are diversifying by opening up holiday rentals, selling local produce, feeding electricity into the grid from solar panels. What changes need to be made to have a future?

I think there are some historic farming systems that we need to support through other mechanisms than food prices – which rarely include a premium for managing a special historic landscape.

One of those mechanisms is to build relationships with the tourism sector to sustain these landscapes. Tourism often profits from these traditions and landscapes surviving, so it is crucial we find financial mechanisms to return tourism value to land managers.

How can people be encouraged to break their mental blocks and use social media, and link with modern tools that can go directly to people?

No one had to do anything. I was sceptical about whether social media had value for us.

I had to work for nearly three years for no return at all on Twitter before I secured a financial return from it by being signed up to write my books.

I happen to love writing and communicating about our world because I love it. I did it because I believe that we have to explain what we do and build an army of people who understand it and care about it, or we will disappear.

People in other places must make up their own minds whether they want to do this, and whether they will commit the time to make it a success. I now have 63,000 Twitter followers, a book that has been the Sunday Times number one best-seller for four weeks, and which is published in five different countries.

But it has been a slow hard process. Not everyone will want to share their lives like I do.

It’s said that the French love the land, but the relationship today is complex because not all the land is farmed, some is for leisure, no longer utilitarian, productive or functional. Yet local industries in other areas such as lime quarries, parquet flooring, metal works are closing. But the land is still here, what kind of models are there for the land? Do food prices need to go up? Does there need to be funding for small farms?

To sustain a historic farmed landscape that requires more than commodity food prices means you need to dine more money for land management.

There are a range of ways to do that, from state subsidy, through to tourism taxes, to farm diversification, to voluntary visitor payback.

In some places the effort and cost may not be worthwhile, but in really special places like our landscape I think the cost is worth it and achievable.

Does your book have something to say to school children who may be feeling disenchanted with their lot, how could they follow your footsteps?

I don’t think I would tell anyone else how to live. Life is a messy thing, and I am making mine up as I go along. Everyone has to work out there own path.

But I hope kids realise that you don’t have to simply accept other people’s ideas of what constitutes a productive and interesting life. Working on the land is not, in my humble opinion, something anyone should be made to feel ashamed about.

When you were a child how did you imagine back then your future as a shepherd?

Exactly how it is now, except I didn’t think I would have to have two other jobs that I do at nights to earn a crust.

What would you say to someone who says they don’t want their children to follow them as their work is too hard?

I wouldn’t say anything, they might be right, and what do I know? To my own children I will say what my father said to me, that life is hard and you will amount to nothing unless you work hard, so you may as well start working hard now, because it is a habit and you may as well learn it sooner than later.

What changes do you want to see in the near future for shepherds?

I would like there to be a quiet social revolution with people revolting against cheap food and industrial attitudes to food production. I would like to see people, who can afford it, to pay for good quality, local food. The alternative is the destruction of the historic landscapes I love all around the world.

Categorised as Tourism

By Craig McGinty

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