Rural Reads: Rooted by Sarah Langford

July 1, 2023

After living in London, barrister and author Sarah Langford left for the countryside to go back to the farming life she had grown up in. In Rooted, Sarah shines a light on the human side of modern farming, and shows how land connects us all, not only in terms of global sustainability but in our relationships with our physical and mental health, our communities and our planet.

Going back to the very beginning of the process of creating Rooted, what was your reason for writing this particular book and at this moment in time? 

My literary agent wanted me to write a series of criminal thrillers because I had been a criminal barrister and written a book about the law, which did quite well, so that was the obvious next step. I had written about 35,000 words of that but all the while, in the background, we had been living in Suffolk, watching the change happening in agriculture that was brought about by the loss of subsidies because of Brexit, but also because a new generation was coming in and wanting to do it differently. I went to a lunch in 2018 and the people there were all city people and they were all talking about soil, which I thought was really weird and realised something was happening. This fringe enterprise is creeping into the consciousness of people who wouldn’t normally be interested in it, so I had to persuade my literary agent that I didn’t want to write a criminal thriller series, I actually wanted to write about the human stories in farming and why they impact us all. When I suggested it to her, she being an urbanite said, “Absolutely no way, farming is incredibly boring – no one is going to read that.” I said she doesn’t understand what’s happening. Farmers can offer the solutions rather than being the problem because farming is about so much more than food. It’s about so many of the things that we in the city–which now applies to 84% of the population–are reaching and searching for. Whether it’s better communities, battling loneliness, better physical and mental health, a connection to nature – that exists in these farming communities. They can teach us so much more than just how we grow our food. So she said, “Oh okay, write the proposal.” 

Having the advantage of both a rural background as well as a life in the city, how do you think people in towns and cities can be better exposed to the realities of farming and the countryside? 

People can get to the countryside in a relatively short period of time but access to nature is a real problem. Not just in terms of having the right buses, train connections or economic ability to get to the countryside, but also the feeling that the countryside is for you, which is more a psychological problem than a practical problem. I think that some of most powerful ways of people being exposed to the countryside is social media. Because social media is so visual, farmers have this incredible ability to be able to connect to people who would never think about or go to the countryside by showing them what it looks like and explaining what they’re doing. That is also how people are able to realise that there is a farm quite near them and they do meat boxes or they have a farm shop they can directly purchase from. Social media has also been really powerful in the regenerative farming movement because it has made young farmers feel they’re not islands of change. They can go online and look at someone like Ed Horton in Oxfordshire and think “He’s only an hour away from me and if he’s doing that on similar soil to me, maybe I can get a hold of him online and see if I can go and have a look at what he’s doing.” Open Farm Sundays are also a really good way for people to get on farms, when they wouldn’t necessarily feel confident in turning up at the farm gate and asking to have a look.  

In Rooted, you highlight how regenerative farming can benefit the land and the output of a farm but balance it with the reality that there are a lot of farmers, who have been used to certain practices their whole farming life. What have you found to be the most effective way of starting those conversations and getting people to consider change? 

Usually getting farmers to look at their profit rather than their output and saying that they don’t need to change the whole farm, just experiment with one part of it. What I’ve seen time and again is that the change lures farmers in and they get addicted to it. I know a lovely farmer, who calls it ‘blimey farming’, because they constantly say “Blimey, I didn’t think that would happen” or “Blimey, that was quick”. The reality is it’s very hard now to make money farming in the way that it was once easy to make money farming back in the 1970s and 1980s. Whilst we had a boom in the wheat market at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, that has dropped back and wheat prices have significantly fallen, energy prices are still extremely high and the cheque that arrives every December is now half of what it was a few years ago. I think the other factor is witnessing climate change happening in the field. Whether that is an entire month without a drop of rain followed by a biblical downpour or biological resistance to sprays that once worked, I think people are seeing that either the sprays that they once relied on are now banned or they just don’t work anymore and they are spending so much money on trying to fight a losing battle. So the finance side of it is probably the main motivator and that ‘business as usual’ cannot carry on as it is.  

I think it’s for a lot of the reasons that you’ve just said, and it’s clear through the farmers’ stories you’ve told in the book, that agriculture is an aging industry. Do you think there’s a main cause for many young farmers not staying? 

Funnily enough, I think we’re seeing a pivot on it because when the job was sitting on a tractor with no autonomy, the agronomist decided what was planted and how it was farmed and the merchant decided what price it was sold at, then it was a boring job, that carried none of the status and very little of the money it used to have. But the interesting thing about regenerative farming is that there seems to be a renewed enthusiasm amongst the younger generation, who are getting into farming again. I think it’s very intellectually challenging – you have to really understand how plants work and how they respond to the soil and how they have a symbiotic relationship with animals – but it’s also a chance for farmers to be heroes again because through the way they are farming, they are not only providing food but they are also stopping villages from being flooded downstream; they are cleaning rivers; they are sequestering carbon; they are improving the biodiversity on their farms that people who walk through it can see and love and appreciate. I think that this way of farming, which is of course a very old way of farming but rebranded, has attracted both a large number of farmers’ children who wouldn’t have wanted to do it otherwise and also new entrants into farming.  

What is one thing that you’ve taken from your conversations with farmers that you think will stay with you as you continue experimenting on your farm? 

Can I have two? There are so many lessons in farming that I think that we can apply to our lives more widely: the ability to sit on your hands and not feel like you can control everything. The fact that every single thing is connected, even if you can’t see the connection and that your actions will have a consequence, whether it’s intended or not. But I think one of the things that is really important is that it’s changed the way I see. I have understood that when we learn about something, we see it and when we don’t know about it, we don’t see it. When you can distinguish birdsongs, you hear a birdsong; when you know the names of wildflowers, you see them and before you didn’t. I was standing with a farmer last harvest and we had tried an experiment in a field, which hadn’t really worked and we had a huge amount of volunteer oats from the crop before and it was supposed to be a crop of barley. He’s been farming organically for about 25 years and I said to him “This is a disaster – all I can see are oats.” and he turned around to me and said “Isn’t that funny – all I can see is barley.” And he was completely right – there was tonnes of barley but I was focussing only on the thing that shouldn’t be there, which stopped me seeing everything we were trying to grow. I suppose that is the biggest lesson for me. This whole experience has taught me that we think that when we’re looking at the world, we’re seeing it as it is and we aren’t, it’s entirely prejudiced by our understanding. So, when you learn to look differently, the world changes. It’s an incredible experiment and very exciting; I’m 43 and I’m seeing stuff that must have been there before but I’d never seen it, and that’s real joy.