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Interview: Christopher Jones, Agricultural Christian Fellowship

18 October 2013

'There is no reason why food has to be produced and sold on jumbo scales'

My father bought this farm at West Haddon, Northamptonshire, when he came out of the army in 1945. My mother was horrified.

We have 170 acres, and another 60 acres three miles away. Half is permanent pasture, where we keep a small beef herd and a small sheep herd. We sell small packets of meat locally. The other half produces wheat and oilseed rape. There are also a few smaller Victorian buildings we let out, and the Farming Community Network office is in what used to be the granary.

The Agricultural Christian Fellowship is a farming organisation. We bring people together for mutual refreshment and, more than that, to bring Christian insights to bear on farming life and issues. It's open to anybody with a Christian interest in farming. We instigated the formation of the Farm Crisis Network, which is now the Farming Community Network, in partnership with the Arthur Rank Centre, helped by a Christian farmers' association from Württemberg.

I was the national co-ordinator of Farm Crisis Network for its first 12 years, and I'm heavily involved with the Agriculture Theology Project. This is a partnership with the Church Mission Society and the John Ray Initiative, seeking to develop biblically based insights into such matters as the relations between farming and climate, or corporate power in agriculture. Among other things, we have been working on a book, probably to be called Milk and Honey, Thorns and Thistles, holding up biblical narrative and teaching as a mirror to farming. We're aiming to publish it early next year.

I've been involved in farming since returning from rural development work in Nigeria with CMS in the mid-'70s. Looking back, the strongest influences on my life have tended to be from groups of Christians like the CMS people that we worked with in Nigeria. There was a kind of godly good sense in those people, and no hang-ups, religious or otherwise. Plenty of humour. One said to me once: "Nigeria is a wonderful country where, every day, something happens that has never ever happened before."

Nigeria's a place that makes a strong impression, in good ways and bad. The climate in southern Nigeria isn't wonderfully healthy, because it's the home of malaria and other fevers, and it nearly did for me at one point. It is, after all, known as "the white man's grave". Unfortunately, the civil war happened while we were there, and we were in the part that tried to make off as Biafra. In circumstances like that, you become powerless and completely dependent on people around you. You get to know some people very well.

Nigeria is also the place where I first got suspicious of the syllogism: "Spiritual is good and material is bad." There are bad spiritual forces. You realise that "good" is simply God's will, and what is bad is the opposite. That insight has resurfaced in trying to counter certain Christian resistance from taking the natural world seriously on the grounds that it's a distraction from spiritual matters.

The crops and farming there are as different as they could be: yams, rice, cassava, and so on - very different from barley - and the scale is different. But there are underlying principles which hold good: understanding soil, climate, social environment, the long-term nature of decision-making, and so on. If I decide to plant an oil palm, for instance, I won't get anything for seven years.

Farming in Britain has been pushed to the very edge of the consciousness of politicians, and much of the public, because it is "only 0.7 per cent of GDP". This was because their guiding lights have become competition in all things: trade, the global free market, and corporate power. These are presented as the ultimate realities to which farmers must adapt. Of course, they are no such thing; the ultimate realities farming must adapt to are land and soil, climate and weather, animals and plants, health and disease, and relations with both people and the natural world.

In some ways, farming is now emerging from the shadows, but there is a struggle for its integrity. What is it for? What gods will it serve? Will it stay connected with real realities and once more assert the values that go with them? Or will it absorb the false values which, in the long run, can destroy it? In all this there is a huge challenge to Christians in farming and supportive of it.

It's very important that there is a diversity of all sorts of farms, to ensure adaptation to change, opportunity to new entrants, and different ideas and approaches. For instance, it is easier for farms with smaller amounts of many products to relate to things like farmers' markets than it is for units producing hundreds of tonnes of one or two things. But within the framework that we have been discussing, smaller units with little power are bound to struggle. In this connection we need to be careful of words like "productive" and "efficient", unrelated to any serious thought about what the overall purpose of farming is.

Broadly speaking, people can buy ethically produced food. Sometimes it is clearly defined, as in Fairtrade products, which are widely available. Some retailers have a broader understanding, and attach more importance to this. Going to farmers' markets, or making direct contact with the producer, provides people with an opportunity to make a direct judgement.

Farming makes for a different way of life, with home, work, and identity all in one place - in which respect, it is a little bit like being a parish priest. And our understanding does affect the way we live and eat. There are two supermarkets that we would not go into. Good supermarkets have policies of keeping good, stable relationships with suppliers, which is how things should be done; but others pick them up and drop them on a whim, and drop prices below the cost of production.

There is no reason why food has to be produced and sold on jumbo scales. The system was built up by strong-arming suppliers and paying them after the sale of their goods, and it has affected the way farming is done. Farming needs to be done according to the climate and conditions, not policies in the City or America.

Although the Bible was written by diverse people at different times, there's a remarkable overall coherence which, to me, is testament to the truth it contains. I suppose the first few verses of John's Gospel express this. Revelation is difficult, and has so far largely escaped my understanding, but I cannot therefore say that I dislike it.

I last got angry about the unlawful killing of a young man in the back of a British Airways plane at Heathrow by agents of G4S. There is much to be angry about when governments are too cosy with large companies, or manage relationships with them incompetently; but for people commissioned by the government to kill someone like this is the last straw.

I'm happiest when I'm outside with my grandchildren. I love watching swallows.

My favourite place to live? I would do very well with our present home.

For me, the most reassuring sound is my wife's chuckle. She was a nurse, but now helps with the farm, and has a lot to do with the selling of the meat.

I'd like to be remembered for working for justice within the farming world, not just for its own sake, but because it's God's way.

I pray for my family, the work I am involved with, people I know, and situations in the world. But it's not just about one's own ideas: it's also about trying to align yourself with God's ideas.

I'd choose to be locked in a church with somebody from whom I could derive much wisdom, in which case William Temple would do well; or it would be somebody with whom I shared major experiences that need mulling over, laughing about, and building on . . . in which case, a colleague from Nigeria, Christian Iwuagwu. Will the heating be on?

Christopher Jones was talking to Terence Handley Macmath.


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