This isn’t the kind of book I normally read. It’s non-fiction, for a start, and while I don’t have anything against non-fiction, it’s rarely what I’d seek out – there is so much fiction I want to read first.As a result, I only really read non-fiction on direct recommendations, or when given books as presents. That’s how I got Our Farm – it was a Christmas present.
Rosie Boycott is a journalist in the city who moves to the countryside. She and her husband begin renovating the garden, and slowly start, mostly accidentally, farming. The book deals with their attempts to make their extremely small farm profitable, whilst also covering the issues of the local community and a proposed supermarket.
Our Farm has a loose narrative – time passes, but there is little sense of a narrative arc. To some extent, that is inevitable in non-fiction, as real life rarely follows a three-act structure. In this particular book though, it is a function of the author’s style – though time does pass in Our Farm, it isn’t really the focus; time is just the loose string connecting a series of vignettes, images, and asides.
I found the style disconcerting at first – there were parts of the book that I would have liked a lot more detail on (the initial move from gardening to farming is glossed over in a single paragraph) and sections that felt tacked on rather than part of the whole. Some sections were introduced as one thing, then flew off at a tangent and only returned to the initial idea for the large few lines.
However, once I stopped trying to think of it as a story and started seeing it more as a sort of loosely-linked ideas and recollections, it became much more readable. Anecdotes about the farm are mixed in with explanations of various things – from how chickens form eggs (something I’d always wondered about) to the life cycle of the Large Blue butterfly (monstrous and evil). I found these asides to be the most interesting parts of the book; just enough information to maintain your interest in an unfamiliar topic, not too much to bog you down. It was fascinating to gain a little more background into the realities of farming, seeing how she links her own specific issues to wider concerns.
Throughout the book, she gives snippets of Ilminster’s (the local town) battle with the supermarkets. A ham factory – one of the main employers in the area, supplying a major chain – is closing down in order to cut costs. This will dramatically increase unemployment in the region.
At the same time, a superstore is set to be built on the edge of the town. The inhabitants (particularly the shopkeepers) of Ilminster are worried about the new proposed one-way system that will direct traffic away from the town, towards the supermarket. If it becomes harder to get to the already-struggling local shops, even more jobs will be lost and the town will lose its character.
There is a desperate inevitability to the town’s struggles. The unions hold out for greater redundancy payments for the factory workers, but are battling from a position of very little power. The townspeople sign petitions, organise marches, attend meetings about the one-way system, but each time their concerns are dismissed. It’s heart-breaking, made worse by the fact that this is not an unusual story – it is just one that Rosie Boycott has managed to put a face on. You end the book feeling less than charitable towards the supermarket chains, both for their cavalier attitude towards Ilminster, and the more subtle effect that their size and rapacity has on farming in general.
The paragraphing in this book is deeply strange. I can’t work out how she decides when to start a new one – it isn’t by time or place or topic, or anything clear. Rosie Boycott is a journalist, and an editor, and I find it really strange that her paragraphing is so unorthodox. It makes it quite hard to read at points, because you are waiting for an idea to be linked into the overall paragraph’s direction, and it is never going to be.
I’ve mentioned this briefly above, but it bears repeating because it was by far the most annoying thing I found in this book: the detail. Some parts of the book are incredibly detailed – there are multiple pages about evolution and religion with only the most tenuous of links to the rest of the chapter. The reverse is also true – a few short lines cover the decision to buy pigs, the creation of their pen, and the buying of the pigs themselves. All too often, it seems that what should be detailed and thorough is an after-thought, while ideas that should be footnotes take over the page.
It is a strange book, on the whole. It meanders, rather than moving clearly from point to point. There is a unifying theme, albeit weak and choked by extraneous diversions. Ironically for a book written by an editor, it seems to be in need of an editor; much the of the book is fascinating and interesting, but it is buried under some very strange structural decisions.
It’s worth reading for the information on farming, the explanations of ham processing and accounts of local people fighting for what they value. Those bits are great – informative and affecting. You will have to plough through a lot of dead wood to find the valuable bits, but the reward is definitely there: lists of fertilisers and information on potato blight.
I know that doesn’t sound worth it, but it actually is. The strength of Our Farm is in taking the mundane and showing the interest in it, in demonstrating that things don’t have to be flashy and sleek to be fascinating. Our Farm is a book about discovering the joy and worth of simplicity, and the writing reflects that: the most worthwhile sections are the most prosaic and grounded.
The book ends, it should be noted, in media res, much the same as it started. The farm continues on, neither hugely successful or a total failure. However, should you burn to know the eventual fate of Rosie Boycott’s dream, there is an answer. Immediately after finishing the book, I came across this article, written two years later, that continues the story of the smallholding. It isn’t the most cheerful ending, but it is a fitting one. Our Farm is the story of struggling rural England – the article shows the continuation of that struggle.