Come, ye thankful people, come,
raise the song of harvest home;
Churches and schools may be the last bastions of the harvest festival, lingering elsewhere as a kind of contemporary folk memory or an image to sell products in supermarkets*. But I think there is still a general understanding that it is farming that feeds us, whether it is done at home in the British countryside or elsewhere in the world, that farmers harvest crops and that the success of that harvest is variable. So despite our general detachment from the food chain, we are perhaps still residually grateful for another year’s bounty of wheat, corn or perhaps even rapeseed**.
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin.
So we sang as the good folk of South Newbury and Wash Common processed up the aisle with their harvest offerings. Among them were six cartons of pineapple juice, a box of after dinner mints and a first aid kit, all shrink-wrapped for protection from the travails of supermarket logistics. But then it has been the case for years – at least since my childhood in the 1980s and 90s – that most of what is ‘safely gathered’ at a harvest festival is tins and other similarly less-perishable foodstuffs. All the more practical for distribution by foodbanks and other agents of local charity, if lacking the symbolism and romance of the season. The work of human hands, but less obviously the fruit of the earth.
First the blade and then the ear,
Then the full corn shall appear
The production of an After Eight in its paper sleeve must be a long way removed from this simple image of the earth giving up her bounty, but then so is the more contemporary version of progression from seed to ‘full corn’. Farming seems to me a bewilderingly complex business, whether considered scientifically, economically, culturally or politically. Over the millennia agriculture has produced the patchwork British countryside that is apparently well used for recreation by a wide cross section of society, but has also periodically robbed it of wildlife, especially in the latter part of the 20th century. Today we know how to produce twin harvests of food and wildlife from the same land, but these techniques must compete amid a frenzy of studies and debates, Brexit and buzzwords, tradeoffs and ‘consumer choices’, while there is some dispute about whether the word ‘wild’ can be applied to farmed land at all.
Giving angels charge at last
In the fire the tares to cast;
But the fruitful ears to store
In the garner evermore.
So what, if any, are the tares in today’s farmed landscape that should be cast into the fire? What fruitful ears do we wish to preserve for the future? What sort of harvest do we ask of the land?
*See the current Harvest campaign by Waitrose, for example.
**Better intensively home-grown rapeseed oil than rainforest-felling imported palm oil in your processed foods? Just one of many choices facing the eco-conscious shopper.